Have you heard the one about how getting married makes people happier, healthier, less self-centered and less isolated? I have. I even believed it for a while, even though I’ve lived single all my life and never wanted it any other way. I just figured I was the exception.
Then, nearly two decades ago, I started studying single life rather than just practicing it. I looked up the original research reports and scrutinized them. I was stunned by what I found.
What the research actually shows is that our conventional wisdom about single people can be spectacularly wrong. For example, the belief that single people are isolated and “don’t have anyone” is so pervasive that the word alone is routinely used as a synonym for single. Yet multiple national surveys have shown that single people are more likely to support, visit, advise and stay in touch with their parents and siblings than are currently married or previously married people. They have more friends, and they are also more likely to socialize with, help and encourage their friends and neighbors. Research that follows people over time finds that people who get married typically become more insular than they were when they were single, even if they don’t have kids.
Single people are stereotypically the self-centered ones, yet research begs to differ: When elderly parents need help, it is their single grown children who are more likely to be there for them. That’s true whether the kids are black or white, or sons or daughters. A study from the Journal of Marriage and Family also found that when it comes to providing for another person the kind of intensive help that goes on for three months or more, it is again single people who step up to do it, whether the person in need is a relative or not.
Media headlines often proclaim that, according to the latest research, married people are in some way better off than single people. Then it is implied (or even stated outright) that if only we single people would get married, we would be better off, too. Those studies typically include in the married group only those people who are currently married. But many people who get married end up getting a divorce, and it’s unlikely these marriages were making them happier and healthier. Advocating for marriage without taking this into account is akin to making the case for start-ups by referring only to companies that stayed in business.
Yet even with such a big, fat thumb tipping the scale in favor of marriage, married people still do not always come out ahead. Sometimes people who have always been single do best. Sometimes the currently married do better, but only during the first years of their marriage. Whether there is any benefit at all might depend on factors such as the married person’s gender, race or age. Follow everyone who ever married for at least four years, as another Journal of Marriage and Family study did, and you will see that the people who married were no happier, no healthier, no less depressed and had no higher self-esteem than the people who stayed single. In fact, the only difference favored single people: They had more contact with their parents and spent more time with their friends.
Comparing all those who ever got married (including those who divorced later) with those who stayed single is rare. But even if future studies did so and found that married people did better, it still would not justify the claim that if only they got married, singles would be better off, too. The people who got married chose to do so. What works for them might not work for people I call “single at heart” — those who live their best, most authentic and most meaningful lives by living on their own. If I were cajoled, shamed or forced to marry, I surely would not be happier or healthier. My life probably wouldn’t be longer, either — it would just seem longer.
In the rush to declare married people the winners of the well-being sweepstakes, all the ways that single life can be fulfilling get trampled. For example, single people value meaningful work more than married people do. They also score higher on scales measuring personal growth and development, autonomy and self-determination. The more self-sufficient singles are, the less often they experience negative emotions. Self-sufficiency among married people, on the other hand, is correlated with experiencing negative feelings. And when contemplating spending time alone, those who are “single at heart” almost never fear being lonely. Instead, they savor their solitude.
The special strengths of single people are particularly remarkable in light of the many ways single people are stereotyped, stigmatized, discriminated against and ignored. Advocates of same-sex marriage have expressed frustration with federal laws that benefited and protected only those people who are legally married (there are more than 1,000 of these protections). But single people of all sexual orientations are still locked out of all of that largesse. Married people get the privileges, the perks and the protections, and yet many single people are thriving nonetheless. Plenty of single people are remarkably resilient.
I defend single people because we are relentlessly demeaned by myths and pseudoscientific claims that say our lives are second-rate. But I’m not advocating singlehood for all. Some people live their best lives married, and others find more meaning and fulfillment in single life. This is the 21st century. We don’t all have to choose the same life path.
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