A few weeks ago, a radio station asked me to describe my 10 myths about single people, so I thought I'd share them with you here. The first four are in this post. The myths will be familiar to readers of Singled Out, though some of the findings debunking the myths are new.
Myth #1 about single people is that if you are single, you are interested in just one thing - getting coupled. Single people, according to the myth, are home crying in their beer, distraught that they don't have a sweetie. You can think that, as long as you never ask singles what they want. But those pesky social scientists are always asking questions. When they asked a national sample of single people, in 2005 and again in 2010, whether they were looking to get married, fewer than half said yes! Younger people are more likely to say they are looking, but they get over it. The unmarried people who are least likely to say that they want to get married are the ones who already tried it - those who are divorced or widowed. In later life, men are always more eager to get remarried than women are, but even for them, if they have good support for friends, then they are no more interested in signing on again than are women. Now let me tell you about a category of single people you may not have heard about - people, like me, who are single at heart. For the single at heart, being single is who we really and truly are. We are not people who are "unlucky in love" or afraid of getting rejected or any of those other dopey stereotypes. We are not "marking time" until we find "the one." We just love our single lives. We love striking just the right balance between the time we spend with other people and the time we spend in sweet solitude. We love pursuing our passions. Single is who we are.
Myth #2 is that there is a dark aura around people who are single. The myth insists that if you are single, you are miserable and lonely and your life is tragic. Maybe you have heard that there are scientific studies showing that if you get married, you will be happier and better off in all sorts of ways than if you stay single. Well, I'm a social scientist, and I read those articles in the professional journals. Not what the media claims about the findings - I read the actual reports. Here's my conclusion: Bull! Total bull. There is a great study that asked thousands of people, starting at age 16, how happy they were. They asked that question once a year, every year, for decades. So do people who were single one year, and married the next, suddenly become much happier than they were before? No! They do get a little bit happier around the time of the wedding. Call it a honeymoon effect. Then after about a year has passed, they are as happy or as unhappy as they were when they were single. That's the best case scenario. It is true only for the people who got married and stayed married. But what about the people who got married and then got divorced? They did not even get a honeymoon effect! As the day of their wedding approached, they were already getting a little bit less happy. Then their happiness kept slipping down, down, down until the year before their divorce was final. That was the low point. Eventually, as the date of the divorce recedes into the rear view mirror, their level of happiness starts to climb back up.
Myth #3 is that if you get married, you will be healthier and you will live longer. Let me tell you what the research really does show. In a national survey, thousands of Americans rated their overall health. Of the Americans who were currently married, 92.9% rated their health as good or excellent. That's a great number! Now let's see how those supposedly sick and ailing singles are doing. Among those who had always been single, 92.6% of them rated their health as good or excellent. The difference is 92.6% compared to 92.9%! Seriously. Next time you hear that married people are healthier, keep that in mind. Plus, this comparison is cheating. It gives married people an advantage. That's because the people who are currently married are not all the people who ever got married - they are the people who got married, after you set aside close to half of them who got married, hated it, and got divorced! That's the same as a pharmaceutical company telling you to take their drug, based on studies in which only the people who benefited from the drug are counted. Would you fall for that? Now what about living longer? There's a study in which people who were school children in 1921 were followed ever since then. Who is still alive, and what does marriage have to do with that? Married people were tied for the prize of living the longest. Whom were they tied with? People who had stayed single! It was the divorced people who had somewhat shorter lives. Even that finding for divorced people may not hold up in these contemporary times. A study published very recently suggests that marital status may not matter much at all when it comes to the length of your lives. (Though you have probably heard this answer to the question of whether married people live longer: No, it just seems longer.)
Myth #4 about single people is that if you are single, everything is always about you. According to the myth, if you are single, you are like a child. You are self-centered and immature and your time isn't worth anything since you have nothing to do but play. Meanwhile, the myth says, married people are out there helping other people, supporting their parents, and maintaining communities. They, supposedly, are the selfless ones. Except that they are not. In two national surveys, researchers kept tabs on who was doing the helping, supporting, and staying in touch with other people. Here's what they found. Married people exchange much less help with their parents and parents-in-law combined than single people do with just their parents. It is the single people who are there for mom and dad. Singles are also the ones who are more likely to visit, call and stay in touch with their siblings. They are more likely than married people to maintain ties with friends and neighbors. So while married couples are focused primarily on each other, single people are the ones who are holding together families and communities.
[Myths 5, 6, and 7 are described here, and the last 3 myths are debunked here.]