For two decades, I’ve been studying people who are not married, so it is not often that something I read gives me a whole new perspective. That did happen, though, when I read this paragraph in the article, “Women without men (are doing just fine, thank you)”:
“For women who are married, the importance of having strong friendships increases as they age. Seventy-five percent of married women nationwide will become widows, at an average age of 57. With more grown children now living farther away than they did in past generations, women often rely on female friends for their sustaining emotional connections.”
What startled me in that paragraph was the fact that on the average, women are only 57 years old when they become widowed. That seems very young, and much younger than I would have guessed.
Is it really true? I’ve found different estimates, but they are all in the 50s, ranging from a low of 55 to a high of 59, for a statistic that includes both widows and widowers.
In my mind, people who are widowed always seemed like a different category of unmarried people than divorced or lifelong single people, because of their age. Now I realize that when they first become widows, they are, on the average, not very old.
The second thing I learned that surprised me (but maybe it should not have) is that the implications of becoming widowed are, in at least one way, even more negative now than they were in years past.
The key findings are from a study of the health of people of different marital statuses over a 31-year period, 1972–2003. In each of those years, a sample of married, divorced, separated, widowed, and always-single people were asked about their health. (Different people were surveyed each year; it would have been even better if the same people were followed the entire time.)
The study is not new, but I had always focused on the findings for just two groups – the married people and the people who had always been single. For the most recent year included in the study, the health of the married and always-single people was nearly identical. Among the married people, 92.9% rated their health as good or excellent; among those who had always been single, 92.6% did so. (Scroll down to Figure 1.) And remember, comparisons like that are already biased in favor of marriage, because they only count people who are currently married, and not everyone who ever got married.
Over the 31-year period, the health of the married people changed just a little, from about 92.5% saying their health was good or excellent in 1972, to 92.9% saying so in 2003. The health of the lifelong single people improved the most over time, but it was already quite positive in the first year of the study, with about 91% saying their health was good or excellent, compared to 92.6% in 2003.
Among the widows, about 86.5% rated their health as good or excellent in 2003. That’s still a pretty good bill of health, but it is less impressive than any other group. The other striking finding about the widows is that the ones who were included in the most recent year of the study (2003) reported worse health than those included in the earliest year (1972), about 86.5% vs. 92.4%. The divorced and separated people also reported worse health over time, but the drop was not as steep as it was for the widows.
Why is this happening?
Eli Finkel believes that in modern American marriages, spouses rely on each other more than they did in the past for what he calls “high-altitude needs” – needs for self-esteem and self-actualization. What’s more, they are relying more on just one another.
In the past, other people such as relatives and friends had a bigger role in their lives, but now married couples are turning inward and relying mostly on each other. That’s risky. When their marriage ends, especially when it ends with the death of the spouse, that is even more devastating than it was before. That shows up in worse health.
In contrast, lifelong single people today are doing better in recent years than they were before. Rather than relying on “The One,” many lifelong single people have “the ones.” Maybe it also helps that the number of single people has been growing, so they have each other.
It is not so unusual to be single anymore.