Living Single

The truth about singles in our society.

Slighting Friends and Family: Do Couples Become Less Couple-y Over Time?

Is it something couples do only during those first few years of infatuation?

Compared to single people, married people are less attentive to their siblings, parents, friends, and neighbors. Research shows that. When I tell others about those findings, though, sometimes they offer an explanation that I have not been able to discount. Oh, they say, that's just because new couples are infatuated with each other. In time, they get over it, and spend just as much time as single people do supporting other people and socializing with them.

In some ways, the research on what sociologists call "greedy marriage" (related to what I call "intensive coupling") is impressive. There are multiple studies showing that married people are less likely than single people to help, support, visit, and maintain contact with friends, family, and neighbors. The research includes several national samples.

Until a day or so ago, though, there was one great big qualifier about the greedy marriage claims - the studies compared single and married people only at one point in time. That meant we could not know for sure whether people who get married then neglect their friends and relatives, or whether the kinds of people who would eventually get married were already neglectful of friends and relatives, even when they were still single. Additionally, studies comparing married and single people at one point in time obviously cannot address the alternative hypothesis - couples do not want all the time and attention for themselves (as the "greedy marriage" perspective suggests), they are just temporarily infatuated with each other. They will emerge from their couple-bubble eventually.

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Now we know the answer. The February 2012 issue of the Journal of Marriage and Family has just appeared online. In it is a study by Kelly Musick and Larry Bumpass in which the same 2700+ American adults were surveyed in 1987 or 1988, and then again 6 years later. The participants included in the analyses were all single (and not cohabiting) and under 50 years old when they were first surveyed.

Participants reported the time they spent with friends and the amount of contact they had with their parents at both points in time -- when the study first started and everyone was single, and six years later. (Participants also described the quality of their relationship with their parents, but there were no significant differences among the groups for that measure.)

To see whether the retreat from other people was just a new-couple sort of thing, the authors looked separately at those who had become partnered relatively recently (within the past three years) and those who had become partnered between four and six years previously. They compared the social ties of both groups to those of the people who stayed single the whole time.

First, the results for those who had gotten married (or started cohabiting) relatively recently: They had less contact with their parents and spent less time with their friends than those who stayed single.

Now the results for those who had gotten partnered less recently (between 4 and 6 years previously): They had less contact with their parents and spent less time with their friends than those who stayed single.

The withdrawal from friends and family and neighbors was the same for both groups. It was not any less pronounced for those who had been partnered longer.

What I've just described is only one of the sets of findings from the study. The authors also examined how happiness, health, depression, and self-esteem changed for those who became partnered, compared to those who did not - and whether the newness of the relationship mattered for those measures. I described those findings in the post, American marriages: Happiness and health decline over time. Do take a look at it if you are at all interested. This is the first study I know of that did what I've been advocating for years - include in the analyses all of the people who ever married, not just those who got married and stayed married. Wait till you see how much that mattered.

I'm still not done with this study. In future posts, I'll tell you what the authors found about the implications for health and well-being of (1) cohabiting, compared to (2) cohabiting and then getting married, or (3) just getting married. Even more interesting (at least to me), I'll explain what the authors still do not seem to realize about single life even after their data offered them some great big hints.

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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