Living Single

The truth about singles in our society.

The Health Hazards of Having Been Married

Among people who have always been single, 92.6% report good health.
Stephen Mason
This post is a response to The Health Hazards of Being Single by Stephen Mason, Ph.D.

A recent blog post proclaimed that living single is hazardous to your health. Here's what's wrong with that claim.

Blogger Stephen Mason, in his most recent post, professes to inform us about "the health hazards of being single." His claim is that currently married people, by several measures he mentions (though he provides no links to references), are healthier than people who are divorced, widowed, or have always been single. He also wants us to know that unmarried women are in some ways at special risk.

So, should you get married to become healthier (especially you poor ailing single women)? The evidence (or his misconstrual of it) leads Mason to muse that "humans just naturally pair up. Clearly, Mother Nature has spoken." She must be whispering very softly in his ear only.

Here's why the data Mason mentions (without sourcing), and the cumulative message of the dozens if not hundreds of other relevant studies on the matter (references are in the books and posts mentioned below), does NOT add up to a fortune cookie message, "Get married, be healthy."

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• The currently married group (in the kinds of studies Mason alludes to) does not include all of the people who ever married. Instead, it only includes those who got married and stayed that way. The 40-something percent who got married, hated it, maybe even felt sick because of it, and got divorced, are NOT included in the married group. In contrast, all of the people who have always been single, whether they want to be or not, are in the single (always-single) group. So, getting married makes you healthier as long as you set aside the nearly half of all people who got married, hated it, and got unmarried. That's what I call the "cheater method."

• Even using the cheater method, are single people as sickly as Mason would have us believe? Mason chose a few specific measures. In some studies, people are asked to report on their overall health. In fact, national surveys of health have been conducted almost every year for more than 30 years. (The people are different in each survey, so this is not longitudinal research.) For the most recent year reported in this article, 92.6% of the people who had always been single rated their health as good or excellent. Of the currently married group (remember, not all people who ever got married), 92.8% rated their health as good.

• Oh, and about those suffering single women: In 2003 (the most recent year reported), women who had always been single were healthier than men who were currently married. Specifically, 92.8% of always-single women reported good or excellent health, compared to 91.8% of currently-married men.

• The people least likely to report good or excellent health were the ones who were previously married. Even for them, though, the results are hardly dire. From the graphs on p. 247 of the original journal article, you can see that about 90 or 91% of divorced people report good or excellent health, and about 85 or maybe 87% of widowed people report good or excellent health. (For articles you'd like to read that are behind a pay-wall, try asking the authors for a copy.)

• The authors of the study, looking at the health of Americans over three decades, offered this conclusion: "the self-rated health status of the never-married has improved for all race and gender groups examined, and it is more similar to the married for men now than ever before, which suggests that encouraging marriage in order to promote health may be misguided. In fact, getting married increases one's risk for eventual marital dissolution, and marital dissolution seems to be worse for self-rated health now than at any point in the past three decades."

I've described misconceptions and misleading reports about marital status and health, and explained what the results really do show, in many places. They include Chapter 2 of Singled Out and the section of Single with Attitude titled, "If Marriage Were a Drug, the FDA Would Not Approve It." When a study about health and marital status is trumpeted in the media, I read the original report very closely then blog about what it really does say. Here are some examples:

Stephen Mason also believes that being single is the same thing as being alone. (Look at the last sentence of his post.) That's the myth that single people "don't have anyone," as if friends, family, colleagues, neighbors, and anyone else you are not having sex with is not actually human. Decades ago, women who socialized in public with their female friends were sometimes referred to as "unaccompanied women." Without a man at their side, they were deemed to be on their own. Mason's "single = alone" equivalency is the same mentality, continued into this, the 21st century.

After proclaiming that single people are defying Mother Nature and that their single status is hazardous to their health, Mason then asks why anyone (he means me) feels the need to write about why it's okay to be single. Gee, I wonder.

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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