Marriage vs. the Single Life: Who Has It Better?
Is it better to stay single or get married?
Posted Dec 30, 2016
Does getting married make you happier, healthier, more integrated into society, and better off in all sorts of other physical, emotional, and interpersonal ways? I’ve spent close to two decades making the case that those kinds of claims are grossly exaggerated or just plain wrong. Plus, there are important ways in which lifelong single people do better than people who get married. But I don’t think there is a simple, one-size-fits-all answer to the question of whether it is better to stay single or get married. Let me explain.
What the Research Really Shows
The kinds of studies and comparisons used to support the claim that Marriage Wins just don’t pass scientific muster. They are biased in ways that make married people seem to be doing better than they really are, and single people worse (as explained in more detail here and here and here). Used as the basis for claiming that getting married benefits people psychologically, the comparisons are scientifically indefensible.
What’s more, even with that big, fat advantage built right into the research, sometimes it is the lifelong single people, rather than the currently married people, who are doing the best. In some studies, including a few based on large, representative national samples, it is the single people who are healthiest. If you follow people over time as they go from being single to getting married and staying married, they end up no happier than they were when they were single. Those who get married and then divorce end up, on the average, less happy than they were when they were single. Getting married is no royal road to longevity, either.
Lifelong single people do better than married people in a variety of ways that don’t get all that much attention. For example, they do more to maintain their ties to friends, siblings, parents, neighbors, and coworkers than married people do. They do more than their share of volunteering and helping people, such as aging parents, who need a lot of help. They experience more autonomy and self-determination, and more personal growth and development.
But It’s Not a Contest: No One Side is the Winner
Ever since I gave an address at the American Psychological Association in August, making the points I just summarized, celebratory headlines have multiplied. Some claim that single people are happier or that they live richer, more meaningful lives. After decades of seeing nothing but Marriage Wins headlines, one would think I should take some pleasure in this whole new sensibility.
The problem, though, is that I’m not actually saying that Singles Win. Yes, it is true that there are some profoundly important ways in which single people are doing better than married people. And those ways in which we are so sure that married people are doing better – well, often they don’t really hold up to scientific scrutiny.
Even so, there are several reasons you should be skeptical, regardless of whether you are being told that Marriage Wins or Single Life Wins:
- All of the findings you read about are averages. They tell you about what generally happens, but there are always exceptions. The results do not apply equally to everyone.
- The married people and the single people are different people. Suppose a study seemed to show that the people who got married were doing better in some way. Remember, the people who got married chose to do so. If you badgered single people into getting married – especially people who are “single at heart” and embrace their single lives – they might not experience the same benefit. To paraphrase one of my favorite cartoons: If I got married, I wouldn’t live longer – it would just seem longer.
- What is most likely to be true is that some people live their best lives by marrying, whereas others live their best, most authentic, most meaningful and fulfilling lives by living single.
- Maybe it is even more complicated than that. Maybe, for some of us, single life is best during certain times in our life, while coupled or married life is better at other times. For example, I’ve talked to widowed people who had very good marriages and have no regrets about the years they spent married, but now that they are single, they embrace that life and never want to marry again.
Something else is important, too: We have a better chance to live our best lives if we are not impoverished or disadvantaged in other significant ways. That’s true for everyone — married, single, or something in between — but I think it is especially true for single people.
In the U.S., for example, people who are officially married are more likely to be protected economically. This happens not just for the obvious reasons that they have a second person who perhaps could support them in the event of a job loss or a decrease in income; and that, when couples are sharing a place and singles are not, the couples benefit from “economies of scale” because they split the rent or mortgage, the utilities, and all the other household expenses. Married people are also gifted with more than 1,000 federal benefits and protections, many of them financial.
Marriage, in contemporary American society, also bestows couples with a whole array of unearned privileges, social, psychological, emotional, political, and cultural. In countless ways that we sometimes don’t even notice, married people’s lives are valued and celebrated while single people’s lives are marginalized or even mocked.
That means that when single people achieve the same level of health or well-being as married people, they do so against greater odds. I think that suggests that single people have an impressive level of resilience – an admirable quality that is rarely recognized or acknowledged.
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. (2015b). Marriage vs. single life: How science and the media got it so wrong.
Laditka, James N., & Laditka, Sarah B. (2001). Adult children helping older parents: Variations in likelihood and hours by gender, race, and family role. Research on Aging, 23, 429-256.
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.