What does marriage contribute to social ties between people, the building of community, and the provision of care? For the couple within the marriage, it should, ideally, give a lot. If the marriage is good, the couple has a strong connection with each other, and they should also be able to count on each other for care when they need it.
For all the connection and caring that marriage takes for itself – that is, for the two people within the marriage – what does marriage give back to people outside the marriage? Once people marry, do they become even more connected to the important people in their lives (such as parents and siblings and friends)? Do they become more connected in ways that build community, such as by maintaining more contact with neighbors and exchanging more help with them?
What about when someone needs lots of help – for example, when they are disabled or seriously ill or when they are elderly and no longer able to do everything on their own? Are married people more likely than single people to give that sort of help? Or is marriage more about taking interpersonal time and resources for the two people in the marriage, and not giving much to people outside it?
There is now quite a lot of relevant research, and the results shatter stereotypes about the selfish and self-centered single people and the caring and connected married people. Just the opposite seems to be true.
The relevant research includes studies that compare people who have always been single to people who are currently married and also to people who have previously been married (divorced or separated or widowed). Those studies can’t really show that getting married causes people to become more insular, because the married and single people are different people, so maybe other differences between them (and not their marital status) explains the differences in social ties. The stronger research (though still not definitive, in terms of causality) follows the exact same people as they go from being single to getting married: Do they become more connected to other people or less so?
As it turns out, the answer is almost always the same, no matter how you do the research or which measure of greediness or connection or caring you use. Single people are society’s social glue and they are the ones giving care to other people.
Here are some examples of relevant research findings:
- Elderly parents are more likely to get help from their grown kids who are single than from those who are coupled. That’s true regardless of whether they are Black or White, and it is true for their sons as well as their daughters.
- Single people are more likely to provide long-term care than married people are. When more than 9,000 British adults answered the question, “Do you currently or have you ever regularly looked after someone, for at least three months, who is sick, disabled, or elderly?”, the results were clear. Singles had done so more often than married people.
- People who have always been single spend more time exchanging help with neighbors and socializing with them than married people do.
- People who have always been single spend more time exchanging help with friends and socializing with them than married people do.
- People who have always been single are more likely to exchange help with their parents, and have frequent contact with them, than are married people.
- People who have always been single are more likely to exchange help with their siblings, and have frequent contact with them, than are married people.
- When people get married, they have less contact with their parents and spend less time with their friends than they did when they were single. It is not just a honeymoon effect – in research that followed people for up to six years after the wedding, they were still more insular than they were when they were single. Kids can’t explain the difference – even the married people with no kids were less connected to their family and friends.
- Single people keep siblings together. Once people marry, they have less contact with their siblings than they did when they were single. If they get divorced, then they again have more contact.
- Single people are more likely to volunteer for civic organizations and participate in the life of their cities and towns than married people are.
- In the US, Single people have more friends than married people do. That’s true whether they are men or women and regardless of whether they are parents or have no kids. (Studies from the Netherlands and Great Britain offer similar conclusions.)
Are you thinking to yourself, hmm, I thought I had heard just the opposite. That’s what I thought, too, long ago, before I started studying single life and not just practicing it. There have been books written that claim to make the case that it is married people who are more caring and more connected and who are the glue holding our society together. But when I actually studied the data from those books very closely, I found something else entirely. For example, in his book, Marriage in Men’s Lives, Steve Nock claims to have shown that marriage civilizes men, making them more dedicated workers and more generous people. But his own data show that they only work harder in ways that benefit just themselves (for example, working more hours to get more pay, though only in their first marriages). They actually devote less time to the kinds of professional and work groups that would benefit people other than themselves and their own nuclear families. Nock’s data also show that men also become less generous with their friends after they marry.
Of course, all of these studies were published before same-sex marriage became legal all across the U.S. We do not yet know whether gays and lesbians will practice marriage in different ways than heterosexuals do. Perhaps in part because LGBT people were sometimes excluded not just from marriage, but from their own families of origin, there is a rich tradition in such communities of valuing a wide range of social connections, such as friends and fellow activists and supportive members of extended families. The term “families of choice” has origins in LGBT communities. Gays and lesbians have long been in the forefront of experiments in living, creating meaningful lifespaces rather than just following some prescribed path through life.
Will they continue to innovate or will they practice marriage the heterosexual way? Wouldn’t it be interesting if same-sex marriage really did affect heterosexual marriage, not in the ways that its opponents feared, but by turning it into a less greedy institution?
[Note. For more about contemporary innovations in living, as practiced by gays and straights, singles and couples, parents and people who are not parents, and people of different ethnicities and social statuses, check out How We Live Now: Redefining Home and Family in the 21st Century.]