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Is It Better to Have Loved and Lost Than Never to Have Loved at All?

The special strengths of people who have always been single.

Even if poetry is not your thing, you probably know these words of Alfred Lord Tennyson by heart:

'Tis better to have loved and lost
Than never to have loved at all.

If you define love narrowly as romantic love, operationalized as marriage (though I surely don't), then Tennyson has been felled by science — the data show that it's just not true. In happiness, health, longevity, and just about everything else that has been studied (except maybe wealth), people who have always been single do better than people who were previously married (divorced or widowed).

As is often the case in marital status comparisons, the differences can be small. But they are quite consistently in the opposite direction than Tennyson would have led us to believe. (I provide a critical overview of the research in the science chapter of Singled Out. Karen Rook and Laura Zettel reviewed studies of physical health here.)

The question is: Why do people who have always been single do better than people who are divorced or widowed?

Scholars of marriage have a ready response. It even has its own name, with three variations: the "stress" or "crisis" or "loss" hypothesis. People who have always been single have not experienced the same depth of stress (or crisis or loss) as people who have divorced or become widowed.

The explanation has an intuitive appeal, and charts of relevant data often seem consistent. For example, if you look at graphs of people's happiness over time, as they get married and then divorced or widowed, you can see happiness plunging as the year of the divorce approaches, or during the year of the partner's death, and then you can see it slowly start to rebound as the dissolution of the marriage recedes further into the past. (The graphs are on pages 38 and 39 of Singled Out.)

Studies of marital status take a fine-grained view of people who have gotten married. They separate out of that group the people who eventually divorce or become widowed. Then they find that the divorced and widowed people sometimes do worse than the currently-married people. (In other studies, married people are divided by the quality of their marriage, or their economic or class status, or any of a wide array of other variables.)

Now consider what happens when people who have always been single are included in studies: This "never-married" group is one big undifferentiated blob. It is as if people who study marriage have an attitude of "they all look alike" when it comes to their views of single people.

My point is hardly earth-shattering but I have rarely seen it acknowledged in the scientific literature: People who have always been single also experience intense stress, acute crises, and devastating losses. If you were to ask single people about such experiences and plot the lifelines of their happiness the same way the lifelines of the once-married are typically plotted, I think you would see something similar. Single people also experience stress and sadness and grief when someone they love dies or when a profoundly important relationship falls apart (and it doesn't have to be a romantic relationship). You can't see it in the results of the published studies because the singles who have experienced great losses are not separated out the way divorced and widowed people are separated from the still-married.

There is something else important about the published literature on marital status. When people who have always been single fare better than some other group (such as the previously married), scholars rarely propose an explanation that assumes that single people may actually have some special skills and strengths.

Think of all the tasks that married people divide between them. The splits are a little less likely to be traditional than they once were (she takes care of the kids and the cooking, he pays the bills and mows the lawn), but they are often apportioned in some way. While the marriage lasts, this can be useful and efficient. When it is over, though, the newly uncoupled individuals are left with mastery of only those tasks that were once in their domain. Even memory is implicated, as when one person in the couple took charge of remembering the birthdays and the other kept track of the times for the oil changes.

People who have always been single, though, are likely to find some way of accomplishing all of the tasks of everyday life. Maybe they master some, tap a network of friends for others, and hire people to do the rest. One way or another, they get things done. I think that's a strength.

Maybe, too, the network is part of the answer. Perhaps people who have always been single maintain a more diversified relationship portfolio than the married people who invest all of their relationship capital into just one person. Maybe single people have friendships that have endured longer than many marriages. Maybe they attend to those friendships consistently, rather than stowing them on the back burner while focusing on The One. Maybe that's why they do better than people who were previously married.

I'm generating hypotheses. They could be wrong. What is important — and, I think, stunning — is that my suggestions are mostly new. Scholarly research on marriage dates back more than half a century. It has been supported by journals, conferences, degree programs, and piles and piles of funding. For all that, there have been hardly any scholars who have been able or willing to step outside the conventional ways of thinking and pursue the kinds of possibilities I'm suggesting here.

My argument is in the spirit of diversity. Just as there were many ways of thinking that never did get much notice when psychological (or medical) research focused mainly on men, or primarily on white people, or overwhelmingly on heterosexuals, so too has the absence of a singles' perspective left us intellectually poorer. Fortunately, that is starting to change.

Finally, going back to the initial question that motivated this post (is it better to have loved and lost ... ): Of course, my point is not that we should steer clear of love. As I've said before in this space, I think we should embrace big, broad meanings of love. What we should steer clear of are narrow ways of thinking that leave us all locked in small, stifling ideological boxes.

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