Living Single

The truth about singles in our society.

Men and Women Who Have Always Been Single Are Doing Fine

Lifelong singles have strong psychological resources that serve them well

Finally, singles are in the headlines in a positive way! Here are a few of the recent media pronouncements:

  1. Over 40 and Never Married? New Research Shows You Are Just Fine
  2. Never Married, Over 40, Well-Adjusted

My email inbox is lighting up with links to these stories. (Thanks for the heads-up to Living Single readers David, Gary, Nika, and Rajiv.) The questions people are asking me are, (1) have I read the study? (yes, I read the original in its entirety), and (2) is it a good study?

Before I answer the second question, let me tell you more about the research. The authors (Jamila Bookwala and Erin Fekete) analyzed data from a nationally-representative sample of Americans, the National Survey of Midlife Development. From the dataset, they selected the 105 heterosexual people who were at least 40 years old, had always been single, and were not cohabiting, and compared them to currently married people who were also at least 40 years old.

The always-single and the currently-married participants answered questions about their psychological resources, social resources, and positive and negative feelings. (More on all of those later.)

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What's good about the study is that it is based on a nationally representative sample, not just a convenience sample of people the authors know. What's not so good about the study is that it gives the married people an advantage from the beginning. Like the vast majority of other studies that compare people in different marital statuses at one point in time, the married group is comprised NOT of all people who ever got married, but only those who got married and stayed married. The 40-something percent of people who married, hated it, then divorced, are set aside. (In contrast, all of the lifelong singles were included in the single group, whether they wanted to be single or not.) So, as always with all studies like this, if the currently-married group looks better than the always-single group in some way or another, that does NOT mean that if only you get married, you will do better, too.

Even with this advantage given to the married group, the always-single group, in comparison, looks just fine. On some measures, there are no differences at all between the currently-married and the always-single. There are no differences, for example, in the degree to which they feel supported by their friends. (The authors consider that a "social resource." On two other social resource measures, kin support and community integration, the singles score a bit lower, in contrast to the results of other national studies.) There are also no differences in any of the psychological resources. For example, there were no differences in personal mastery, which is a can-do attitude - a sense that you can do just about anything you set your mind to. There were also no differences in self-sufficiency, which is a matter of wanting to handle things on your own.

The psychological resources of personal mastery and self-sufficiency were more important to the always-single people than to the currently-married. You can see that in the links between having those resources and experiencing positive and negative feelings. (For a discussion of the overall levels of positive and negative feelings, see the note at the end.)

Here's how the psychological resource of personal mastery matters more to people who have always been single. For anyone - married or single - the more of a can-do attitude you have, the less you will experience negative feelings. But this is even more true for people who have always been single. In fact, if you look just at the married and single people who are high in personal mastery - that is, they are all especially likely to believe that they can do just about anything they set their minds to - the single people are even less likely to experience negative emotions than the married people are. (But if they are especially low in mastery, they experience more negative emotions.)

The results get even more interesting with regard to the psychological resource of self-sufficiency, which is liking to deal with things on your own. For people who have always been single, the more self-sufficient they are, the less likely they are to have negative feelings. But for currently-married people, it is the opposite: The more they like dealing with things on their own, the MORE likely they are to have negative feelings.

My take-away from that is that marriage isn't for everyone, just as living single isn't. I wonder whether those married people who wish they could be handling things on their own, and perhaps feeling more restless and unhappy because of that, would have been happier single. Maybe more productive, too.

[Jamila Bookwala and I had an hour-long discussion of the study, and took people's calls, today on Wisconsin Public Radio. The show was called "At Issue" and you can listen to it here. I was also interviewed for a story for iVillage.]


[NOTE about the overall levels of positive and negative feelings in the two groups: Both groups describe themselves as experiencing relatively high levels of positivity (3 or greater on a 1 to 5 scale, with 5 indicating more positive feelings). They also describe fairly low levels of negativity (below 2 on a 1 to 5 scale, with 5 indicating greater negativity). Specifically, the singles report a shade less positive affect (3.2, compared to 3.4 for the currently married) and a shade more negative affect (1.6 compared to 1.5). Again, these small differences are especially remarkable because ALL of the lifelong single people (and not just those who wanted to be single) were compared to just those people who got married, liked it, and stayed married.

Even those small differences in emotional well-being disappeared once the authors controlled for other factors such as age, gender, education, number of children, and social resources.

Explanatory aside: What does "controlled for" mean? Sometimes two groups differ in some way that is not relevant to what you are interested in. Let's say, for example, that the married group was older than the single group (which they were in this study). Let's also say that the older people are happier than the younger people, which was also true in this study. Well, then the single people are going to look less happy not (necessarily) because they are single, but because they are younger. "Controlling for" a factor such as age is a way of dealing with it statistically, so that your results tell you about what you want to know about - marital status-without being marred by a factor you are not looking at - such as age. It is a matter of showing, for example, that if the married and single people were the same age, they would be the same in happiness.

The results of the study showed that when the currently-married and always-single people were the same in age, education, social resources, and so forth, then the two groups were also just the same in their positive and negative feelings.]

Bella DePaulo, Ph.D., is author of Singled Out: How Singles Are Stereotyped, Stigmatized, and Ignored, and Still Live Happily Ever After. She is a visiting professor at UCSB.

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