Marriage, Living Together, or Staying Single
Which way is the best way to go?
Posted November 25, 2015
In our last blog post, we talked about how marriage has become more difficult today. But social scientists still argue that marriage allows for a better quality of life than living together or living alone.
Researchers have found that married couples have better mental and physical health. For one, married couples are less likely to suffer chronic diseases and long term illnesses, and they have a better chance of surviving a catastrophic event, such as a heart attack. They also experience fewer depressive symptoms. Even people who have had bouts of depression in the past have fewer episodes after marrying. When done well, the emotional security and stability that marriage provides helps us feel better about ourselves and make us more effective in dealing with stressful situations.
These health benefits seem to stem from the unique characteristics of the husband-wife relationship. Married couples tend to monitor each other’s behavior, making sure each gets to the doctor for regular check-ups, stays on their medications, and adopts habits that contribute to good health, such as healthy diets and exercise.
Marriage is especially beneficial for men. Wives are very good at making sure their husbands follow healthy regimens. Wives also keep their husbands socially connected. Men tend to have fewer and less emotionally close relationships with other people. Consequently, they can become socially isolated without wives maintaining their outside relationships. While wives can’t rely as much on their husbands, they’re still better off than women who are not married.
As a major shortcoming, live-together relationships lack durability. About half split up in less than five years. One reason is the lack commitment. Without commitment, couples that live together feel more at risk. They can’t be as dependent on each other emotionally and socially as they would like, and they can’t afford to have their personal identities tied up in each other as do married couples. Because their relationships are tentative, it’s harder for partners to establish trust and intimacy, and that inhibits their ability to communicate openly. The net result is to make it more difficult for them to resolve conflicts.
Living together also limits the kinds of benefits partners can receive. Relationships can provide internal rewards, such as love and emotional support, and extrinsic rewards, such as shared expenses and sex. Initially, relationships provide mostly extrinsic rewards, but as they mature, they provide more intrinsic rewards, and these make the relationship stronger. But without commitment, intrinsic rewards are harder to come by, and that makes it difficult to overcome certain problems. If a husband loses his job, he and his wife will work together to find a solution. But cohabiting couples can have a harder time with such a problem because their relationship is driven by extrinsic benefits, financial assistance in this case, and it’s no longer provided.
Of course, not all live-together relationships fail. Living together works for couples who are engaged, because they already have a long-term commitment in place. So do older couples. Their priorities are to find a companion and a sex partner rather than true love, so partners are less demanding and the relationship is more relaxed. There are also fewer alternative partners, so each feels more secure in their relationship.
Staying single and living alone is the least desirable option. While it’s easier to pursue your own interests and you have fewer responsibilities, you lose all the benefits we talked about that come from having a steady companion and intimate partner. It’s also harder to stay socially connected because most people don’t share that lifestyle. The social network for single people can be extremely fluid, and can require a great deal of effort to stay active and connected. When we’re young, we have the energy and the inclination to meet new people and find new things to do with our time, but we might not be quite as motivated when we get older.
Of course, we should point out that some marriages are downright harmful. A truly bad one has chronic stress as its defining feature, and stress is dangerous. Under such conditions you’re likely to experience more chronic health problems. Even common colds can occur more frequently and last longer among those in unhappy marriages. Marriages in such a state may be beyond saving.
But that’s not the general rule, and chronic stress isn’t found in most marriages. So if your marriage is not what you think it should be, it still may not be as bad as you think. Those who believe they would be happier with a different person or lifestyle will likely face a few unpleasant surprises. Single and cohabiting lifestyles have greater weaknesses, and if you marry again, there’s a very good chance it won’t be any better than your first one. Furthermore, the fact is most couples who stay married eventually find their partner is worth hanging around for, even if at one time they thought their marriage was a disaster. All things considered, you’re probably better off trying to make some improvements to your current marriage instead of just walking away.