The Profound Rewards of Staying Single

Over time, people who stay single may experience more happiness and growth.

Posted Oct 01, 2020

When I first started researching and writing about single people decades ago, I used to talk about the growing numbers of people who were single. Now I’m focused on something even more dramatic, which was once quite rare: the growing numbers of people who stay single, at least until their late 40s, and sometimes for life.

The rise of people staying single has not deterred all the singlism, though. Single people are still stereotyped, stigmatized, marginalized, and targeted with discrimination, perhaps especially so if they have been single their whole lives.

What does that mean for how single life is actually experienced by those who never marry? In many important ways, single people defy stereotypes about their supposedly sad, lonely, and empty lives.

People Who Stay Single Report More Personal Growth

In an analysis of data from the National Survey of Families and Households, more than 1,000 people who had always been single were compared to more than 3,000 people of comparable ages who had been continuously married. The people who stayed single, compared to those who stayed married, reported experiencing more personal growth. They were more likely to agree with statements such as:

“For me, life has been a continuous process of learning, changing, and growth.”

“I think it is important to have new experiences that challenge how you think about yourself and the world.”

They were more likely to disagree with statements such as:

“I gave up trying to make big improvements or changes in my life a long time ago.”

(People who stayed married were more likely to agree with that statement, and to agree with it more over time.)

People Who Stay Single Report More Autonomy and Self-Determination

In the same study, people who stayed single, compared to those who stayed married, were more likely to agree with statements such as:

“I judge myself by what I think is important, not by the values of what others think is important.”

“I have confidence in my opinions, even if they are different from the way most other people think.”

They were more likely to disagree with statements such as:

“I tend to be influenced by people with strong opinions.”

(People who stayed married were more likely to agree with that statement, and to agree with it more over time.)

Women With No Kids Who Stay Single Into Their 70s Are Thriving

A study of more than 10,000 Australian women in their mid-seventies compared lifelong single women with no children to four other groups of women: married with children, married with no children, previously married with children, and previously married with no children.

The lifelong single women with no kids stood out from the other women in several impressive ways. For example, they were:

  • more optimistic.
  • less stressed.
  • more highly educated.
  • more likely to say that they could manage easily on their income (contrary to what happens in the U.S.).
  • more likely to be active members of formal social groups.
  • more likely to provide volunteer services.

Compared to married women with or without kids, they also had bigger social networks.

On four out of about a dozen measures of physical health, the lifelong single women with no kids fared particularly well, compared to the other women. They:

  • Were least likely to be smokers.
  • Were most likely to be non-drinkers.
  • Had the healthiest body mass index.
  • Had the fewest number of diagnoses of major illnesses.

On seven other measures of health, there were no differences among the groups. Only on one measure did the lifelong single women fare a bit less well than two of the other four groups. (Details are here.)

The authors wanted to know whether lifelong single women with no kids were a burden on the healthcare system. In fact, those women were more likely to have their own private health insurance and they were no more likely to be cared for by family members. They were, though, more likely to use formal services such as meal deliveries and home nursing. Putting together those findings and others, the researchers concluded that “the view that these women constitute a social burden is not supported.”

For Black People, Staying Single and Living Alone Can Be a Path to the Middle Class

In research that challenges the conventional wisdom that among Blacks, getting married is the route to attaining middle-class status, sociologist Kris Marsh documented a surprising alternative route: staying single and living alone. That path is especially effective for Black women. You can read about Marsh’s work here and in a forthcoming book.

In Later Life, Lifelong Single People Find Single Life Less Challenging than Previously Married People

A study of people 65 and older who were divorced, widowed, or had always been single asked participants about the possible challenges and strains of single life. Those difficulties included, for example, dissatisfaction with social life, intimacy, and having people available to help. The lifelong single people reported experiencing less strain than previously married people.

Lifelong Single People May Be Better Than the Previously Married at Mastering the Many Tasks of Everyday Life

People who are married often divide up tasks such as household chores, managing finances, and organizing social calendars. Even mental responsibilities, such as remembering birthdays or biographies, sometimes get assigned to one of the spouses. That system can be efficient while the marriage lasts. Once the marriage ends, though, the newly single sometimes find that they don’t know how to do all the things their spouse used to cover. Lifelong single people, in contrast, have usually figured out how to do all of those things, either by mastering the tasks themselves, or finding or hiring people to help. Evidence for this claim, however, is mostly just suggestive.

Staying Single May Pay Off With Lesser Loneliness in Old Age

In his book Happy Singlehood, fellow Psychology Today blogger Elyakim Kislev compared the loneliness of people who never got married to those who did marry. He found that at age 65, the lifelong single people were a tiny bit lonelier than the people who had married — a difference of about one-quarter of 1 point on an 11-point scale. Over the course of their adult lives, though, more and more married people feel lonely. Kislev found that “the share of married people feeling lonely is around 50 percent more at age 60 than 30, and that it doubles by the age of 90.”

Meanwhile, the loneliness of lifelong single people increases much less. By age 70, it is the people who married who are now lonelier, and that continues all the way through the oldest of ages. The lifelong single people are less lonely.

As People Progress From Mid-Life Through Old Age, Those Who Stay Single Feel Happier and Happier With Their Lives

As I discussed previously, a study of 40- to 85-year-olds showed that lifelong single people became increasingly satisfied with their lives as they grew older. The results for the people with romantic partners were not so straightforward.

A Few Words of Caution

Studies that compare people of different marital statuses at one point in time can never tell us anything definitive about causality. So, for example, we don’t know that the 70-something lifelong single women with no kids were less stressed and more optimistic because they stayed single. Maybe that happened for some other reason.

We also don’t know which lifelong single people are especially likely to enjoy the rewards I have described. My guess is that people who are single at heart, for example, are more likely to thrive by staying single, compared to people who are reluctantly single.

Finally, even though I appreciate research documenting the ways in which lifelong single people defy the stereotypes that demean them, I would be even happier if marital status or relationship status just didn’t matter. Single life suits some of us, and married or coupled life works better for others. We should all get to enjoy happy, healthy, and meaningful lives, no matter which path we choose.

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