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Lonely? Stressed? Depressed? A Romantic Partner May Not Help

New research on marriage and loneliness.

Key points

  • A new study found no statistically significant differences in women’s experiences of depression, stress, or loneliness based on marital status.
  • The same study also found that marriage does not protect men from loneliness, as married men were reportedly no less lonely than cohabiting men.
  • Single people are often described as "not having anyone" when often they do have more than one important person in their lives.

When adults get into their mid-fifties and beyond, how much does a romantic partner matter to their psychological well-being? Matthew Wright and Susan Brown of Bowling Green University, authors of “Psychological well-being among older adults: The role of partnership status,” expected to find a hierarchy of good outcomes. They predicted that married people would enjoy the greatest psychological well-being. Cohabiters, they thought, would do next best, and daters would follow in third place. They expected unpartnered single people to be worst off psychologically. That is not what they found.

Instead, they found that for women, partnership status just didn’t matter. There were no statistically significant differences in women’s experiences of depression, stress, or loneliness that depended on whether they were married, cohabiting, dating, or single and unpartnered. There were some nonsignificant trends in the data, but even those were not always consistent with the authors’ predictions. For example, the women who were dating tended to experience more stress than the single women without a romantic partner.

For the men, having a romantic partner mattered more than it did for the women, but again, not exactly in the ways the authors predicted. The authors thought that the unpartnered single men would do worse than the single men who were dating on every measure, but that never happened. The men who were dating did not differ significantly from the unpartnered single men in their experiences of depression or stress or loneliness.

The cohabiting men were predicted to do less well than the married men, but that never happened, either. The married men were more likely to report frequent depressive symptoms. They were also slightly more likely to experience stress than the cohabiting men. Marriage was also no protection against loneliness, as married men were no less lonely than cohabiting men. Cohabiting men also did well in comparison to the dating or unpartnered men on two measures of well-being: They were less likely to report frequent depressive symptoms or loneliness.

In this study, the single people who were not dating were disadvantaged in many significant ways. They were less well off financially than the married or dating people. They were least likely to be employed and least likely to have private health insurance. The uncoupled women were least likely to have some college education. In some of their analyses, the authors tried to control statistically for these differences and a few others, but it made little difference. With so much stacked against them, why didn’t the unpartnered single people do worse than everyone else, as the authors predicted they would? How is it possible that single people, who are stereotyped, stigmatized, marginalized, and discriminated against, still live happily ever after?

What Mattered More Than Having a Romantic Partner

The focus of the article was on romantic partnerships and their purported benefits. But for the women especially, the predicted benefits of having a spouse or cohabiting partner or dating partner simply were not there.

Those romantic partnerships were supposed to provide the social attachments and commitments that enhance people’s psychological well-being. For the most part, they didn’t. The data the authors reported actually did show the importance of social ties, just not the narrow romantic ones that are most often acknowledged and celebrated.

All participants answered questions about social support, assessing the extent to which they could open up to their friends and family, and rely on friends and family when they have a problem. Social support did matter, for both women and men, in almost every way.

Although romantic partnership never mattered for women, social support from friends and family always did. Women with more social support were less likely to report frequent depressive symptoms, they were less likely to experience stress, and they were less likely to be lonely. Social support from friends and family mattered to men, too, though not quite as much as it did for the women. Men who had more social support were less likely to report frequent depressive symptoms and they were slightly less likely to experience stress.

Other research has already shown the significance of ties beyond romantic ones to people of different marital statuses. It is single people, more than married people, who maintain ties with friends, neighbors, siblings, and parents. When people marry, they become more insular. They lean on one particular social attachment and commitment, the one to their spouse.

The hierarchy perspective considers one kind of relationship, a romantic relationship, to be paramount, and marginalizes all the other significant people and relationships in our lives. But other kinds of people and other kinds of relationships matter more than our conventional wisdom would lead us to believe. We can see that most clearly in the lives of people who are single. They are the people most often described as “alone” or “unattached” or as people who “don’t have anyone,” when in fact, often the opposite is true. They really do have important people in their lives, “The Ones” rather than “The One,” people they attend to more often than coupled people do, and that’s why they do not belong at the bottom of any hierarchy of loneliness, depression, or stress.

Details of the Study

Participants were about 1,000 people, ages 57 through 85, from a representative national sample from the National Social Life, Health, and Aging Project. The project was a longitudinal study but the authors of the present study analyzed the three dependent measures (depressive symptoms, perceived stress, and loneliness) from only one point in time, Wave II of the data. The other variables in the study, including partnership status, demographic characteristics, socioeconomic resources, and social support, were measured at Wave I.

Depression was assessed by the Center for Epidemiologic Studies Depression Scale. It includes items such as “felt depressed,” “felt everything was an effort,” and “did not feel like eating.” The authors created a measure that separated people into those who experienced depressive symptoms frequently and those who did not experience symptoms as frequently.

Perceived stress was measured by participants’ answers to questions such as, “I felt difficulties were piling up so high I could not overcome them,” and, “I was unable to control important things in my life.” The authors created a measure that separated people into those who rarely or never experienced those stressors in the past week, and those who experienced them more often.

Loneliness was assessed by participants’ answers to three questions: How often do you feel that you lack companionship? How often do you feel isolated from others? How often do you feel left out? (When singles answer that last question, they may be describing more than a feeling, as, for example, when coupled people exclude their single friends because they are single.)

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