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Men more likely to commit suicide after divorce, study finds

 March 15, 2000
Web posted at: 10:36 AM EST (1536 GMT)
By Sarah Yang, CNN

(WebMD) -- Men seeking a good reason to salvage their marriages may want to consider this: A new study finds that divorced and separated men are two and a half times more likely to commit suicide than married men.

Divorce, however, doesn't seem to lead more women to commit suicide -- a surprising finding considering the popular wisdom that women suffer more than men after a divorce, according to the study, published this week in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health.

"We now need to look at the possibility that divorce negatively affects men, too," said study author Augustine Kposowa, Ph.D., an associate professor of sociology at the University of California at Riverside. Women are set back financially, he said, but "the man does not emerge unscathed."

A variation in coping

The difference, he theorized, lies in how men and women form social bonds. Men make friends with whom they can hang out, and women make friends with whom they can share their feelings. "Women are socialized to have more friends, deeper friendships, and so on. Men are socialized differently, to be macho, and do not have much deeper friendships. So when a divorce occurs, women have more of a social support network."

Another reason why men may have problems coping with divorce is that they not only lose the role of husband, but their fatherly role also often changes, said Bruce Hillowe, J.D., Ph.D., a family law attorney and a clinical psychologist in Long Island, New York.

"It's still generally the case that when children are involved, the mother becomes the custodial parent," said Hillowe. Generally speaking, "men lose the role of being a father in a way that women do not lose the role of being a mother."

Compounding the problem: Men often feel like they're responsible for the failure of a marriage, said Alvin Baraff, Ph.D., an expert on relationships from a male perspective, and founder and director of Men Center Counseling in Washington, D.C.

"Typically, the man is shocked at the news that he's going to be divorced," said Baraff, noting that women initiate the majority of divorce proceedings. "The woman has also been dropping hints all over the place for the man, but he just doesn't get it. He never thinks it's as bad as she does. He's lost not only a wife, he typically loses his children, home, and money."

Women suffer too

That's not to say divorce is a bed of roses for women, said Howard Markman, Ph.D., author of "Fighting for Your Marriage" and a psychologist at The University of Denver. Rather, the findings reflect different coping styles between the sexes. "Men, in general, in the face of stress, tend to do more destructive coping, like turn to substance abuse," Markman said.

He pointed out that men tend to have a higher suicide rate because they are more likely to use guns to kill themselves, whereas women attempt suicide with less lethal methods, such as poisonings or cuts.

Staggering results

Kposowa analyzed data on more than 472,000 people collected from 1979 to 1989. Of that group, 545 people committed suicide, with men outnumbering women four-to-one.

Confirming other studies on suicide, Kposowa found that for both sexes, poverty and age increased the risk of killing oneself -- those 65 and over have a 55 percent greater risk than people aged 15 to 24. White men in the study were also 51 percent more likely than African American men to commit suicide, a finding that may suggest a stronger support network among men in the black community, Kposowa said.

The study emphasizes the need to adjust the gender roles expected by society, said Constance Ahrons, Ph.D., author of "The Good Divorce" and a sociology professor at the University of Southern California. But experts admit that convincing men to acquaint themselves with their emotional side can be a hard sell. "Maybe, if we go back to (a younger) age, we can teach men skills for having friendships," Ahrons said.

Only for the divorced

Unlike prior research on marriage and suicide, this study showed that widowed and single people weren't at higher risk for suicide.

"With death (of a spouse), I don't think there is that sense of failure that follows divorce. There's no sense of personal inadequacy," Hillowe explained. "I guess in (the) case (of divorce) it's not better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all."

© 2000 Healtheon/WebMD.

© 2000 Cable News Network.