Fall of marriage seen linked to decline in domestic murders Drop in homicides called 'ironic benefit' of change

February 11, 1996|By Scott Shane | Scott Shane,SUN STAFF

The decline of marriage and the breakdown of stable relationships have produced a paradoxical benefit: Domestic murders have declined, with the most dramatic reductions among African- Americans, a University of Missouri criminologist reported yesterday.

"We're living at a time of dramatic changes in marriage, intimate relationships and family structure," said Richard Rosenfeld, speaking in Baltimore at the meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. "Those changes have had an ironic benefit in reducing the number of intimate-partner homicides."

Dr. Rosenfeld's findings are the flip side of the much-reported increase in young men killing young men, which he said may be attributed in part to similar factors -- family instability and lack of supervision by harried single parents.

But one of the few advantages of being a single parent is that you don't have a partner who can kill you.

"Relationships are more porous these days," Dr. Rosenfeld said. "Violent escape is not the only way out of a relationship that's gone bad."

Economic changes are another factor, he said. Women are more likely to be wage-earners with the economic freedom to flee an abusive situation -- and men are less likely to kill a woman on whose paycheck they depend.

"To put it crudely, men need women economically," he said.

Dr. Rosenfeld based his findings on detailed studies of homicide in St. Louis, where he teaches, and Chicago. Murder statistics in the two cities generally mirrored national trends, he said.

In St. Louis, he compared the nature of homicide in two periods -- 1968 to 1972 and 1988 to 1992. Over 20 years, the proportion of murders of women committed by "intimate partners" -- husbands and ex-husbands, boyfriends and former boyfriends -- fell from 44 percent to 23 percent. In the recent period, nearly as many women were killed by strangers -- 21 percent -- as by partners, a dramatic turnaround from the situation two decades earlier.

In the 1988-1992 period in St. Louis, more women were killed by acquaintances than by boyfriends or husbands.

The proportion of male murder victims killed by partners also fell over 20 years, from 9 percent to about 4 percent.

The decline in domestic murders took place earlier and was more dramatic among African-Americans than among whites, Dr. Rosenfeld said. He said the racial differences probably reflect the fact that marriage declined earlier and more steeply among blacks than among whites.

In the St. Louis study, between 1968 and 1972, murders of married women by their partners outnumbered those of unmarried women nearly 5 to 1. But 20 years later, more unmarried women than married women were killed by their partners.

In fact, marriage has become "an oasis" of relative safety, Dr. Rosenfeld said. Marriage is increasingly associated with economic advantage, and domestic homicide is rarer among the well-to-do than among the poor, he said.

In addition to the breakdown of marriage, more aggressive police intervention in domestic violence and the creation of shelters for battered women probably have helped cut the number of domestic murders, Dr. Rosenfeld said.

Dr. Rosenfeld's research does not address nonlethal domestic violence. He said reliable statistics on battering are harder to find, because reporting is inconsistent.

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