In a survey, more than 25,000 adults in the U.S. were asked about their friends. I don’t know of any other study as extensive as this one that compared the friends of single and married people, or looked at so many different demographic groups to see if the friend profiles of single and married people were the same in each. The results were strikingly consistent. With just one tiny exception, single people have more friends than married people. It doesn’t matter how you slice it, demographically. The results are still the same.

An invitation to participate anonymously in the survey was posted at the news site that is now NBCNews.com for 10 days in 2010. The self-selection into the study means that this is not a representative national sample. Like most online samples, it is skewed toward people with higher than average incomes and levels of education. It was, though, a very diverse sample, even in the domains of income and education. The participants included men and women, people who were single and married, and parents and people who were not parents. They ranged in age from 18 on up; the average age was 42.

There have been some suggestions in the literature that talking and sharing intimacies are especially important to women’s friendships, whereas sharing activities and helping with things are more central to men’s. To assess friendship in ways that would cover both, the researchers asked participants three questions:

“Thinking of your male and female friends, how many do you have that…

  1. …you could talk to about your sex life?”
  2. …you expect to do something with you to celebrate your birthday?”
  3. …you could call/text if you were in trouble late at night?”

They answered the questions separately for their male friends and female friends. The researchers looked for the largest number of male friends mentioned across the three questions and the largest number of female friends and added those two together to get each participant’s total number of friends. (For example, if someone said they had 2 male friends with whom to discuss their sex life, 4 to celebrate their birthday with, and 3 they could call for help late at night, they would be classified as having 4 male friends. Same for the number of female friends.)

Here are the total number of friends the single and married people had, averaging across all age groups:

Women with no children:

9.6 single

7.9 married

Men with no children:

10.2 single

7.8 married

Women with children:

7.3 single

6.8 married

Men with children:

7.9 single

7.4 married

As you can see, whether people are men or women and whether they have children or don’t have children, single people always have more friends than married people do. Even women raising kids as single moms have more friends than married moms do. The differences are not always big (and statistical significance tests were not reported for these comparisons) but they are always in the same direction.

The authors also presented a table of findings for the same four categories (men and women, with and without children) for 5 different age groupings (18-24; 25-35; 36-49; 50-64; and 65 and older). That would be a total of 20 comparisons except that there were too few people in three of the categories (18-24 year old men with children; and men and women 65 and older with no children). Of the 17 remaining comparisons, single people had more friends than married people in 16 of them. (The one exception was for women with no children, ages 50-64; the married women had an average of 6.6 friends and the single women, 6.5 friends.) The differences were greatest in the youngest group (18-24 year olds) and smallest for the oldest (65 and up).

The results I’ve presented so far are all about quantity of friends. But what about quality? Participants indicated how satisfied they were with their relationships with their friends on a 1-7 scale. (They also rated their overall satisfaction with their life on the same kind of scale.) The authors did not directly compare the single people to the married people, as they did when they looked at the number of friends. Instead, they created this scale: 0 = single, not dating; 1 = casual dating; 2 = in a relationship but not cohabiting; 3 = cohabiting; and 4 = married.  They found that the people with higher numbers on the scale were less satisfied with their friendships, though the effect was very small.

As have other researchers before them, these authors found that friendship seems to matter when it comes to quality of life – but quality matters more than quantity. People with more friends reported a slightly better quality of life, but people more satisfied with their friendships (regardless of the number of them) were especially more satisfied with their lives.

I need to add my usual caveats here. This was not an experiment, so it does not show definitively that being single causes people to have more friends or better relationships with their friends, and it also doesn’t show that having more friends or better quality friendships causes people to be more satisfied with their lives. There could be other explanations for the links among the various variables.

As I read this article, I nodded in agreement when I got to this sentence: “Despite the significance of friendship, the topic has garnered less scholarly attention than other social relationships such as romantic relationships and kin relationships…” Yet despite the authors’ explicit goal of giving friendship its due, they fell into the same matrimaniacal trap that so many other scholars have. Guess what they called that scale they created, that ranged from “single, not dating” to “married”?  They called it a measure of “level of relationship commitment.” It is as if the real meaning of relationship is the very narrow category of conjugal relationships. By their definition, people who had deep and enduring commitments to their friends would get assigned a zero on the “level of relationship commitment” scale if they were single and not dating. And that’s just sad.

In my new book, How We Live Now: Redefining Home and Family in the 21st Century, I make the case that it is not the coupled relationship but friendship that is the key relationship of the 21st century. I’ll have more to say about that in some future post.

Reference:

Gillespie, B. J., Lever, J., Frederick, D., & Royce, T. (2015). Close adult friendships, gender, and the life cycle. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 32, 709-736.

Photo by photosteve101