Are Single People Mentally Stronger?
An expert shares widely-ignored evidence of why singles fare so well.
Posted May 8, 2013
To write about single life, and to ground what you write in science—which I try to do—is to be constantly put on the defensive. One headline after another proclaims that single people are life’s losers. If only they would marry, the argument goes, they too could partake of the greater health and happiness, the sugar and spice and everything nice that are part of the promised package of married life.
I have been critiquing these claims since I wrote my first academic paper and my first book, Singled Out. Recently, I was invited to write about singles and mental health for the second edition of the Encyclopedia of Mental Health. Once again, I reviewed the relevant research on topics such as suicide, depression, loneliness, physical health, and happiness. And once again, I was struck by how little difference it makes to people’s health and well-being to go from being single to being married.
I have described many of those findings here, such as the underwhelming results of the 18 long-term studies of the happiness of people who get married, and the unimpressive differences in suicide rates in the best research that can be conducted within the ever-present restraints of doing research on marital status (e.g., you can’t randomly assign people to different marital statuses).
The weak or non-existent differences are remarkable for a number of reasons. As I have explained many times before, most research is biased to produce results that look more positive for married people than they really are. Yet all of these techniques still do not succeed in making singles look bad.
Consider, too, all of the ways in which single people are disadvantaged: They are constantly challenged by the components of "singlism"—stigmatizing, interpersonal exclusion, presumptions, and federal discrimination. In economic terms alone, single people end up way behind their married counterparts (as discussed here, here, and here).
But the singlism is only the half of it. The flip side is "matrimania"—all of the over-the-top hyping of weddings, couples, and marriage.
The real question, then, is not whether getting married results in lasting improvements to mental health, physical health, or any of the other supposed goodies of psychological life: We already know that the answer to that is No. The more profound question is: How it is that single people—especially those who have always been single—are doing so well when so much is stacked against them? As I put it in the subtitle of Singled Out, single people are “stereotyped, stigmatized, and ignored, and still live happily ever after.”
My best guess? Single people are more resilient than everyone else.
I am surely not saying that every single person is more resilient than every married person. I’m not denying that there are single people who are not at all healthy, mentally or physically. I’m just saying that when you look at the preponderance of the evidence, single people fare far better than their objective circumstances would lead us to expect.
Single people—again, especially those who have always been single—are also faring far better than social scientists have predicted. For decades, theorists have spun stories about why married people are (supposedly) healthier and happier than single people. They have more social support, we are told. Their spouses connect them to larger networks of people. Couples supposedly have a kind of commitment in their lives that single people lack, and married couples’ commitment is reinforced by friends and family members and by the society at large. After all, their commitments are public. Other people can watch them and keep them on track. Within the marriage, the spouses can monitor each other, making sure they eat their vegetables and go to the doctor. What’s more, the marital relationship is institutionalized, propped up by legal and religious structures.
Some of the theorizing is true—married couples, for example, are benefited and protected by legal structures in ways that single people are not—and some has already been soundly refuted—for example, people who get married become less connected to friends, family, and neighbors than they were when they were single.
What is almost totally missing from serious scholarly writing about single life are explanations for why single people do so well. Social scientists have been so intent on telling us about the supposed advantages of marriage and the disadvantages of single life that they have too often failed to consider the costs of married life and the rewards of single life.
We hear all about how single people are supposedly at risk for becoming lonely, but little about the creative, intellectual, and emotional potential of solitude. As for the opportunities that single people have to create just the right mix of time alone and time together—well, they get short shrift as well.
We are told that single people do not have the intimacy that married people find in their partners, but hear only crickets about the genuine attachment relationships that single people have with the most important people in their lives.
Missing from the stacks of journal articles is any sustained attention to the risks of intensive coupling—investing all of your emotional and relationship stock into just one person, "The One"—or to the resilience offered by the networks of friends and family that so many single people maintain.
The voluminous literature on marriage pays scant attention to the psychological reality that one size does not fit all. Not everyone lives their best life as half of a married couple, nor, for that matter, do all single people live their best lives as part of a whole network of significant others. Some really do like a whole lot of time alone.
We hear that married people have each other’s backs, but if we want to contemplate the ways in which single people pursue their passions, or seek out work that is meaningful, or live a life that may be fuller or more authentic than it would be if they got married, well, usually we will have to write those scripts ourselves.
So let’s do it.