The Fragile Spouse and the Resilient Single Person

Is your partner your everything? Is that romantic? Maybe it's risky.

Posted Nov 17, 2008

Who are the people who are important to you now? That was the key question that motivated a significant study of the personal communities of people in contemporary Britain.

Think about the question as it applies to your life. The people can be from any categories – family, friends, spouse/partner, coworkers, neighbors, and so forth. You get to define what "important" means.

Using a series of concentric circles (like the ones in the illustration), put yourself in the innermost circle, then put the people who are the very most important to you in that same inner circle. Add more people to the other circles in order of their importance to you. Use as many or as few of the circles as you consider relevant.

That's what Liz Spencer and Ray Pahl did in their study. They interviewed, in depth, 60 people in their own homes. The participants ranged in age from 18 to 75, and they were diverse in race, sexual orientation, employment status, marital status, parental status, health, mobility, and living arrangements.

The concentric circles correspond to "personal communities." Most of them fit into one of  7 types. Here's a description of one of the types that may sound familiar, a partner (spouse)-based personal community:

"The partner is the focal point of the person's social world, acting as confidant, provider of emotional and practical support, and constant companion."

Not everyone in the study who had a spouse (partner) had a partner-based personal community. For those who did, their partner was in that innermost circle, and no one else shared that space (except, sometimes, for other  members of the immediate family). People with partner-based communities often had other family members and friends sprinkled throughout the circles. However, they were not close to their family members and their friendships were narrow (limited, for example, to socializing and not confiding).

I found this partner-based personal community particularly intriguing because it seems to correspond to the type of coupled-relationship that is celebrated, even swooned over, in our society. Consider, for instance, the many songs with lyrics that all sound so similar:

  • "You're my everything;"
  • "I just want to be your everything;"
  • "How can I live without you? You're my world, my heart, my soul."

To many loving listeners, these lyrics are truly romantic. These describe the soulmate they yearn for, or would like to think they already have.

Popular culture is rarely so enthralled by the other 6 types of personal communities. Family-based personal communities, in which family is deeply and broadly valued beyond just the nuclear family, do get respect, but not too many chart-topping tunes. Friend-based communities are good dramatic television and movie material, until the writers marry off all of the main characters. (Spencer and Pahl describe two different family-based personal communities, and two friend-based communities, varying in the extent to which the family members or friends monopolize the inner circles.)

The other personal community types are neighbor-based, in which neighbors have valued places in the inner circles, and the less familiar professional-based communities, in which people put their professional helpers (such as therapists or social workers) in their inner circle and friends or family are missing or peripheral.

Does it matter what kinds of personal communities people have? Spencer and Pahl looked at one other important aspect of people's lives: their mental health. During the interview, participants completed a standardized questionnaire assessing a range of indicators such as difficulty concentrating or sleeping, feeling worthless or depressed, and losing interest in everyday activities.

People in two of the 7 types of personal communities were especially likely to have poor mental health. One of the types was the professional-based personal community. Not too surprising.

The other was the partner-based personal community.

People with partner-based personal communities are vulnerable, the authors believe, because "they lack diverse sources of support." If you look to your spouse to be your everything, you have no back-up.

The authors were quick to point out that people with the other types of personal communities sometimes had poor mental health, too, and not everyone in a partner-based personal community had problems. But as a general rule, the person with a partner-based personal community was a fragile and vulnerable spouse.

Here I want to add my two favorite caveats. First, we can't draw causal conclusions from this type of study; it is not experimental (ethically, it can't be) and it is not longitudinal. Second, there are always individual differences. The type of  personal community that is best for many persons is not best for every person.

When I wrote Singled Out, the Spencer and Pahl book had not yet been published and I didn't know about partner-based personal communities. I made up my own clunky phrase for partners who were expected to fulfill all of their spouse's hopes and wishes and dreams (and also pick up the laundry): "Sex and Everything Else Partners." In the first draft of the book manuscript, I called them "seepies" for short, but some readers really hated that word so I dropped it.

The point I was trying to make was that Seepie relationships could be great during untroubled times for some people, but they were risky. The personal communities study provides some data in support of that formulation.

There's another more important reason why I wanted to tell you about the fragility of the partner-based personal communities (which single people do not have) and the relative resilience of friend-based personal communities that many single people do have. When I hear from other singles, sometimes in comments posted to this blog and more often in personal communications, there is a theme that comes up all too frequently. Single people feel hurt by their once-single friends who ditch them as soon as they marry or become involved in a serious romantic relationship. I can relate.

I can also tend to my relationships with the people who remain important to me, and pursue my passions, and live happily ever after.