“Dead or Married.” That was the headline at MedPage Today. It is an example of singles-bashing so stark, it almost sounds like a parody. The headline is supposed to be a summary of a just-published study. As such, it compounds its shaming of single people by also being wildly inaccurate.
It helps only a little that the title is qualified by a subtitle: “At population level, the choice grows starker.” I think MedPage is saying that in general (at the population level), your choice is to be married or dead, though maybe that won’t happen for every individual. That’s still not good enough.
In the study, Sally C. Curtin and Betzaida Tejada-Vera looked at the death rates of U.S. adults 25 and older every year from 2010 to 2017. They tabulated those rates separately for four groups: currently married, never married, divorced, and widowed. In their analyses, they adjusted the death rates for age, so that they were, in effect, comparing the death rates of people of different marital statuses when they were the same age. Their findings were published by the National Center for Health Statistics at the CDC.
The MedPage quick summary of the results was, “New mortality data show gap between the married and the unmarried keeps growing.” Yes, if you look at the difference between the currently married and the various unmarried groups in 2010 and again in 2017, the differences are bigger in 2017.
Let’s take a closer look.
The Death Rate Has Increased Since 2010 for One of the Marital Status Groups, and It Is Not the People Who Stayed Single
MedPage wants to focus on changes over time, so let’s do that. Over those 7 years, the death rate for the married people decreased 7 percent. The death rate for the lifelong single people also declined over that time period, by 2 percent. The death rate for the divorced people stayed the same.
For only one of the four marital status groups did the death rate increase between 2010 and 2017, and it was not the people who stayed single. It was the people who were widowed, whose death rate increased by 6 percent – almost the same amount as the married people’s decreased.
Let’s go back to that despicable headline, “Dead or Married.” Do you think the writer of that headline is telling single people that they had better get married or they are going to drop dead, and way sooner than their peers who knew enough to get married?
Once again, consider a key finding: Between 2010 and 2017, the death rate increased for only one group: the widowed. Guess what every single widowed person has in common? They got married.
So if you get married, will you live longer? Not if you get married and then become widowed. People who are widowed have the highest death rates, and for that group only, their death rates since 2010 have been increasing.
It is true that you can get married, stay married, and never become widowed. That means you died first.
The Authors Considered Only Two Kinds of Reasons for Why Currently Married People Might Do Better, Omitting Two Powerful Unearned Advantages
The original authors, Curtin and Tejada-Vera, explained the supposed advantage of married people (which did not extend to people who married and then became widowed – quite the opposite) as due to two factors: either healthier people get married and/or marriage protects people’s health. MedPage parroted those possibilities, and favored the latter, pointing in particular to the “built-in support” that married people have.
There are several problems with the explanation that marriage protects people’s health, and that married people’s supposedly greater social support is one way that happens. For one thing, two of the most recent and most rigorous studies of health – longitudinal studies that followed the same people over time – found that when single people got married, they did not become healthier. In fact, in one of the studies, people reported slightly worse overall health after they married.
About that supposedly “built-in support” that married people have – sure, that’s true if your spouse is in fact supportive. Let’s assume he or she is. Okay, then: married people have “The One.” But here’s the thing: single people have “the ones.” Compared to married people, single people have more friends and bigger social networks. They do more to maintain their relationships with their friends, relatives, neighbors, and coworkers. They also get more happiness and emotional fulfillment from the time they spend with their friends and relatives.
If people who get married do not become any healthier, and if they also become more insular, then why would married people ever have any advantage in longevity or anything else?
There are lots of interrelated reasons. I gathered them all under the concept of “singlism.” Single people are stereotyped, stigmatized, and marginalized, and they are targets of discrimination. Married people are respected, celebrated, and privileged.
At the federal level alone, there are more than 1,000 laws that benefit and protect only people who are legally married. As a result, married people have tremendous financial advantages over single people. They have other unfair advantages, too, such as greater access to health care (as, for example, when a married person can access health insurance through a spouse’s plan). Within the health care system, there are also life-threatening biases against people who are not married.
The mortality study I have been discussing illustrates one other important way that marriage is made to look more beneficial than it actually is. Remember, when people claim that marriage is good for you, they are basically saying that if you want to be healthier or if you want to live longer, you should get married. If that’s your message, you need to look at everyone who ever marries, and not just the people who are currently married.
Instead, in the mortality study and most other studies, the currently married people are considered apart from all the other people who got married. People who got divorced or became widowed are removed from the group of people who got married and analyzed separately.
The people who marry and then divorce are a select group. For example, a study of about 10,000 Dutch adults showed that the married people who had more health problems were much more likely to get divorced. When all the divorced people are taken out of the marriage group, that leaves the healthier people in the currently married group. That’s cheating. It makes the currently married people look healthier, but that’s not because they got married. The divorced people got married, too.
The Longest-Running Study of Longevity Found that People Who Stay Single Live as Long as People Who Stay Married
The just-published CDC mortality study was based on 7 years of data. Some previous studies are more extensive. I’ve critiqued claims from those studies and others elsewhere. Here I’ll just mention the results of the longest-running study of longevity, in which the same people have been followed since they turned 11 in 1921. The people who lived the longest were those who got married and stayed married and those who stayed single.
What’s Going on with Widowed People? Their Health Has Been Declining, Too
Maybe the results from the recent CDC mortality study that we should be talking about are the findings for the widowed people. Remember, that was the only group for which mortality rates have increased from 2010 to 2017. I think that is noteworthy in part because a study of changes in health between 1972 and 2003 found something similar. For the widowed people – and only for them – their health was worse in 2003 than it was in 1972.
I don’t know why that is. I don’t think anyone knows for sure. When I discussed the study of health, I offered this (below) as my best guess. Maybe it is relevant to the mortality findings as well:
“If married people marginalize the other important people in their lives, such as friends and relatives, then maybe they are looking to their partner to fulfill just about all of their needs and desires. When the partner is alive and the relationship is going well, that might work. But once the relationship hits a bad patch or it ends, then the newly single suffer. They experience worse health than do people who have always been single, and worse health than the previously married used to experience decades ago, when married people were less likely to expect their spouse to be their everything.”