Social scientists know what people think of singles, and often, it is not pretty. My colleagues and I did a series of studies to document perceptions and prejudices. In some studies, we asked people to tell us, in their own words, what came to mind when they thought about single (or married) people. In others, we created pairs of brief biographical sketches of people that were exactly the same except that in one of the sketches, the person was described as single, and in the other, as married. Then we asked participants to report their perceptions along a variety of dimensions.
Participants in our studies viewed single people more harshly than married people. They thought singles were less happy, less secure, lonelier, and more self-centered, among other disparaging traits. (They are wrong.) Yet one positive perception emerged in just about every study we ever did: Singles were seen as more independent than married people.
In many ways, single people are often proud of their independence. Single people who are single-at-heart love having time and space to themselves, and they like making their own decisions. Unsingle people sometimes envy the independence they ascribe to people who are single.
When so many other perceptions of single people are negative, I guess I should embrace the positive perception of independence. Yet in some ways, it troubles me. Too often, others believe that singles are independent in the dubious sense of having no ties to other people. One version of this is the myth that single people “don’t have anyone.” Another is that singles are free of all caretaking responsibilities.
The irony of these perceptions is that in some senses, they are exactly wrong. When people, such as aging parents, are in need of long-term care, often it is the single people who are expected to step in and provide it, and the single people who actually do rearrange their own lives to help others who cannot help themselves. Yet single people do not have a spouse whose salary can cover both of them plus the person in need of help. Financially, they are often more vulnerable than married people when they try to do intensive caregiving and maintain their source of income as well.
In everyday life, too, single people are more connected to other people than our stereotypes would lead us to believe, and more connected than married people are. For starters, most single people do not live alone. In the U.S., for example, there are more than 100 million unmarried adults 18 and older, but only about 33 million people live alone.
Single people are also more likely than married people to maintain ties and exchange help with neighbors, friends, siblings, and parents. In longitudinal studies, in which people are followed over time, those who get married become more insular; they are less likely to stay in touch with other people than they were when they were single. That does not change with time, unless they get divorced – then they once again become more attentive to others.
The results of all of these big studies are averages. That means that the results do not characterize all single people or all married people. Yet by now, there are quite a few studies of connectedness and caring among single and married people, and they are quite consistent in suggesting that, typically, it is single people who are doing more to foster family (beyond the nuclear) and community.
I think that many (though not all) couples practice what I call “intensive coupling.” They look to their partner to be their everything – what I called, in Singled Out, Seepies: Sex and Everything Else Partners. When things are going great in a romantic relationship, intensive coupling can be fine. For some, it may even seem glorious. Yet when a relationship hits the skids, what happens to the two people who relegated all of the other people in their lives to the back burner?
Again, there are many exceptions, but I think that in general, single people are more likely to maintain a diversified relationship portfolio. They don’t invest all of their relationship capital into just one person.
The answer to the question posed by the title of this article, “Are single people more independent or more interconnected than married people,” is both.
[Notes: This post is part of the second blogfest put together by The Communication League for Unmarried Equality (CLUE). Our Independence Day theme is independence and interdependence in the lives of single people. The CLUE organizers are Cindy Butler, the Executive Director of Unmarried Equality, Christina Campbell and Lisa A. of Onely, Eleanore Wells of The Spinsterlicious Life, and yours truly. The tags for this event are #unmarriedequality, #singlesblogfest, and #endmaritalstatusdiscrimination. Our first blogfest was on the topic of economic discrimination against single people. The dozens of people who participated, and the links to their posts, are here. I’ll post the list of Independence Day participants soon.]
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