With people waiting longer than ever to get married, many choosing not to get married at all, and others ending up single later in life due to divorce or widowhood, there are more single people than ever. During the 1960s, only 10% of American adults age 25 or over were unmarried; today, that percentage has doubled. Much research has suggested that married people are happier than singles, but it’s not clear if marriage actually makes people happy, and it isn’t always the case that marriage is related to greater happiness.
As with most things, there is unlikely to be a one-size-fits-all solution when it comes marriage and happiness. On the one hand, a spouse can offer valuable social support and help you combat loneliness.1 On the other hand, relationships come with conflicts and disappointments that make people less happy.2 So it is quite reasonable to assume that marriage can make some people happier, while other people may be better off remaining single.
In a series of studies, Girme and colleagues set out to examine what type of people might be happier in a relationship.3 In particular, they examined two types of social goals that people may have—avoidance goals and approach goals.4 People with avoidance social goals don’t necessarily avoid relationships with others; they try to maintain relationships by avoiding conflicts. They want relationships, just without the messiness. Unfortunately, those with avoidance motivation tend to be more anxious and lonely and have more negative feelings about their relationships and social life. This may be because they pay a lot more attention to negative relationship events when they occur.5 Someone high in avoidance goals is likely to react more poorly to a minor fight or a perceived slight than someone who doesn’t have those goals.
People also differ in the extent to which they have approach goals in their relationships. Those high in approach goals try to maintain their relationships by increasing intimacy and helping the relationship grow.4,5 These two kinds of goals aren’t necessarily at odds with one another: You can be high on both approach and avoidance goals; high on one and low on the other; or low on both.
So how does whether or not you’re happier when in a couple depend on these social goals?
Girme and colleagues conducted two studies to test these associations. In the first, 187 undergraduate students completed measures of approach and avoidance social goals. For avoidance goals, they rated how much they agreed with statements such as "I try to avoid disagreements and conflicts with people close to me" and "I try to make sure that nothing bad happens to my close relationships." For approach goals, they rated items such as "I try to enhance bonding and intimacy in my close relationships" and "I try to move toward growth and development in my close relationships." They also rated how satisfied they felt with their lives every day for 10 days.
The results showed that single people reported being less satisfied with their lives—but only those who were low on avoidance goals. For those who were high in avoidance goals, they were just as happy single or coupled. Approach goals, on the other hand, weren’t related to whether or not coupledom made people more or less happy.
In the second study, the researchers examined a nationally representative sample of 4,024 adults from New Zealand. Once again, they found that being in a relationship was associated with greater life satisfaction, but not for people who were high in avoidance goals. People higher in avoidance goals were just as happy single or coupled. Approach goals mattered, too. While overall, people were happier being in a relationship than being single, this was especially true for people high in approach goals—and being single seemed to be harder on those with approach goals.
Interestingly, approach goals only mattered in the second study. This might have to do with the age of the participants. In the first study, the participants were college students, who typically don’t have a long relationship history and may still be figuring out what they want from life. In the second study, participants ranged from 18 to 94 years old with an average age of 50, so college-aged people were among the youngest studied. Thus, the two samples most likely differed in how serious and committed participants' relationships were. Some of the benefits of approach goals may become evident only later in life when those goals have helped people to create especially fulfilling long-term partnerships.
It’s also important to remember that this research still doesn’t tell us if being coupled actually caused those who were low in avoidance goals or high in approach goals to become happier. It could be that whatever factors caused these people to find partners also caused them to be happier with their lives. As my fellow PT contributor, Bella DePaulo, always points out, none of this evidence definitively tells us that marriage makes people happier.
We all know that romantic relationships are a tradeoff. We have to take the good with the bad. But people high in avoidance goals—people who try to avoid conflicts and issues in their relationships—are hit a lot harder by the "bad." If that describes you, then you really may be just as happy being single.
Gwendolyn Seidman, Ph.D. is an associate professor of psychology at Albright College, who studies relationships and cyberpsychology. Follow her on Twitter for updates about social psychology, relationships, and online behavior. Read more articles by Dr. Seidman on Close Encounters.
1 Cohen, S., & Wills, T. A. (1985). Stress, social support, and the buffering hypothesis. Psychological Bulletin, 98, 310–357.
2 Miller, R. S. (1997). We always hurt the ones we love. In R. M. Kowaliski (Ed.), Aversive interpersonal behaviors (pp. 11–29). New York, NY: Plenum
3 Girme, Overall, Faingataa, & Sibley, C. G. (2015). Happily single: The link between relationship status and well-being depends on avoidance and approach social goals. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 1-9. Published only before print. doi: 10.1177/1948550615599828
4 Gable, S. L. (2006). Approach and avoidance social motives and goals. Journal of Personality, 71, 175–222.
5 Gable, S. L., & Gosnell, C. L. (2013). Approach and avoidance behavior in interpersonal relationships. Emotion Review, 5, 269–274.