Every year, starting in 1972, a representative sample of American adults (different people each year) has been asked to describe their overall health. Researchers have reported on how health has changed over time, depending on whether the people answering are currently married, divorced, widowed, or have always been single. One report looked at trends across about three decades, from 1972 to 2003.
As I have explained many times before (for example, in Singled Out, and in an article about this study), these kinds of studies make marriage look better than it actually is. They don’t tell us how healthy you will be if you get married, because only those who got married and are currently still married are in the married group. That means that the married group includes mostly only those who are happy enough in their marriages to stay in them. The always-single group, in contrast, includes all people who have always been single and not just those who are happiest with their single status. Despite the striking way in which the always-single were disadvantaged, they reported the same good health as the currently married. In both groups in the most recent year analyzed (2003), about 93% said that their health was good or excellent (instead of fair or poor).
What I want to discuss here, though, are the results over time for people who are widowed. Back in 1972, currently-married people and widowed people reported the same good health – just over 92% said that their health was good or excellent. Over the next three decades, the health of the currently-married increased very slightly, to about 93%. But the health of the widowed people decreased every year. By 2003, fewer than 87% of the widowed people reported that their health was good or excellent. That’s still a pretty good quality of health, but it is a clear decrease over time. (The divorced group also had the same good health as the currently-married in 1972. Over time, their health decreased, too, but only by about one percentage point. Over time, the health of the always-single group increased one or two percentage points. If you can access the article, you can see the results in Figure 1 on p. 246.)
What’s going on here? We can’t blame it on being unmarried. For people who had always been single, their health was good in 1972 and got slightly better over the next three decades. It was only those who were once married and then became unmarried – especially those who became widowed – who reported worse health every year.
When the authors get to the part of the article in which they try to explain the results for the widowed people they rule out a few possibilities and then basically say that they just don’t know why widowhood seems to be worse for your health now than it was decades ago.
I don’t know the answer either, but I wonder whether it has something to do with how intensively people practice marriage today, compared to decades ago. There is a lot of evidence that in general, when people get married today, they tend to spend less time with just about everyone else (except each other) than they did when they were single. (You can find discussions of the relevant studies here – scroll down after clicking; the best study was this one.)
If married people marginalize the other important people in their lives, such as friends and relatives, then maybe they are looking to their partner to fulfill just about all of their needs and desires. When the partner is alive and the relationship is going well, that might work. But once the relationship hits a bad patch or it ends, then the newly single suffer. They experience worse health than do people who have always been single, and worse health than the previously married used to experience decades ago, when married people were less likely to expect their spouse to be their everything.
[Note: You can find my discussions and critiques of many other studies of marital status and health here.]
Mourning image available from Shutterstock.