In 1972, sociologist Jessie Bernard made a big splash by declaring that there are “his and hers” marriages—and that his is typically better. Now, about 45 years later, it is still a part of our conventional wisdom that women fare better single while men are better off married.
But there is also a competing narrative, which seems to be even more widely embraced: The one that claims that getting married is better for everyone because it makes people happier, healthier, and more connected, and even keeps them alive longer. I have spent much of the past two decades showing the ways in which those claims are grossly exaggerated or just plain wrong (here and here and here). But there are powerful pro-marriage organizations (pro-conventional marriage, that is) invested in perpetuating the myth of the transformative effects of wedlock for both women and men, and they have been highly successful.
Since Bernard published her book, there have been thousands, if not tens of thousands, of studies on marriage. To know definitively what the research really says about sex differences, we would need to see a meta-analysis—a review that statistically combines the results of every relevant study that has ever been conducted. There is no such up-to-date review, and even if there was, it would have problems, because many of the studies are deeply flawed.
What I offer here is just a sample of what some of the research shows. Remember that the results of studies are always averages and do not capture the experiences of everyone. My conclusions should be considered suggestive rather than definitive.
Women and Marriage: They Are Just Not That Into It
Some important studies and reviews of studies find no reliable sex differences, and when there are, it is women who seem most disillusioned by marriage.
An example of research that found no sex differences is the longest-running study of longevity, which has been going on since 1912 (discussed here). Results show that the people who lived the longest were those who stayed single and those who stayed married. Those who divorced, including those who divorced and remarried, had shorter lives. What mattered was consistency, not marital status, and there were no sex differences.
Another kind of research in which men and women fare about the same are studies that follow the same people over time as they go from being single to getting married. A review of 18 such studies found that people generally become no happier after they get married. At best, they become a bit more satisfied with their lives around the time of the wedding; then they go back to feeling about as satisfied (or dissatisfied) as they were when they were single. That pattern is also the same for men and women.
That review of 18 studies also found that both married men and married women become more and more dissatisfied with their relationship over time. A study of covenant marriages found that women become dissatisfied with their marriages sooner than men do.
One of the most reliable sex differences in reactions to marriage is in who files for divorce. This difference has been documented at least as far back as 1867, and it is still true now, in Europe, Australia, and the U.S. Who is more likely to walk away from a marriage? Women. They initiated about 62 percent of divorces in the U.S. in 1867, and that number is now closer to 70 percent.
Some marriages end with the death of a spouse, and that can be deeply distressing for both men and women. There are indications, though, that women adapt faster to bereavement than men do.
Once a marriage ends, for whatever reason, women are much less likely than men to try it again. Rates of remarriage are almost twice as high for men as for women. Some of that can be explained by more advantageous sex ratios for men who want to remarry than women, but that is unlikely to be the entire explanation for such a big difference.
Living Single and Living Alone: Women Do It Better
With single life, as with marriage, there are important studies showing no reliable sex differences at all. When there are differences, it is the women who seem to do better when single or when living alone.
One of the myths about getting married that has been most definitively dismantled is the one claiming that married people are more connected to other people and that they are the ones who hold communities together. In fact, a whole series of studies has shown that single people do this more than married people. Single people do more to maintain ties with siblings, parents, neighbors, and friends than married people. When people get married, they typically become more insular.
The bottom line about sex differences, though, is that there aren’t any. As Naomi Gerstel notes, “Marriage is equally likely to constrict women’s and men’s social relationships.”
The sharp increase in the number of people living alone is one of the most important demographic changes of our time. Scholars who have written books on this phenomenon have found that, contrary to scare stories in the media, most people who live alone are doing just fine. The exceptions tend to be older men, especially if they are unemployed or in poor health.
Among lifelong single people, women often do particularly well in later life. A noteworthy study examined the social networks of seniors (65 and older) of different marital and parental statuses in six nations—Australia, Finland, the Netherlands, Spain, the United Kingdom, and the U.S. Generally, people who had no children had the most restricted social networks. But there was a big exception: In five of the six nations, women who had no children and had been single all their lives had more expansive social networks in which friends were an important part of their everyday support system. These lifelong single women were not growing old alone.
A recent study of seniors in the U.S. found that in several important ways, women do better than men when living alone, whereas men do relatively better when they live with other people—typically, a wife. One example is the time that they have for their own hobbies and interests: Women have more time to pursue their own interests when they live alone, whereas men have more time to do what they like when they live with someone else. Another example is the question of how satisfied seniors are with the number of friends that they have. Women are always more satisfied with the number of friends they have, whether they live alone or with someone else. But the difference is bigger when they are living alone—71 percent of the women, but only 48 percent of the men, are satisfied with the number of friends they have.
There are also some indications that women savor their solitude more than men do. When asked whether they enjoy their time alone, women are more likely than men to say that they do.
Just a Guess: Over Time, Men Are Going to Get Better and Better at Living Single
We don’t know for sure why women sometimes do better when they live alone. One possibility is that by living alone instead of with a husband and children, women are liberated from traditional roles and expectations. They are no longer the short-order cook, the cleaner, and the laundress for a family. They are freed of the emotional work of shoring up egos and soothing bruised feelings. They don’t have to account to someone else for the money they spend. They also learn how to do the kinds of things that husbands traditionally did—or they find someone else to hire or help.
What is less often noticed is what men get out of living alone, especially now that they are staying single for longer than they ever have before. In their book, Living Alone: Globalization, Identity and Belonging, Lynn Jamieson and Roona Simpson point out that as more and more men (and women) live alone in their early adult years, they are learning all sorts of skills that used to be the bailiwick of the other gender. In married life, for example, women were traditionally the “kin-keepers” and the social schedulers. They kept in touch with family, kept up with friends (if the friends had not been ditched), arranged social gatherings, and covered all the other social and emotional tasks of the couple.
In their interviews with people living alone and in their review of the relevant writings, the authors found that most young men living alone are doing just fine. They have networks of friends and relatives and keep in touch with the people who are important to them. They don’t need a wife to have a social life or meaningful human connections.
That is important in and of itself. But it is also significant for what it suggests about the future. Maybe today’s young men, when they get older, will do a lot better if they live alone; they will already know how to have a good life while going solo.
DePaulo, B. (2006). Singled out: How singles are stereotyped, stigmatized, and ignored, and still live happily ever after. New York: St. Martin’s Press.
DePaulo, B. (2015). Marriage vs. single life: How science and the media got it so wrong.
Klinenberg, Eric. (2012). Going Solo. New York: Penguin Press.
Sarkisian, N., & Gerstel, N. (2016). Does singlehood isolate or integrate? Examining the link between marital status and ties to kin, friends, and neighbors. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 33, 361-384.