The Social Lives of Single People
Do you think single people are alone? That’s exactly wrong.
Posted May 17, 2019
“She’s alone.” “He doesn’t have anyone.” That’s what people say when they are talking about single people. But is that really true?
We now know more than we ever have before about the important people in the lives of single people. Based on studies of hundreds of thousands of people from dozens of countries—including nationally representative samples and studies that follow the same people over time as they leave their single life and get married—we can now proclaim that the conventional wisdom about single people is exactly wrong. Compared to married people, single people have more friends and bigger social networks. They do more to maintain their relationships with their friends, relatives, neighbors, and coworkers. They also get more happiness and emotional fulfillment from the time they spend with their friends and relatives.
The evidence for all of those claims is spelled out in this article. This is probably the most comprehensive overview of what we know about the social lives of single people. In one way or another, I’ve been working on this for years. To make this article as helpful as possible, I have included links to other writings in which I’ve discussed each of the studies in more detail. At the end, I’ve added a full list of references to the studies, so you can read the original research reports if you are interested.
I. Single People Have More Friends and Bigger Social Networks
Single people have more friends than married people do, but friends are just one of the kinds of people in our social networks. Relatives, neighbors, co-workers, mentors, and others may also be part of our social circles. Using that broader definition, single people also have bigger social networks.
Single People Have More Friends
Friends in the U.S.
A survey of adults in the U.S. found that single people have more friends than married people. To be sure the participants were not just thinking of superficial friends, the authors described friends as people you could call or text if you were in trouble late at night, people you expect to do something with you to celebrate your birthday, and people you could talk to about your sex life.
The authors found that single people had more friends even when they looked separately at different groups: women with and without children and men with and without children. Having more friends isn’t just something that happens among young adults; in every age group, single people had more friends.
The authors also classified people into one of five categories, in this order:
- Single, not dating
- Casual dating
- In a relationship but not cohabiting
The closer people were to the married end of the scale, the fewer friends they had.
The online survey was a big one (more than 25,000 participants), but the participants were not a nationally representative sample.
Friends in the Netherlands
In a Dutch study, nearly 3,000 adults under the age of 65 named up to five of their best friends, not counting their spouse or children. The participants included:
- Single people who were not dating
- Single people who were dating (the same person for at least 3 months)
- Married or cohabiting people with no children
- Married or cohabiting people with children younger than 6
- Married or cohabiting people with older children
- Empty nesters: married or cohabiting people whose children have left home
The people closest to the single end of the scale had the most friends, and those closest to the married/cohabiting/empty nester end of the scale had the fewest friends. (The study would have been more impressive if the same people were followed as they moved into these different roles, or didn’t; instead, the people in the different categories were all different people.)
Single People Have Bigger Social Networks
Adults in the U.S., 62 and older
Asked to name up to five people in whom they could confide, singles named more people than married or cohabiting people did. Data were from a national sample of more than 2,300 U.S. adults who were 62 or older.
A study of more than 10,000 Australian women in their 70s found that the lifelong single women with no children had social networks that were larger than those of any of the other women (married with and without children, and previously married with and without children). In this study, members of social networks were defined as people the women talk to, as well as people they spend time with but don’t live with, and people nearby, other than family, that they can depend on or feel close to.
In a British study, 540 people completed an online survey in which they listed all the people they could approach for help if they were experiencing a severe emotional or financial crisis. On average, single people named six, and people in a romantic relationship named five. If their romantic partner was excluded, the coupled people only named four.
II. Single People Do More to Maintain Their Relationships With Friends, Relatives, Neighbors, and Co-workers
Two nationally representative samples in the U.S.
The sociologists Naomi Gerstel and Natalia Sarkisian have conducted an entire program of research on what they call “greedy marriage,” which is the way in which married couples invest most of their time and attention in each other and marginalize other people, such as friends, neighbors, siblings, and parents. Using data from two nationally representative surveys of adults in the U.S., they compared the efforts made by single people, previously married people, and married people to maintain their ties with the people in their lives. In every comparison (a total of 40), the single people did more than anyone else. Married people usually did the least, with the previously married in between.
For example, the single people were most likely to socialize with their neighbors and their friends at least several times a month. They were most likely to see their parents at least once a week. They ranked first in giving friends, neighbors, coworkers, siblings, and parents “advice, encouragement, and moral or emotional support; help with shopping, errands, or transportation; help with housework, yard work, car repairs, or other work around the house; or help with childcare” and receiving comparable help from them.
The results were the same for the men as for the women, for the rich and the poor, and for Blacks, Whites, and Hispanics: The lifelong single people did the most to nurture their social ties. Sarkisian and Gerstel tried to determine if factors other than marital status could explain the results, but none of them did. For example, the single people’s greater efforts to maintain their various relationships could not be explained by being at a different point in their life course, working fewer hours, or not having kids (even couples who do not have kids do less to maintain their social ties than single people do).
Friends and parents in the U.S.
The case for the greediness of marriage can be made even more convincingly by studies in which the same people are followed for years, starting when they are single and continuing through to married life (for those who marry).
In one such study of more than 2,700 adults in the U.S., people who got married or who began cohabiting were followed for six years. When they first entered a union, the participants had less contact with their parents and spent less time with their friends than they had when they were single. Between four and six years later, they still had the same reduced ties with parents and friends—the insularity that occurred when couples got married was not just something that happened when the marriage was just beginning and the newlyweds were enthralled with each other.
Siblings in the U.S.
The same thing happens with siblings. Sociologist Lynn White looked at siblings’ contact with each other at two different points in time separated by about 14 years. She found that those who got married had less contact with their siblings than they did when they were single, and those who got divorced had more contact than they did when they were married. The data were from a nationally representative U.S. survey of about 9,000 adults.
Friends in the Netherlands
In the Dutch study of people in 6 different categories, ranging from single and not dating to empty nesters, the people closest to the single end of the scale had the most contact with their friends. The men who were single and not dating saw or spoke to their closest friends an average of 14 times a month, whereas the men who were empty nesters did so only 5 times a month. For women, the results were similar: 13 times a month for the singles and 6 for the empty nesters.
Adults from 32 European nations
Data from more than 250,000 adults, 30 and older, from 32 European nations revealed that people who were not married—particularly those who had never been married—socialized more often with friends, relatives, and colleagues. In response to another question, though—“Compared to other people of your age, how often would you say you take part in social activities?”—the groups were mostly the same, except that the widowed people reported fewer social activities than the married people.
The study of Australian women found that the lifelong single women with no children were more active members of formal social groups than any of the other women (married with and without children, and previously married with and without children).
III. Single People Get More Psychological and Emotional Fulfillment From Their Friends and Relatives
Friends in the U.S.
In the survey of friendships in the U.S., the authors wondered who was most satisfied with their friendships. When they classified people into the five categories—single, not dating; casual dating; in a relationship but not cohabiting; cohabiting; and married—they found that the closer people were to the married end of the scale, the less satisfied they were with their friendships.
Adults in the U.S., 62 and older
Adults in the U.S. who named the people in whom they could confide also indicated how close they felt to each of those people. The single people felt closer to their confidants than the married or cohabiting people did.
The single people also got more support from their relatives and neighbors (and nonsignificantly more from their friends)—they could more often rely on them for help and open up to them about their worries.
Both the single people and the partnered people who got more support from their friends experienced greater well-being—they were happier, less depressed, less lonely, and had better mental health. The link was stronger for single people. They seemed to get more emotional benefits out of having supportive friends.
For single people, having more people in their social networks (people they could confide in) was linked to greater well-being. Married and cohabiting people, in contrast, did not get any emotional benefits from having bigger social networks; in fact, the reverse tended to be true (though the finding was not statistically significant).
Adults from 32 European nations
The survey of more than 250,000 European adults found that people are happier when they socialize more often with friends, relatives, and colleagues, and when they take part in more social activities. These links, though, are stronger for people who are not married than for people who are married. Single people seem to get more happiness out of their social activities.
IV. More Isn’t Always Better and Other Caveats
When you read about the results of studies from the social sciences, you are reading about averages. The typical findings, though, do not apply to everyone. There are always exceptions. There are some people who are happier having fewer friends or spending less time with the people in their lives who matter to them. People who are “single at heart,” for example, may be especially likely to cherish having time to themselves. Other people, too, like being alone, as I explained in “The badass personalities of people who like being alone” and “Why 5 types of people may withdraw from social life.”
The research I’ve reviewed is impressive in a lot of ways. It is based on hundreds of thousands of people from dozens of countries. The people include men and women of different ages, different races and ethnicities, and different levels of education and financial security. People with and without children took part in these studies. Sometimes the people who participated were representative of the people in their country. Other studies were especially noteworthy, because they followed the same people for years, showing that they became more insular after they married than they were when they were single. However, just about all of the research was conducted in Western nations. We need to learn much more about single people in the rest of the world.
I will also add one more caveat—my usual one: Some of these studies were just correlational and need to be interpreted cautiously. For example, although single people have more friends, we don’t know that they have more friends because they are single. Maybe the causality works in the opposite direction: People who have more friends are more likely to stay single. Or some other factor could be important. For instance, maybe people who do not want to invest all their relationship capital into just one person are more likely to be single and more likely to have more friends.
The conventional wisdom insists that single people are “alone,” and that “they don’t have anyone.” Single people’s non-romantic relationships are dismissed as superficial and as not offering any real psychological or emotional fulfillment. Now we know, from studies of hundreds of thousands of people from dozens of countries, that the conventional wisdom is not just wrong—it has things exactly backward.
It is the single people who have more friends and bigger social networks. It is the single people who are doing more than married people to nurture their ties with friends, relatives, neighbors, and coworkers. It is the single who are getting more happiness and more emotional and psychological fulfillment from the time they spend with their friends and relatives.
Single people have more people in their lives who matter to them, who protect them from loneliness and sadness, and who make their lives joyful and fulfilling. So next time you hear someone refer to a single people as “alone” or claim that their single friends “don’t have anyone,” you will know just how wrong they are.
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