The third full week in September is Unmarried and Single Americans Week. The Census Bureau has been marking the occasion every year with a special press release rounding up the latest facts and figures. Sadly, most news organizations just ignore the occasion. Those who do give it a nod, such as the Washington Post, mostly just reiterate the key points from the Census Bureau – for example, that 105 million Americans, 18 and older, are single (either divorced or widowed or always-single).
Over at Health.com, though, Amanda MacMillan did something more ambitious: She rounded up 7 empirically-documented ways in which being single affects your health. Here, according to the article, are 4 ways in which singles have more to celebrate, health-wise, than married people do:
- Single people are less likely to gain weight.
- Single people are more likely to exercise regularly.
- Single people may have more close friends.
- Single people stress less about chores and money.
Point # 5 is a way in which being single is not good for your health, and I’m not even going to dispute it. Single people are stereotyped, stigmatized, discriminated against, and ignored – I call the whole cluster of mistreatment singlism – and that’s not good for anyone’s health. MacMillan notes, though, that with the number of single people somewhere near the 50 percent mark, singlism may not continue so powerfully for very long.
Getting stereotyped is a bad thing, and I’ve devoted much of my energy for more than a decade to pushing back against singlism. It is interesting, though, that research has shown that people who are targets of lots of stereotyping develop special skills that elude those who are accustomed to being perceived more positively.
In MacMillan’s last two points, she first claims that married people have the edge. But then she adds appropriate qualifiers, noting that other studies show that single people are not disadvantaged in those ways.
In her point #6, she claims that single people are more at risk of dying after surgery than married people are. If you have read Singled Out or other blog posts or academic papers I’ve written about the implications of getting married, you already know what’s wrong with that study. It is comparing people who are currently married to single people, and saying that marriage wins, with the implication that if you get married, you, too, will be more likely to survive long after your surgery. In fact, though, studies like that can never demonstrate anything of the sort. That’s because they conveniently set aside nearly half of the people who marry – those who get divorced. That’s what I call cheating.
In her last point, MacMillan claims that “Single adults are 5% more likely to develop heart disease than their married peers…,” adding that “Divorced and widowed people in the study also had a higher risk.” Ha! There’s your disclaimer right there. If you want to say that getting married will make you less likely to develop heart disease, you have to pretend that no one gets divorced and no one becomes widowed. Because the people who got divorced and who became widowed did get married – they just didn’t get much health benefit from it.
The superior kind of study, as readers of this blog know, is the sort that follows people over time, to see how their health changes. Just such a longitudinal study has been conducted, and I described the findings here. A few of the key take-aways (in the authors’ words):
- “Each year in marriage increased rather than decreased the risk of cardiovascular disease by 2% for both men and women.”
- “Longer marriages were associated with less healthy behaviors and an accumulation of morbid conditions, such as hypertension, diabetes, and high cholesterol.”
I have been critiquing claims about marital status and health, and explaining the real implications of getting married, starting with Singled Out and continuing ever since. You can find my collection of links to each article, including critiques of specific studies and particular claims, here. (Critiques of claims about happiness, longevity, and so forth, are here.)
When people ask me why I get to say that getting married does not result in lasting benefits to health and happiness when other people are so sure that it does, I can trot out my credentials (Harvard Ph.D., taught graduate courses in research methods for decades, published more than 100 papers in scholarly journals). But that shouldn’t matter. Because you don’t need any research training at all to understand what’s wrong with all those cheater studies.
It’s like I said in Singled Out. Suppose a drug company has a new drug they are trying to sell, despite the fact that nearly half the people who take it are so displeased with it that they simply refuse to continue taking it. In their ads for the drug, the pharmaceutical company sets aside all those people who hated the drug, and instead tells you to look only at the 50 percent or so of the people who are still on the drug. Look, they say, those people are doing better than the people not on the drug! Buy our drug!
You don’t need any kind of a degree to see how stupid that is. Some might even call it irresponsible.
Well, anytime you see a study that compares single people to only those people who are currently married, you are looking at just such a cheater study. If someone tries to tell you, on the basis of that research, that if you get married, you, too, will be better off, laugh in their face.
Happy Singles Week! May we all laugh happily ever after.