Some of the prevailing beliefs about single people seem so intuitive that it is hard to take seriously the possibility that they are just stereotypes. One of those is that single people are lonely, and that getting married takes care of that. After all, isn’t it obvious that married people “have someone” whereas single people do not?
Over the past decade, studies have been piling up suggesting something quite different. Representative national surveys have shown that single people are more likely to visit, support, contact, and advise their parents and siblings than are married people. Singles are also more likely to encourage, socialize with, and help their friends and neighbors.
The results of studies comparing people of different marital statuses at one point in time are just suggestive. We can’t know from such “cross-sectional” research whether any differences in social ties are really about marital status or about something else connected to marital status (such as age or education or personality or, really, just about anything). Better studies follow the same people over time as, for example, they get married or get unmarried. Do their social connections change?
It turns out that they do. In one such “longitudinal” study, people who got married or who began cohabiting were followed for six years. When they first entered a union, the participants had less contact with their parents and spent less time with their friends than they had when they were single. Between four and six years later, they still had the same reduced ties with parents and friends – the insularity that occurred when people got married was not just a honeymoon effect.
All of the studies I’ve mentioned so far are relevant to social loneliness or social isolation, which is a matter of having or not having a network of social ties. Emotional or subjective loneliness is something else – that’s what you experience when you don’t have the degree of closeness or intimacy that you desire.
For an article I was asked to write for a volume on mental health, I included a section on the implications of marital status for loneliness. The question I was trying to answer was: What does research tell us about whether people who get married feel more or less lonely than those who stay single? The volume will not be published for a few more months, so I thought I’d share the brief excerpt on loneliness here.
The volume is an academic one, so the writing is in that style. I hope it is still apparent, though, that the belief that getting married solves the problem of loneliness is more mythology than fact.
Excerpt on Marital Status and Loneliness
Reviews of loneliness research sometimes include the claim that marriage is associated with lower rates of loneliness (e.g., Cacioppo & Hawkley). However, an examination of the original research (e.g., de Jong-Giervald, 1987; Tornstam, 1992) reveals the usual array of methodological problems. The data are cross-sectional, so there is no way of knowing for sure that any marital status differences really are attributable to marital status. Also, all of the unmarried people – including those who did marry and then divorced – were lumped together and compared to the currently married people. That makes it impossible to know whether those who stay single differ in their loneliness from those who get married and then get divorced.
Even when the married group is advantaged by the biased analyses, the currently married people do not always report less loneliness than the group comprised of all of the currently unmarried people. Hawkley and her colleagues (2008), for example, found no overall differences between the two groups. They only found a difference favoring married people when they focused on a particular subset of the currently married – those who considered their spouse to be a confidant. Notice, again, the bias built into such a comparison. The subset of married people who have a confidant in their spouse are compared to all single people, and not, for example, to the subset of single people who have a close friend or relative they consider to be a confidant.
In another study in which all of the unmarried people (including the previously married as well as those who had always been single) were considered together and compared to the currently married people (Rokach et al., 2007), there was no difference in loneliness among the women. For the men, the currently married were less lonely than the unmarried on only one of the five loneliness subscales.
A study of people who were 65 and older did look separately at four marital status groups: currently-married, divorced, widowed, and always-single (Victor et al., 2005) The widowed people were the loneliest, and the currently married, the least lonely. The divorced and always-single reported similar levels of loneliness. Overall rates of loneliness for those who had always been single were low. Only 9 percent said that they were often or always lonely, and 46 percent said that they were never lonely.
Emotional loneliness, an absence of closeness or intimacy, can be a more painful form of loneliness than social loneliness, a lack of a network of social ties. A study of 55- to 89-year olds in which the four marital status groups were considered separately (Dykstra & de Jong Gierveld, 2004) found bigger differences among the groups in emotional loneliness than social loneliness. Among the men, the widowed experienced the most intense emotional loneliness and the currently married, the least. Among the women, the previously married (both the widowed and the divorced) reported the most emotional loneliness. The women who had always been single reported very low levels of emotional loneliness. In fact, they were no more emotionally lonely than the currently married women. These are the women who, in our stereotypes, are the sad and lonely “old maids” – they were, on the average, 72 years old, and they had been single all their lives. Yet they experienced very little emotional loneliness; they were indistinguishable from women of the same age who were married.
Longitudinal studies of loneliness have focused on older people. People who get married for the first time are not included, probably because there are not enough of them. Results show that people who become widowed experience more loneliness than they did when they were married (Victor & Bowling, 2012; Wenger & Burholt, 2004). Once again, the risk is not staying single; it is getting married and then becoming unmarried.