There Are Three Types of Relationship Histories

New research examines how relationship patterns are linked to happiness.

Posted Jul 11, 2020

StockSnap, courtesy pixabay | CC0 License
Source: StockSnap, courtesy pixabay | CC0 License

A large body of research suggests that individuals in long-term committed romantic relationships are happier than those who are not. However, critics of this work, such as fellow Psychology Today blogger and researcher Bella DePaulo, have long argued that this take is overly simplistic. Happily married people may be the happiest. But those who have been divorced or in bad marriages don't necessarily fare so well. She posits that singles have gotten a bad rap, and that in fact, lifelong singles are often quite content and have fulfilling social lives and relationships outside of the romantic context.

But past research on this topic typically just takes a snapshot of people's happiness at a given moment in time — a moment when they may be married or single. How do these relationship histories — marriages, break-ups, singlehood — relate to people's levels of happiness over their adult life? New research by Mariah Purol and colleagues is the first to examine relationship histories over people's entire lifespan and examine their connection to well-being later in life.

What are the patterns of relationship histories?

The researchers examined data from a nationally representative sample of over 7,000 U.S. adults first surveyed in 1968 and followed up with through the present. This allowed the researchers to determine the various changes in people's relationship histories over several decades. First, the researchers wanted to determine if there were certain common types of relationship histories. At any point in the survey, respondents could be single (never married), married, divorced, separated, or widowed. The data revealed three distinct types of people:

  1. Consistently-married: These people were married to the same person for most of their adult lives, and made up the biggest group, 79% of the sample.
  2. Consistently-single: These people were single for most of their adult lives. This was the smallest group, representing 8% of the sample.
  3. Varied-histories: These people moved in and out of different relationship status (e.g., divorced then single, multiple marriages and divorces). This group represented 13% of the sample.

The main factor behind this classification was actually how long people had been in each marital state. For example, the consistently-married group included people who were divorced or widowed after a long marriage. Similarly, the consistently-single group included people who had shorter periods where they were married and then became divorced or widowed, but they were single for most of their adult life.

How is relationship history connected to happiness?

Close to half of the respondents in the survey also completed a measure of well-being. They answered one simple question that asked them to rate how satisfied they felt with their life, as a whole. The researchers then compared the current happiness of these three groups.

The happiest group was the consistently-married group, who, on average, were slightly happier than the consistently-single or varied histories groups. The results also showed that the consistently-single and varied-histories groups were equally satisfied with their lives. Because level of education and gender are associated with marriage and re-marriage rates as well as life satisfaction, the researchers also checked that these differences were not explained by the respondents' educational attainment or gender. It should be noted that these differences in happiness between the consistently-married and the other two groups were fairly small. This makes sense, given the many, many factors that affect well-being, including the quality of the romantic relationships themselves.

The researchers speculate about different reasons why the varied-histories and consistently-single groups were equally happy later in life. Singlehood can make people more socially isolated, but so can divorce. And divorce is a major stressor that can have a lasting impact on your well-being. It is also possible that people who experience more interpersonal difficulties, in general, are less happy and also less likely to find themselves consistently coupled.

This study leaves several questions unanswered.

The data the researchers had available only measured official marital status, so coupled individuals who were not married were lumped together with uncoupled singles. This may minimize differences between these groups, since a "single" person in a long-term committed relationship may be in a more similar situation to a married person than to a single, uncoupled, person.

People are single for different reasons. Some people are conflict-avoidant and find romantic relationships messy and stressful and are just as happy being single, whereas other singles don't mind the messiness as much and really long for a relationship. Research shows that singles with satisfying social lives and close friendships that are important to them value romantic relationships less, while singles whose social lives are lacking are more likely to have a strong desire to couple up. If these individual differences were taken into account, we would likely find subgroups of singles that differed considerably in their overall happiness. We also might find that singles with a strong desire for relationships might end up in less satisfying marriages, and be more likely to get divorced.

The quality of one's romantic relationship is also a major factor in well-being. Not only is marital satisfaction linked to life satisfaction, but the importance of martial satisfaction in determining life satisfaction has been increasing over time. 

We still don't know if long-lasting marriages cause people to be happy or not. Because the researchers only looked at life satisfaction at one point in time, they couldn't see how people's satisfaction changed as their relationship status changed. We also don't know if there were other important differences between these relationship trajectory groups — such as differences in personality or psychological adjustment — that explain their differing levels of life satisfaction. But we do know that, on average, people with long-lasting marriages are more likely to experience long-term happiness.