One of the big, stereotype-busting findings that has gotten a lot of attention over the past few years is that married people are in some important ways less socially connected than single people. Results from several national surveys, reported by Naomi Gerstel and Natalia Sarkisian, show that Americans who have always been single are more likely than currently married people to support, advise, visit, and stay in touch with their siblings and parents. They are also more likely to help, encourage, and socialize with friends and neighbors.
Sociologists have a name for the retreat from other people that many (though not all) married people exhibit – they call it “greedy marriage.” It is akin to what I have called “intensive coupling.” The married couple wants almost all of the attention and resources for itself. These are couples who probably view it as a threat if their partner wants to spend time with friends.
Contemporary Americans without a sense of social history or an international perspective may not realize how unusual the practice of intensive (and jealous) coupling really is. At other times and in other places, the desire to spend time with people other than your partner was in no way a negative judgment on the state of the marital relationship.
One of the high-profile articles that brought attention to the concept of “greedy marriage” was Kate Bolick’s wildy popular cover story for the November 2011 Atlantic magazine, “All the single ladies.” The Atlantic got so many responses to the story – hundreds, in fact – that the magazine printed two pages of letters in the January 2012 issue.
One was from Robert Nohr of Milwaukee, who reiterated the usual claims about the benefits of marrying for health and well-being and for the kids. He did so, as is so often the case, without any awareness of the ways in which those claims are grossly exaggerated or just plain wrong. (I review the evidence and detail the methodological embarrassments in Chapters 2 and 9 of Singled Out, and I’ve critiqued studies published after Singled Out in Single with Attitude and in many of my blog posts.)
About the claim that married people neglect many of their social ties, Nohr said this: “True, we married folks may call our friends less often, but it is because we are busy with a fairly important task – supporting and raising the next generation.”
Is Nohr right about this?
Let’s go directly to the source, to see what Gerstel and Sarkisian discovered about the generality of the “greedy marriage” effect across people who are and are not parents, people of different ages and social classes and races, and men and women:
“These differences in contacts and assistance emerge even if the married, never married, and previously married are the same age and have the same class position (similar amounts of income and education, and similar employment status). And the differences between the married and unmarried exist both among parents of young children and among the childless. They also exist among whites, African Americans, and Hispanics. Further, these differences exist for both women and men” (p. 17-18).
In short, married people are not neglecting their friends because they have kids. They are neglecting them because they are married. It’s just what (many) contemporary American married people do.
Young family photo available from Shutterstock.