Our culture values romantic love and marriage highly. Most of us believe that being married is a better state, all in all, than living single.
My aunt’s husband died after a long marriage, when my aunt was in her 40s and had two children. She has remained single for the last 30 odd years. I asked her if she preferred being single. “I’ve been married and I’ve been single and married is better,” she said. “But I’m fine and I’ve just never met anyone I wanted to marry.”
That sounds right to me. Her wisdom matches the research. For people who like being married, a happy marriage confers many benefits, including health benefits. However, unhappy marriages are not more desirable than being single.
Single people aren’t doomed to loneliness and bad health. My aunt has many friends, and she’s the member of my extended family who keeps most in touch with all of us. In short, she’s the opposite of isolated, or selfish, as the stereotype of single people suggests she might be — and she’s actually typical of people who live without a spouse. Psychology researcher Bella DePaulo, an active advocate against the stigma attached to being single, has accumulated a wealth of evidence that single people tend to be givers. National surveys suggest that single adults are more likely to stay close to parents and siblings, have more friends, and are more likely to provide eldercare and other kinds of intensive help to people in their circle.
Researchers have been reporting since the mid-1800s that single people as a group have poorer health. That’s partly true because health is one of the attributes people seek in a spouse and illness can lead to divorce. A paper that examined data on Americans between the ages of 20 and 64 concluded that, before age 39, there wasn’t a health benefit to marriage. However, in the middle years and on, there does seem to be an advantage to marriage that can’t be explained by the fact that marrieds were healthier at the start.
One reason: singles are less likely to have health insurance, or their insurance may not be as good so they go without health care. Another is that marriage seems to encourage us to take care of ourselves. A single person is much more likely to give up smoking if he gets married than if he stays single. In their fifties, married people are more likely to go for prostate and breast exams.
All that said, a stressful unhappy marriage is bad for your health, much research also demonstrates. Members of a couple who are chronically at odds may tip into depression. They’re not necessarily stuck in bed planning suicide, but they can’t enjoy the good times. The longer women stay in rough marriages the more likely they are to get heart disease, other research has found.
Feeling disconnected and not cared for is indeed bad for your health; it is tied to depression and all the illnesses associated with chronic inflammation. This can happen to you while you are single or married.
My aunt’s pattern — with decades married, decades single — isn’t rare. Americans spend most of their lives, on average, single, according to Census figures. Although there are plenty of marriages, we’re also living longer, sometimes marrying later, and often divorcing. By the way, about 40 percent of marriages now end in divorce — not half, as we often hear. The divorce rate has actually been declining since 1979. Marriage isn’t dead.
With more people cycling in and out of marriage, they bring friendships and habits from their single years into their marriages and benefits from the married life into their post-divorce or widowed years. The differences may become harder to see.
In my vision, no single person would have reason to feel awkward in a roomful of couples. Marrieds would welcome single people in their social life and vice versa. My mother’s best friend, a woman who never married, joined my long-married parents on many of their vacations. My boyfriend and I socialize with both singles and couples. Staying connected in the ways that work for you is good for your health.