There are people who believe that getting married transforms sickly single people into healthy couples. I think they are wrong. They use cheater techniques to make their case, and even then, getting married does not always seem to result in better health. Along the way, they spin various tales about why getting married should protect you from bad health.
One of those why-marriage-wins theories is that when you are married, there is someone else around. That person can nag you to eat your vegetables and get off the couch or call 911 if you look like you are having a heart attack. There are lots of ways to poke holes in that fantasy. For example, even if you are married, your spouse is not always right there at your side monitoring you for heart attack symptoms; conversely, single people are not always home alone. Also, it is actually the always-single people who exercise the most.
Even more relevant is a study that addresses the issue directly. The researcher asked two questions: (1) Are divorced, widowed, and always-single people less healthy than currently-married people? (2) If the unmarried people are living with someone (such as parents, other relatives, or friends – grown children were excluded), are they less healthy than currently-married people?
This is not an ideal design for many reasons I’ve discussed before (e.g., we don’t know whether any differences between the groups really are due to marital status or some other way that they differ), but the study was at least based on a good-sized sample. The data were from more than 25,000 white women, ages 18 to 55, who participated in the National Health Interview Study in the U.S. in 1979.
The study also included a variety of measures of the participants’ health:
- The participants’ ratings of their overall health
- The number of chronic health conditions they experienced
- The number of acute conditions they experienced
- The number of days their activities were restricted during the two weeks prior to the interview
- The number of days in the previous year in which they stayed in bed because of health problems
- The number of doctor visits in the previous year
In studies comparing the currently-married to different categories of unmarried people, the usual result is that if there is any group that looks worse than the currently-married, it is not the people who stayed single. Typically, it is those who got married and then got unmarried who are having a harder time (and sometimes even then, only for the first few years after the divorce or the death of the spouse).
So let’s look first at the divorced women. In the results that averaged across all divorced women, regardless of whether they were living with another adult (such as a parent, other relative, or friend) or not, they did report worse health than the currently-married on most measures. (On overall health and doctors’ visits, they were no different from the currently-married.) As the authors predicted, though, taking living arrangements into account did matter, and in a good way.
The divorced women who were living with another adult had the same health as the currently-married on 5 of the 6 measures. On the sixth, doctor visits, they looked better than the currently-married: They went to the doctor less often.
Now for the widowed women. Averaging across all of them (regardless of whether they lived with another adult), they looked mostly the same as the currently-married women except for spending more days in bed because of a disability. When living arrangements were taken into account, again the authors were correct. Widowed women living with another adult had the same health as the currently-married on 5 of the 6 measures. On the sixth, doctor visits, they too now looked healthier.
Of course, the currently-married, the divorced, and the widowed all have something in common – they have had the marriage experience. How healthy were the women who had always been single?
Averaging across all of the always-single women, they already had the same good health as the currently-married women on three of the six measures. (Remember that the design is stacked against them; the currently-married group excludes anyone who got married, hated it, and got divorced. There are no such set-asides in the always-single group.) On the other measures, the always-single women had better health than the currently-married women. They rated their overall health as better, they had fewer bed disability days, and fewer doctor visits.
So what happens when we look at the always-single women who are living with another adult? Not much. Just looking at the numbers, it appears that the women who live with another adult may be a shade healthier, but it is not clear if any of the differences are significant. Women who had been single all their lives already were as healthy, or healthier, than women who were currently-married. Having another adult around the house just didn’t seem to matter all that much.
Here’s a hypothesis I’ve never seen considered in any of the hundreds of articles about marital status that I’ve read over the years: Maybe the best situation is the one that is the best fit for the particular individual’s profile of preferences, needs, interests, and inclinations. Maybe many people who have always been single like living solo. It suits them. Maybe one of the reasons some people marry is that they do better when they are living with another person, and so after they divorce, they do better if they again find someone to live with. Perhaps for all of us, there are health benefits to finding the living situation that is most compatible with who we really are.
[Note. Check out this guest post by Alan, one of our most reliable participants in the discussions of Living Single and other single-life blog posts: “Why are arguments for marrying so hedonistic?” Maybe also of interest: “Motivated by money: What does it mean?”]