Is It a Bad Idea to Compare Married and Single People?
My life’s work is about single people and single life. For the past two decades, I have immersed myself in the social science research on the links between marital status and life outcomes such as health, happiness, self-esteem, and connections to other people. I’ve conducted research, studied other people’s research, and read voraciously all those stories published all over the media. I’ve given talks and attended talks given by other people, I’ve written books and blogs and read other people’s books and blogs.
For the longest time, one story line has prevailed: Married people are better than single people. They are happier and healthier, they live longer, they have more interpersonal connections, and so on. They are better than single people, the story goes, because they are married. If only single people would get married, they would become happier and healthier and better off in all those other ways, too.
For all the time that this misleading narrative has prevailed, I have never once heard anyone say anything like this: “Let’s not compare married people and single people. We are all human. What we have in common matters more than the ways we differ.” There have probably been thousands, if not tens of thousands, of blog posts uncritically repeating false narratives about the supposed superiority of married people, often based on badly-conducted and poorly-reported scientific research; yet not once, have I ever seen anyone post a comment to one of those blog posts challenging the author for comparing married and single people.
I have been to conferences and informal settings where the supposed superiority of married people is discussed, and I have never – not even once – heard anyone speak up and challenge the speaker for comparing single and married people. No one ever says: “Why are you talking about the ways in which married people do better? Shouldn’t you be pointing to our common humanity instead?”
That doesn’t happen. When the argument being advanced is that married people are doing better than single people, no one seems to mind.
But now things are changing. Social scientists are becoming more sophisticated about how they do their research on marital status. When the research is done right – or even when it is closer to being scientifically defensible than it was before – the results look very different. They are not showing that if you get married, you will become lastingly happier or healthier or better off in other emotional or interpersonal ways. In fact, sometimes it is the people who stay single who do the best.
For example, just in the past few months, two big, impressive studies were published and both showed that people who get married do not get any healthier than they were when they were single – and may even become slightly less healthy. The studies captured headlines. I wrote about them, too. I’ve also written, here and elsewhere, about many of the other studies that challenge the conventional wisdom of our time about the supposed superiority of married people. I’ve given some talks on the topic as well.
Ever so slowly, the media narrative is beginning to shift. Now there are stories in prestigious publications suggesting that maybe things aren’t what we thought all along. Maybe getting married is not all it has been cracked up to be, and maybe staying single can be better than we’ve ever realized.
And so now, with this new narrative taking hold that values single life rather than bashing it, now the question is being raised. It has been posted to the comments section of this blog and other blogs and it has appeared in discussion forums. Why, I have been asked, am I comparing married and single people? Why don’t I focus on what we all have in common?
I do think that what we have in common across marital statuses is greater than our differences. That’s worth pointing out. And I’m also not saying that everyone should stay single. I think that some people really do live their best lives by marrying, others live their best lives by living single, and for still others, what is best may be different at different times in their lives. There are even some enviable people who could live their happiest, healthiest, and most meaningful life regardless of their marital or relationship status.
But if that’s all I ever say, and if I never wrote about the ways in which single people are doing so well – ways that are now documented by scientific research – I would be doing the wrong thing.
Single people are stereotyped. People believe the conventional wisdom that insists that married people are better people, and have better lives. It is not just coupled people who believe those things – many single people do, too.
Without any pushback, those beliefs will continue to go unchallenged. Still another generation will grow up thinking that the only way to have a truly good life is to get married. People who know, at some level, that single life is their best life, will instead grab at marriage because there is just no support for what they really know about themselves. They doubt themselves, and seek out romantic relationships and marriage because everything they’ve heard and read tells them it is the right thing to do. Maybe they even commit to romantic partners that they know, at some level, are not right for them. Maybe they let themselves become involved with partners who treat them badly, and they stay involved with those partners, because what if they left and then never found anyone who treated them better?
If the conventional wisdom about the superiority of married and coupled people is never challenged, then all our life choices get restricted. The people in unsatisfying romantic partnerships wonder whether they would be able to find a better partner, and never even consider the possibility that single life could be a deeply satisfying and meaningful way of living. For any given person, it may or may not be. But we should all get to wonder about that, to take that possibility seriously.
If I and everyone else stopped comparing married people to single people, now that the research tide is turning and single people are looking better and better, the result would not be peace on earth. We would not all get to live our lives happily and without stigma or shame. Instead, the prevailing societal prejudices would continue to go unchallenged. Single people would continue to be stereotyped, stigmatized, marginalized, and discriminated against. Coupled and married people would continue to be valued and respected and celebrated. Too many people would think that there is really only one legitimate life path to follow. Too many of them would head down that path, only learning later and at great personal cost, that it never was the right path for them.
Even people who want to marry, and who live their best lives as part of a couple, would benefit from knowing that a single life can also be a valuable life. When we all recognize that there is potential for fulfillment and meaning in both single life and coupled life, then people who want to be coupled can pursue that from a position of strength. They can move toward that goal in a positive way, as something to embrace, instead of getting there because they are running away from a single life that they fear.
Campbell, O. (2017, July 21). Married people used to be healthier – but not anymore. New York Magazine.
DePaulo, B. (2006). Singled out: How singles are stereotyped, stigmatized, and ignored, and still live happily ever after. New York: St. Martin’s Press.
DePaulo, B. (2011). Singlism: What It Is, Why It Matters, and How to Stop It.
DePaulo, B. (2015). Marriage vs. single life: How science and the media got it so wrong.
DePaulo, B. (2017, March 25). What no one ever told you about people who are single. TEDx talk, Hasselt, Belgium.
DePaulo, B. (2017, May 25). Get married, get healthy? Maybe not. New York Times.
Kalmijn, M. (2017). The ambiguous link between marriage and health: A dynamic reanalysis of loss and gain effects. Social Forces, 95, 1607-1636.
Sarkisian, N., & Gerstel, N. (2016). Does singlehood isolate or integrate? Examining the link between marital status and ties to kin, friends, and neighbors. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 33, 361-384.
Singal, J. (2016, August 16). The new science of single people. New York Magazine.
Singal, J. (2017, May 12). What if marriage is overrated? New York Magazine.
Tumin, D. (2017). Does marriage protect health? A birth cohort comparison. Social Science Quarterly.
DePaulo, B. (2017). Is It a Bad Idea to Compare Married and Single People?. Psych Central. Retrieved on August 22, 2017, from https://blogs.psychcentral.com/single-at-heart/2017/07/is-it-a-bad-idea-to-compare-married-and-single-people/