Do Lifelong Singles Fare Better Later in Life?

Previously married seniors have a harder time than lifelong single people.

Posted Apr 07, 2019

Darren Baker/Shutterstock
Source: Darren Baker/Shutterstock

If I wanted to know how people who are not married are doing when they reach the age of 65 and beyond, I would ask them about the joys and successes of their lives, as well as their challenges and difficulties. But social scientists haven’t often viewed single seniors as people who are psychologically strong and resilient, so instead they study only the “strains” in their lives.

Nonetheless, I’m grateful for a study that does not toss all unmarried people into the same bin, but instead asks about the experiences of the different kinds of unmarried people. Among seniors, who experiences single life as especially difficult? Is it the lifelong single people, who never got a taste of marriage? Or is it the widowed people or maybe the divorced? Do Blacks or Whites experience more “single strain”? Does it depend on whether we are talking about women or men?

What counts as “single strain”?

The researchers conducted face-to-face interviews with 530 unmarried people who were 65 and older, and who lived in Washington, D.C. or two adjoining Maryland counties. The participants were asked many questions about their lives. For the key questions about “single strain,” they indicated the degree to which they agreed or disagreed with these five items:

1. It’s more difficult for you to have an active social life.

2. You don’t have the intimacy with another person that you would like.

3. The future looks more difficult.

4. There’s no one to take care of you if you ever need help.

5. There’s no one to share day-to-day experiences.

Who experienced the lowest levels of strain?

Here’s what the researchers found:

  • Of the three groups—lifelong singles, divorced, and widowed—the lifelong single people did the best. They reported the lowest levels of strain. The widowed people reported the most strain.
  • Black women always did better than White women. Whether they were divorced, widowed, or had never been married, the Black women reported lower levels of strain.
  • Among the men, the Black men who were widowed did better than the white widowers. For the divorced and lifelong singles, the Black and White men reported about the same levels of strain.

Are you thinking that these different groups could differ in all sorts of ways that could account for their different experiences of strain, and maybe gender or race or marital status had nothing to do with it? If so, kudos! You have the mind of a social scientist with a Ph.D.

Statistically, it is possible to do the kinds of analyses that take such factors into account. Essentially, you can compare, for example, divorced and widowed and lifelong single people who are similar in their age, health, income, education, and number of children. That way, any differences in strain among the three groups are likely to have something to do with their status as divorced or widowed or never married. When you just compare people at one point in time, though, you can never know for sure. Keeping that qualification in mind, those three key findings still held true when the researchers did the best they could at taking other factors into account.

There were, by the way, meaningful differences among the groups in those other factors. For example, compared to seniors who were divorced or widowed, the lifelong single people had the best health, the most education, and the highest level of income. (They also scored lowest on social support, which seems odd since some of the “single strain” items measure a lack of social support, and the lifelong singles reported the least strain.) Lifelong single people also had the fewest number of children and were most likely to be living alone.

Why did the lifelong single people, and especially the Black women, do so well?

The professors offered two explanations for why the lifelong single seniors experienced less strain than the divorced or widowed. I liked one of them, and the other made me roll my eyes. The latter was that lifelong single people experience their unmarried lives as less stressful than the previously married, because they “have never experienced marital dissolution and the stressors associated with it.” Do you see what’s wrong with that? It seems to assume that if you don’t have a spouse, you don’t experience loss, or maybe that the losses you do experience just aren’t that important.

Next!

The second and more likely explanation is that staying single is “associated with the accumulation of resources that facilitate single lifestyle, such as autonomy, self-reliance, and instrumentalism in mastering a broad range of skills.” Lifelong single people in later life aren’t whining about how hard it is to be single, because they mastered the necessary skills a long time ago. They have their freedom—their autonomy and self-reliance—and they like it.

Look again at those five items measuring single strain. The people most likely to say they don’t have anyone to socialize with, or share their experiences with, or feel close to, or to take care of them are those who were once married and relied on a spouse for all that. The lifelong single people never leaned on a spouse. They have been looking to other people, such as friends and relatives, their whole life.

The authors suggest that the Black seniors—and especially the Black women—did better than the Whites for a variety of reasons, including their valuing of people beyond just nuclear family members. They maintain ties with a broader network of people.

Also, there are proportionately more unmarried Black people than unmarried White people. When it is more commonplace to be single, you probably get less grief for it.

Remember that the Black women did better than the White women not just among the lifelong single people, but also the previously married. The Black men who were widowed also did better than the White widowed men. To explain that advantage, the authors point to other research showing that “Black married couples are more likely than their White counterparts to both endorse and maintain an equitable division of labor within the home.” As a consequence, “Black individuals are better prepared to manage a broad range of responsibilities following loss.”

The key points to remember

Whatever the explanations, the key results are remarkable. People who live their entire lives without ever marrying are routinely stereotyped and stigmatized. So are Black women, whether divorced or widowed or never married. Yet there they are, doing especially well at living single in later life.

References

Pudrovska, T., Schieman, S., & Carr, D. (2006). Strains of singlehood in later life: Do race and gender matter? Journal of Gerontology: Social Sciences, 61B, S315-S322.