Single and Lonely? The Truth May Be Exactly the Opposite.
Eye-opening studies of single people, married couples, and their social bonds.
Posted September 14, 2015
If you are single, you know what other people think about you—poor thing, you are lonely and alone. That narrative is such a part of our conventional wisdom that we use words like "alone" and "unattached" as synonyms for being single. As more people live single, the story goes, the countries where they live become nations of isolates.
Science tells a different story.
Over the past decade, researchers have analyzed big, nationally representative datasets that tell us whether the single or married people are more likely to be doing what it takes to hold us all together. Some research, such as the most recently published analyses I'll describe below, compare people who have always been single with people who are currently married and those who were previously married. Those studies make it hard to draw any causal conclusions. But there is other relevant research, too, in which people who are single are followed over time as they stay single or get married. That lets us see how the exact same people behave when they go from being single to getting married, and gets us a little closer to suspecting whether getting married might have something to do with any changes in their behavior.
As it turns out, the two kinds of study tell the same story.
Two scholars who have made the most important contributions to this question of whether single people are social isolates or social glue are Natalia Sarkisian and Naomi Gerstel. In their just-published 2015 article, they analyzed one wave of data from the National Survey of Families and Households (1992-1994) and four years of data from General Social Survey (2000, 2004, 2006, and 2012 combined).
The authors were able to determine the percentage of people in each group (always-single; previously married; and currently married) who had:
- Socialized with their neighbors at least several times a month.
- Socialized with their friends at least several times a month.
- In the past 12 months, seen their parents at least once a week.
- In the past 12 months, seen their siblings at least once a week.
- In the past month, given to friends, neighbors, or coworkers "any advice, encouragement, and moral or emotional support; help with shopping, errands, or transportation; help with housework, yard work, car repairs, or other work around the house; or help with child care."
- In the past month, received the same kinds of help from the same kinds of people.
- In the past month, given the same kinds of help to siblings.
- In the past month, received the same kinds of help from siblings.
- In the past month, given the same kinds of help to parents.
- In the past month, received the same kinds of help from parents.
So, in total, there were 10 different measures of connection to other people. The authors compared always-single people to married people and to previously married people. They did that separately for the men and for the women. That's a total of 40 comparisons. (They also compared the previously married to the currently married, for all 10 measures—and separately for the men and the women.)
Despite the huge amount of data and the potential for numbing complexity, the results were about as clear as they could be: In all 40 comparisons, the people who had always been single were most connected to other people. They were more often in contact with others, they socialized with them more often, and they exchanged help more often. That was true for their relationships with their parents and siblings as well as their friends and neighbors. Always-singles were more connected than previously married people were, and they were especially more connected than married people were. Both the men and the women who had always been single had the most robust social ties.
The previously married people were also more connected to others than the currently married people were, in all of the ways that were measured except for some of the results for exchanging help.
Of course, people who have always been single might differ from currently married (or previously married) people in various ways. Could the differences in connecting, staying in touch, socializing, and exchanging help be better explained by one of those other factors? For example, maybe the differences are about having kids or not, and not about marital status.
The authors analyzed the data, controlling for factors such as age, the number of kids people had, employment status, education, income—and, in analyses of connections with parents and siblings, health, and distance from the family members. Mostly, the results stayed the same: The always-single people were the most connected, and the currently married, the least. In some instances, the results were even stronger once other factors were taken into account. This means that always-single people's greater rate of connecting with others cannot be explained by not having kids, working fewer hours, being at a different point in their life course, or any of the other explanations suggested by the factors controlled for in the analyses.
The results describe people of different marital statuses only in the United States and only at certain points in time. As the authors note, we cannot know from these data alone whether the patterns are specific to the ways marriage and single life are practiced just in this country and just in recent decades. The findings, though, are consistent with what has been called the "greedy marriage" hypothesis. Marriage in the United States today seems to gobble up married people's time and attention. It is as if, once married, couples are just not into anyone else any more—not their friends, neighbors, siblings, or parents. Mostly, it is just the two of them.
Sarkisian, Natalia, & Gerstel, Naomi. (2015). Does singlehood isolate or integrate? Examining the link between marital status and ties to kin, friends, and neighbors. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships.
Note: In How We Live Now: Redefining Home and Family in the 21st Century, I tell the stories of many different single (and coupled) people and how they find and maintain their social connections regardless of whether they live with other people under the same roof, on their own, in their own places but within self-conscious communities, or in some other life space. I also describe how they find time and space for themselves. I describe the relevant social science research and provide some historical and cross-cultural context.