On reddit, I recently discovered, I have been a topic of conversation. A reader asked Eli Finkel, a professor who studies marriage, a question about my work, and he responded. In doing so, he said something he considered so obvious, he was pretty sure I would agree with him. Actually, what he said was only half-obvious, and wholly misleading.
Here’s the question and answer:
Question on reddit: How do you view Bella DePaulo’s work?
Eli Finkel: Regarding Bella, I’m a big fan. I don’t always share her interpretation of a given datapoint, but I always appreciate the role she plays in the broader conversation. For those who don’t know, Bella DePaulo is a social psychologist who argues that married people really aren’t happier than single people, and that we, as a society, discriminate against singles. She’s right on both counts. But I’m pretty sure that she and I would agree about this point, too: A well-functioning marriage is linked to high levels of overall happiness with life.
Marriage is certainly not necessary for a happy life, and a bad marriage is harmful for us. But a good marriage is a very nice thing.
First, thank-you to Professor Finkel for the kind words. I’ve offered praise for his work as well. I also appreciate his acknowledgement of single people’s happiness, and the fact that they achieve their happiness despite the stereotyping, stigmatizing, and discrimination (which I call singlism) that they face for being single.
The point I’m supposed to agree with is:
“A well-functioning marriage is linked to high levels of overall happiness with life. Marriage is certainly not necessary for a happy life, and a bad marriage is harmful for us. But a good marriage is a very nice thing.”
He’s half right. Here’s the other, equally important but far less often acknowledged half:
A well-functioning single life is linked to high levels of overall happiness with life. Being single is certainly not necessary for a happy life, and a bad single life is harmful for us. But a good single life is a very nice thing.
Do you now see what Professor Finkel did? He starts by acknowledging that getting married actually does not confer any happiness advantage. But he’s not going to leave it at that. Marriage, you see, still has to win. So he goes on to say that a good marriage is a very nice thing. And he is pretty sure I’d agree with him.
What he does not say is what I added: a good single life is also a very nice thing. For people who are single-at-heart, it is the best possible life.
I wonder whether Professor Finkel, by describing only the good-marriage part of the equation, is trying to nudge you to conclude that married people have better lives than single people. And no, I do not agree with that at all. I think that some people do in fact lead their best lives by marrying but others do so by staying single, and another awesome group can do great either way.
What Professor Finkel did in his answer is similar to something I’ve been noticing for the entire 20 years I’ve been studying single life and what people say and imply about it.
“Happily married couples are healthier, happier, wealthier, and sexier than are singles, especially single men.”
Do you see what she did? Professor Hetherington did not compare married people to single people. That might not lend support to the matrimaniacal message she wants to convey. So she skims off the top of the group of people who are currently married (already a select group) only those who are happily married. She compares them not to single people who are happily single (which would be the appropriate comparison), but to all single people.
But wait, that is still not sufficiently indefensible. She then goes on to zero in on single men. So she is taking the married people who are doing the best in their marriages (with regard to happiness) and comparing them to the single people she thinks are doing the worst at single life – single men.
Mavis Hetherington is an esteemed, award-winning scholar. And her book was published by Norton, a prestigious publisher with smart editors. And yet, that totally ridiculous comparison apparently did not set off anyone’s b.s. detector.
The same sort of intellectually embarrassing argument also shows up in articles in peer-reviewed academic journals. When I was reviewing the research on loneliness, for example, I found another egregious comparison made by respected scholars, that got by all the reviewers and editors at the journal.
The scholars were trying to argue for the superiority of marriage over single life in protecting against loneliness. They compared only those people who were currently married to all the people who were not married – including those who tried marriage and didn’t like it (all the divorced people). As I’ve argued many times before, that’s already a biased comparison that unfairly stacks the deck in favor of marriage. Nonetheless, even after the married people were given that unjustifiable advantage, they were no less lonely than the people who were not married. That was not good for their argument about the superiority of married people. So they then looked at an even more select group of married people – those who considered their spouse to be a confidant.
As I pointed out in a previous post:
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.
The good news is that many single people, including some without any of the advanced training of the scholars who made such embarrassing comparisons, are no longer buying what the marriage promoters are selling. That’s good for them, good for fairness, and good for all of us who do not want our social science served with a side of ideology.