In my previous post, I promised to explain how the authors of a really terrific study seemed to miss what their own results were telling them about single life. Here are the goods:
In a 6-year study designed to test the implications of getting married (or entering a cohabiting relationship) for well-being, health, and social ties, here is what the authors found: Singles remained more connected to friends and parents than did the people who married or cohabited.
That was true during the first three years of the study, and it remained true during the next three years. Within the first three years, the people who married or cohabited did better than those who stayed single in health and well-being, but by the end of the next three years, there were no differences at all.
The strengths of single life are enduring. Over the course of the six years, single people maintained more contact with their parents and spent more time with their friends, compared to the people who got married or started cohabited during that time, whose social worlds contracted.
Any disadvantages of single life are fleeting. With regard to measures of well-being, those who entered a union (marriage or cohabitation) did look better at first, but that was just a honeymoon effect. During years 4 through 6, they ended up logging no better health, happiness, or self-esteem, and no less depression, than people who stayed single.
Can you guess the reasons social scientists typically offer for why getting married supposedly results in better life outcomes? The authors spelled them out in the introduction to their article:
- Institutionalization: there are “normative and legal structures that specify rights and responsibilities and bring with them standards of appropriate behavior.” (Note what goes unsaid here – the legal structures also provide a treasure trove of benefits and protections only to those who are legally married. The authors later note that the federal benefits separate the married from the cohabiting, but – except with regard to access to health care – do not seem to acknowledge that singles, too, are left out of all of the privileges and perks.)
- Social roles: “Marital roles provide a source of meaning and purpose and facilitate interaction between spouses by offering guidelines about how to be a good wife or husband…”
- Social support: “Spouses provide intimacy, companionship, and day-to-day interaction, and they connect their partners to larger networks of friends, kin, and community that can be drawn upon in times of need.”
- Commitment: “the public nature of marriage – often entered into in the presence of family friends and religious congregants…strengthens commitment and facilitates joint long-term investments…”
After the authors had presented all of their findings and got to the part of the article where they attempted to explain what their results mean, single people were mentioned only as a comparison group. The authors’ thoughts and theories were devoted exclusively to an understanding of couples, including a consideration of how cohabitors fare relative to married people.
The authors did concede that their findings offer no support for the widespread belief that spouses “connect their partners to larger networks of friends, kin, and community.” Here’s what they said about that: “Our results are more consistent with Sarkisian and Gerstel’s (2008) assessment of marriage as a ‘greedy’ institution – and suggest the same of cohabitation.”
Nothing wrong with that, as far as it goes. But it does not go far enough. There is a great big elephant in the room and the authors seem unaware of it. If they took their hands away from their eyes and their fingers out of their ears, they might notice the elephant saying this: Single people have social support. They are connected to kin and to friends. As other people move into cohabitation or marriage, those who stay single maintain their social ties, and end up having more of them, year after year, than their coupled peers.
When readers get to the end of the journal article, they have not been treated to any discussion whatsoever of what I see as one of the most important questions raised by the research:
Why is it that, by the second half of the study (years 4 through 6), singles continue to maintain their advantage over both cohabitors and married people in the strength of their social connections, but the coupled people now have no advantage at all over singles in happiness, self-esteem, depression, or health?
Why is the health of single people every bit as good as that of married people in years 4-6 when married people have more opportunities to access health care (for example, through a spouse’s plan) and may even get high quality medical attention? What about those marital roles which were hypothesized to provide all that meaningfulness and purpose, relative to the supposedly floundering single people? And what about the purported power of commitment? If coupled people have more commitment in their lives, and if that commitment is supposed to contribute to their health and happiness over the long run, then why do they end up no happier, no healthier, no less depressed, and with no better self-esteem than people who stayed single?
All of those, to me, are both intriguing and profoundly important questions. None were addressed.
I read the study a few days ago, as soon as I got an email alert that it had appeared online in the Journal of Marriage and Family (February 2012 issue, volume 74, pp 1-18). I have been blogging about it ever since (here, here, here, and here). Just last night, I got a press release. It ended with this quote from the first author:
“Compared to most industrialized countries America continues to value marriage above other family forms. However our research shows that marriage is by no means unique in promoting well-being and that other forms of romantic relationships can provide many of the same benefits.”
I hope that after reading this post (and the previous ones), it is entirely clear to you what did not seem evident or important to the author: It is not just romantic relationships that provide benefits.
Man with graph photo available from Shutterstock