Is Living Alone the Unlikely Answer to Loneliness?
New research shows that people who live alone are less lonely.
Posted Sep 26, 2016
The authors of the book Loneliness describe their concern that Western societies do not take the inherent gregariousness of humans seriously enough. They note that “the latest figures show that ever-greater numbers of people are accepting a life in which they are physically, and perhaps emotionally, isolated from one another.” Among the evidence they cite in support of that fear is the growing number of people who live alone.
It seems intuitive that people who live alone would be lonelier than people who live with others. Most single people do not live alone, yet single people are believed to be lonelier than married people. I’ve found evidence of this in my own research, and researchers in other countries have as well.
A new study of loneliness, based on a large sample of German adults, examined the links among loneliness, living alone, and living single. The research was based on data collected in 2013 from more than 16,000 Germans ranging in age from 18 to 103, who represented more than 10,000 households.
The authors found that when they compared people who lived alone to people who lived with others—focusing on that key aspect of their living arrangement and not letting other factors muddy the picture—the people who lived alone were less lonely.
They also tried to make the case that single people are lonelier, and seemed to imply that if they were to get married, their loneliness would subside. But they ended up showing that they really don’t understand basic methodologies, and that they don’t appreciate, psychologically, how the experience of living single after you get divorced or become widowed could profoundly differ from the experience of living single all your life.
Loneliness and Living Alone: The Link Is Not What You Think
When the authors simply compared the people who lived alone with those who lived with others, the people who lived alone reported more loneliness. But people who live alone differ from the people who live with others in all sorts of ways, so we don’t know, without looking more closely, if living alone really is linked with greater loneliness.
Fortunately, the authors took this step. They found that one way people who live alone differ from others is in their income. So they controlled for income statistically, which means that they essentially compared people at the same level of income to see how loneliness differed between those living alone and those living with others.
Here’s what they found: When people who live alone have the same income as people living with others, the people who live alone are less lonely.
The authors conclude that “living alone may even have beneficial effects on the quality of one’s social relationships” and add, as researchers often do, that more research is needed. Many studies already show the ways in which single people are more connected to other people than married people are, and demonstrate that it is the people who marry, rather than those who stay single, who become more insular.
The research does not show that living alone is a cure for loneliness. Among the people who live alone are those (we don’t know exactly how many) who chose to live that way. If people who prefer living with other people were urged to live alone, we don’t know what would happen. Maybe they would make an effort to form and maintain the kinds of social ties that keep loneliness at bay. Or maybe they would just end up lonely.
The Link Between Loneliness and Single Life
The authors used their data to compare three groups:
- People who are single and not living with a partner;
- People who have a romantic partner but are not living together; and
- People who are living with a romantic partner (and are often married).
They seem to think they know what they are going to find, because in their view, previous research shows that, “Being married is robustly associated with lower levels of loneliness.” They report that in their own research, “average loneliness levels were highest among singles and lowest among those living with their partners.”
The implication seems to be that if only those single people would get married, their loneliness would dissipate. The authors never quite say that married people are less lonely because they are married, but that seems to be the implication.
The problem is, neither their data, nor the data from the previous research they cite, could ever establish that getting married causes people to be less lonely. In fact, the design of the studies and the comparisons they use are a set-up, biased to make married people look less lonely than they really are. The studies compare only people who are currently married (or living with a romantic partner) to those who are single. They set aside all of the people who got married, felt desperately lonely in their marriage, and then got divorced. No, wait—the authors of this paper did not set them aside. If the people who got divorced are still single, the authors included them in the single group, along with the lifelong single people.
And what about people who are widowed, and who may indeed feel deeply lonely without their spouse? They are also included in the group of lifelong single people.
Here’s what their data really show: If you include all of the people who are widowed (and may well be quite lonely) in the group of single people, as well as all of the people who chose to marry but then divorced (and may also be feeling lonely on their own after having been married), then the people who are left in the married group are less lonely than the people who were included in the single group. But does that mean that if all the single people got married, they would become less lonely? No, the research does not show that at all.
In fact, even by using the technique that gives married people a great big unfair advantage, the results were a lot less definitive than the authors expected. When they looked separately at three age groups, they found that romantic relationship status didn’t matter among the adults younger than 30. People who were living with a romantic partner (and often married), people who had a partner but were not living with that partner, and people who were single (with no romantic partner) all experienced about the same levels of loneliness. Among those older than 65, the singles were a bit lonelier, but the differences were small. Only among the middle-aged group (ages 30-65) were the people living with romantic partners noticeably less lonely than the single people.
The article could leave readers with the impression that those people were less lonely because they were married (or cohabiting). An alternative possibility is that the married group looks less lonely because so many of the people who were lonely in their marriages got divorced (and then the authors put them in with the lifelong single people). The article doesn't discuss the fact that the single group also includes people who are widowed, and are probably lonely because they miss their spouse. The implication seems to be that being single means you're lonely, and if you're married, you're not lonely.
I want you to think smarter than that.
When the authors state in their article abstract that the “late-life increase in loneliness could be explained by…higher proportion of singles in this age group,” the implication seems to be that single means lonely. That might lead you to think, "Oh those poor old people, they are lonely because they are single." But maybe they are lonely because so many of them are widowed. Maybe they spent so many years of their lives married that they don’t know how to lead a full, rich, socially connected life as a single person. And maybe lifelong single people do know how to do that.
Actually, there's no need to qualify that last statement with a “maybe.” We already know, from lots of research, that lifelong single people have more friends than married people, and do more to maintain their ties with friends, siblings, parents, and neighbors. It is when people get married that they turn inward and pay less attention to the other people in their lives.
Clinging to Ideology, Not Facts
The arguments in the article seem to be rooted in an ideology of marriage, which maintains that just about everyone wants to marry and that people who get married are better off physically, psychologically, and interpersonally than they were when they were single. I believe this because of the way the authors talk about single people and partnered people. For example:
- When discussing loneliness in older people, they say that “the absence of a significant attachment figure (spouse, partner)” is important. Do you see what’s wrong with that? This suggests that only a spouse or romantic partner counts as a significant attachment figure. No matter how close you may be to a lifelong friend, a sibling, or anyone else; and no matter if your relationship with another person meets all the criteria for an attachment relationship, your attachment figure is not considered a significant one if that person is not a spouse or romantic partner.
- The authors say that “the formation of an intimate relationship and partnership in young adults is a developmental accomplishment.” It is, if that’s what you want. But not everyone wants that. There are young adults (and adults of every age) who are uninterested in that goal. In this article, marriage is portrayed as an accomplishment. That's an ideological assumption, but it is stated more like a fact -- and this is in a scientific publication.
- When the authors find, to their surprise, that romantic relationship status has nothing to do with loneliness among adults younger than the age of 30, they try to explain it this way: “[Y]ounger people can compensate for the absence of a romantic partner through a larger social network in both private and professional life.” The key word is "compensate.” It reveals the assumption that romantic relationships matter more than any other relationships, to all people, and therefore if adults do not have such a relationship, they need to compensate for that somehow.
The compensation assumption is especially remarkable in light of the authors’ own findings. Relationship status did not matter as much as they thought it would. Results were not consistent across the three age groups, and they did not mean what the authors said they did. But another factor matters, in predictable ways, and in consistent ways across the three age groups: having friends.
What’s more, there was no undermining the importance of friendship, no matter how the authors analyzed the data. People with more friends were less lonely. The results were that simple. But nowhere do we learn anything about how people need to compensate for not having friends.
If you want to know what previous research on marital status and loneliness really did find, and what it means, see “Escape from loneliness: Is marriage the answer?”