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Single, No Kids, Part 2: Family-Relevant Strengths

Lack of friends can be riskier than lack of family

[This is Part 2 of a 4-part series on the implications of being single with no kids. Part 1, including the introduction to the series, is here. As you will see, this part is about the personal communities and interpersonal ties of people who are single with no kids. On a somewhat related topic, I recently went to a great talk about what makes volunteers special and effective, and I wrote about it here.]

The research I have already reviewed shows that in many ways, people who are single—especially those who have always been single—are more connected to parents, siblings, friends, and neighbors than married people are. They do more of the everyday supportiveness and more of the intensive intergenerational care. Sociologists have a name for institutions such as marriage that demand “undivided commitment” (Coser & Coser, 1974)—they are called “greedy” institutions.

Based their program of research on communication and connection across communities, generations, and different kinds of interpersonal ties, Gerstel and Sarkisian found that the characterization of contemporary American marriage as greedy is almost entirely unqualified. Marriage is equally greedy for men and women. It is greedy among those who are parents and those who are not. Currently married people engage in fewer intergenerational supportive exchanges than always-single people do, even when time demands, needs, and resources are controlled in the analyses. The greediness of marriage lingers even after marriages end—divorced people are less involved in giving and receiving many different kinds of help than are people who have always been single (Gerstel & Sarkisian, 2006, 2007; Sarkisian & Gerstel, 2008).

Do people benefit emotionally if they are more interconnected with other people—that is, if they are not in a greedy institution such as marriage? Some indirect answers come from studies in which people map their personal communities onto a set of concentric circles, with the people most important to them in or near the inner circle. Different researchers categorize the resulting communities differently, but all of the taxonomies include relatively restricted networks (with few, if any, people in the inner circle) and more diverse networks. The research I will describe next indicates that those people with restricted networks, regardless of marital or parental status, typically fare more poorly than those with more robust networks. There are different kinds of non-restricted networks. The ones in which friends are sparsely represented are emotionally riskier than the ones in which family members are few and far between.

In a study of more than 1600 Americans 60 and older, Fiori, Antonucci, & Cortina (2006) found evidence for five social network types. Two were characterized by the people who were most important to the participants—the friend-based and the family-based networks. Two others were defined by the people who were mostly missing from the networks—nonfamily (restricted) networks and nonfriends networks. The fifth network type was the diverse one.

The authors compared the commonality of each of the social network types for the currently married relative to all of the unmarried. They found that the unmarried group, as well as the adults with no children (regardless of marital status), were especially likely to have restricted networks. People with restricted networks were more likely to be depressed than those with diverse networks or friend-based networks—though they were no more likely to be depressed than those with nonfriend networks. Because those who were always-single were not considered separately from those who were divorced or widowed, and because there were also no separate analyses of the group of always-single people with no children, it is impossible to know for sure whether that group in particular was especially likely to have restricted networks, and the relatively higher rates of depression that are linked to such networks.

Fiori et al. (2006) have something else to say about the people in restricted networks—an important point that is all too often missing from discussions of the link between network type and well-being: Some people prefer restricted networks. As is generally true in the literature, the authors did not measure individual preferences for network types. That will be a useful direction for future research.

One other comparison from the Fiori et al. (2006) research was particularly pertinent to the lives of singles with no children. The authors found that friends seemed particularly important for keeping depression at bay. Depression was most common among the adults with nonfriends networks and least common among those with diverse networks. The absence of friends in the context of family posed a greater risk to mental health than the absence of family in the context of friends. In the multi-national study (Wegner et al., 2007), single women with no children were especially likely to have networks in which friends were important.

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