Marriage

8 Ways Singles Are More Connected, Caring, and Generous

Why it matters that marriage is such a greedy institution

Posted Oct 11, 2014

Yesterday, when I took a break from my work to walk along the glorious edge of the Pacific Ocean, I almost got into a fight. Two women walking behind me on the beach were discussing single people. One of them said, "Well, they don't have anyone to care about but themselves." I thought about punching her out. Instead, I decided to write this post. I hope it gets circulated so widely that it ends up in her inbox.

Here are 8 ways in which single people are more connected, caring, and generous than married people are, and 2 more ways in which they are defying stereotypes and doing just as well:

  1. When other people need the kind of caretaking that can go on for months or even more, single people are there. A representative national sample of 9,000 British adults found that more single people than married ones had regularly looked after someone, for at least 3 months, who was sick, disabled, or elderly.
  2. Single people are more engaged in the life of the towns and cities where they live than married people are. For example, they participate in more civic groups and public events, they take more art and music classes, and they are more involved in informal social activities.
  3. Single people are more likely than married ones to do what it takes to keep siblings together.
  4. Single people are more likely to support, visit, advise and contact their parents and siblings than married people are.
  5. Single people are more likely to socialize with, encourage, and help their friends and neighbors than married people are.
  6. Getting married changes people in ways that make them more insular. In a study that followed people for six years, those who got married had less contact with their parents and spent less time with their friends than they had when they were single. (This cannot be explained as a kid thing. The greater insularity was true of couples with kids as well as those without; it was also true of men and women, and of Whites, African-Americans, and Hispanics.)
  7. Single men are more generous than married men. (This is from research in which only men were included.) When men marry, they become no more generous to their relatives, and they become less generous to their friends.
  8. Single men contribute more to the workplace in ways that benefit more than just themselves. In the same research that included just men, those who got married participated less often in groups such as farm organizations, unions, or professional societies than they had when they were single.

Here are a few ways in which single people defy our stereotypes; we think they would do worse than married people in these ways, but they don't:

Sociologist Naomi Gerstel, who has made some of the most significant myth-busting contributions to the study of single and married people's social ties, published an important article, "Rethinking families and community: The color, class, and centrality of extended family ties." In it, she explained what she means when she says that marriage is a greedy institution (short version: "…marriage reduces kinship, community, and even the vibrancy of public life"). She also made the case for why it matters that marriage is so greedy:

"Marriage clearly has troublesome implications for the community that are often overlooked. As the population ages, the greediness of marriage deprives more elderly parents – who, ironically, have often pressed their children to marry – of the help and support that they want and need. Marriage can also generate excessive burdens on those who are single, as they are expected to provide the care that their married siblings do not. Although marriage is greedy across race and class, because those with fewer economic resources are more likely to rely on extended kin, this is for them a particularly costly outcome. Thus, not only is the focus on marriage a narrow vision, but it may actually detract from the very resources – rooted outside the nuclear family and marriage – on which Americans depend."

[Notes: (1) As I write more on this topic, I will add links to the collection, "The Myth of the Isolated and Self-Centered Single Person." (2) For collections of writings debunking other myths about single people and the supposedly transformative power of getting married, click here. (3) From elsewhere, you may also be interested in, "Escape from loneliness: Is marriage the answer?" and "Caring about children and their future: Is it a parent thing?" (4) This isn't new but perhaps worth revisiting in the context of this blog post, "Is this the myth about singles that single people are most likely to believe?"]