A few months ago, a reporter asked me if I kept a list of scientifically-documented ways in which it is better to be single than married. I could not believe that my answer was no. I have been so busy being defensive—arguing again and again that no, getting married will not make you happier and it will not make you healthier and it will not make you live longer and it will not doom your kids and it will not make your social networks blossom—that it rarely occurred to me that I should be systematically making the more pro-active case. There are ways, grounded in research, that single people do better than married people.
In response to the reporter’s question, I told her what I could think of offhand, and she wrote this story, which had been nicely timed for Valentine’s Day. (The reporter, by the way, was Lauren F. Friedman, who used to be an editor here at Psychology Today.) Ever since, I have been working on my own list. It is not yet complete (and will continue to be a work in progress), so please do let me know what I’ve missed.
[My usual caveat: Some studies compare people of different marital or relationship statuses at just one point in time. As I have often explained (for example, here and here), the results of such studies are open to different interpretations. True experiments are impossible, since people can’t be randomly assigned to get married or stay single, but longitudinal studies, in which the same people are followed over time, are better than the studies comparing people at just one point in time.]
Single People are Healthier
#1 People who have always been single exercise more than married people do. Divorced people exercise more than married people, too, but not as much as the people who have always been single.
#2 Among wounded warriors, the ones who have always been single are the most resilient. The RAND Corporation has been studying members of the military who have been wounded since 9/11. Compared to those who were married or divorced, the warriors who had always been single were least likely to have symptoms suggesting PTSD, most successful at bouncing back from injury or illness or hardship, least likely to be depressed, least likely to be obese, and least likely to have emotional or physical health problems that interfered with their work or other regular activities.
#4 Always-single men are less likely than men of any other marital status to experience heart disease. Results are from an 8-year study of heart disease in mid-life, based on a representative sample of Americans. The always-single women looked good, too, but the results were particularly striking for the men. (Check this out, too.)
#5 Women who have always been single have better overall health than currently married women. They also have fewer days in bed because of disabilities and fewer doctors’ visits. Results were from the National Health Interview Study (of women only).
#6 Women who have always been single are healthier than men who are currently married. That’s from the most recent year analyzed of a study that has been ongoing for decades.
#7 All those ED ads? They’re for you, married men. From p. 54 of Singled Out: “With regard to some of the problems men might have, such as an inability to maintain an erection, climaxing too early, or experiencing pain during sex, currently married men have nothing over men who have always been single. When the two groups differ on those measures, it is the married men who are more likely to be having difficulties.” (Also check out: “Getting married and getting sex (or not)” and “Sex and the single person.”)
Single People Are Keeping Friends, Siblings, Parents, and Communities Together
#8 People who get married become less connected to their friends and their parents than they were when they were single. That’s not just a newlywed effect – it continues for as many years into the marriage as researchers have studied.
#9 People who have always been single are more attentive to friends, family, and neighbors than people who are married. This can’t be explained away by time spent on kids. Among those who have young kids and those who have no kids, the marrieds are again less attentive to their friends and parents.
#10 Single people are more likely than married ones to keep siblings together in their adult lives. Follow people over time, and the ones who get married have less contact with their siblings than they did when they were single. If they get divorced, though, they will start connecting with their siblings more than they did when they were married.
#11 Single people have a more diverse set of confidants than married people do. Both single and married people name kin as important people in their lives, but single people are more likely to also name people who are not kin.
#12 Single people are more likely to volunteer for civic organizations than married people are. That’s from Eric Klinenberg’s Going Solo. For other discussions of the many strengths of people living alone, see the links at the end of this post. (Also check out, “Living alone: Everything you always wanted to know.”)
Single People Are Better with Money than Married People Are
#13 Single people have less debt than married people do, and that’s true even when the married people do not have kids.
In the Workplace, Single People Are More Likely than Married People to Care About More than Just Money
#14 Single people are less materialistic than married people are.
#15 Single people are more likely to value meaningful work.
#16 In a study of men only, men who got married spent less time in work-related pursuits that did not benefit just them (such as professional societies, unions, and farm organizations) than they did when they were single. They don’t spend any more time in political groups, service clubs, or fraternal organizations than they did when they were single.
Single People Get More Emotional Rewards from Solitude and Self-Sufficiency and Maybe from Themselves
#17 Solitude brings many rewards to those who value it. People who are single—especially those who are single at heart, seem especially likely to value solitude and benefit from it. (See also, 6 psychological insights about solitude and 20 varieties of solitude.)
#18 People vary in how self-sufficient they are, but everyone needs some self-sufficiency at least some of the time. For people who have always been single, their self-sufficiency seems to protect them from bad feelings: The more self-sufficient they are, the less likely they are to experience negative emotions. For married people, the reverse is true: The more self-sufficient they are, the more likely they are to experience negative emotions.
#19 It is even possible that singles are better at being their own sources of comfort and security, though so far, the relevant data are just suggestive.
Single People Are More Generous and Helpful
#20 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.
#21 A study that included only men found that men who got married were less generous to their friends than they were when they were single. They were not any more generous with their relatives. This is especially noteworthy because single men are paid less than married men, even when they are equally accomplished.
#22 Single people are more likely than married people to have regularly looked after someone who was sick or disabled or elderly, for at least three months.
Bottom Line: Resilience
#23 My bottom line? I think single people are more resilient than everyone else. But as we social scientists are taught to say in our scholarly publications, more research is needed.
Note: If you want to read even more about what’s good about single life, check out these posts: