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Why We Thought Marriage Made Us Healthier, and Why We Were Wrong

Single people all over the world love their life. And we’re beginning to understand why.
Image: A groom naps as newlywed couples attend a mass wedding ceremony of the Unification Church at Cheongshim Peace World Centre in Gapyeong
Over it.Kim Hong-Ji / Reuters file

The power of marriage to transform allegedly forlorn single people into blissfully happy and healthy couples is not just the stuff of fairy tales. For more than 70 years, social scientists’ studies have supposedly shown that marrying improves people’s wellness. Award-winning scholars and leading magazines have all proclaimed that marriage typically makes people healthier and happier.

The promise is seductive: Find and marry that one special someone and all your dreams will come true.

Recently, though, new and methodologically sophisticated studies have been published that suggest something startling: Maybe we are wrong about the benefits of marriage. People who marry, it seems, do not become healthier than when they were single, and may even become a shade less healthy. They do not become lastingly happier, either.

How is that possible?

In sickness and health

In the July issue of "Social Science Quarterly," Dmitry Tumin, a sociologist at the Ohio State University School of Medicine, reported the results of a study of the health implications of first marriages. More than 12,000 Americans described their general health (on a five-point scale ranging from excellent to poor) year after year, both when they were single and after they wed.

Tumin gave marriage every chance to shine. He looked separately at the results for men and women to see if their health improved after they married. He looked at short marriages (no more than four years), medium-length marriages (five to nine years), and enduring marriages (10 years or more). He grouped the married participants into three different birth cohorts: 1955, 1965 and 1975.

No matter how he looked at it, Tumin found marriage did nothing for men’s health. Among the women, only the oldest study participants in the most enduring marriages described their health as a bit better after they had married.

Image: A couple exchanges rings at a ceremony in Newark
Putting a ring on it.Andrew Burton / Getty Images file

Tumin’s findings follow on the heels of a 16-year study of Swiss adults that found married people experienced no fewer illnesses than when they were single. According to their reports of overall health, study participants actually became slightly less healthy after marrying.

Similarly unromantic findings have been accumulating about the implications of marriage for happiness. A 2012 review of 18 studies of happiness, life satisfaction and relationship satisfaction in the "Journal of Personality and Social Psychology" showed that people who married experienced no greater well-being than when they were single. At best, they felt a bit more satisfied as newlyweds. But even this honeymoon effect declines over time.

All this led Tumin to believe that marriage is not as beneficial as it once was. Maybe your grandparents were healthier after they married, but you probably won’t be.

It is also possible, though, that the benefits of marrying have been overstated all along. Social scientists often give marriage an unfair advantage when, for example, they focus on marriages that last and ignore the ones that end in divorce.

'The one' vs. 'the ones'

When social scientists were sure that people who married were healthier, they thought they knew why. People who marry, they suggested, “have someone,” and single people do not. Married people support each other in good times and bad. They monitor each other, so that they eat more vegetables or resist inclinations to drink to excess. People who marry are also rewarded with considerable material advantages, including tax breaks and access to a spouse’s health care plan.

But if marriage comes with so many advantages, why don’t people reliably become healthier and happier after they marry?

The focus on the advantages of marriage and disadvantages of single life has left us oblivious to the equally significant flip sides: the disadvantages of marriage and the advantages of single life.

We believe married people “have someone” and single people do not. But research has shown that it is single people who more often maintain their ties with friends, neighbors, siblings and parents. In contrast, couples tend to turn inward after they marry, paying less attention to their friends and parents. Married people have “the one,” but single people have “the ones.”

Image: Couples participate in a group Valentine's day wedding ceremony
The more the merrier.Joe Raedle / Getty Images file

We think that because married people have someone, they are protected from loneliness and single people are not. But that is another example of a misleading cultural narrative fixated on the perils of single life. It ignores the special pain of feeling lonely within a marriage. It fails to appreciate the deep fulfillment that solitude can offer, with its opportunities for creativity, reflection, relaxation, rejuvenation, spirituality and peace.

When we think of married people as having someone, that seems particularly important when one of them falls ill. This, too, is not always true. A study of women with breast cancer, most of whom were married, showed that support from their significant other did nothing to relieve their distress or speed their recovery.

Social scientists have told us that because married people monitor each other, they stay healthier. But single people exercise more than married people. On average, people became fatter after they got married. For some people, marriage actually exacerbated bad habits: A study of nearly 16,000 pairs of male twins found that marriage magnified whatever tendencies the men already had. Those inclined to smoke, for example, were even more likely to do so if they were married.

A single life is a meaningful life

Unrecognized by the stories about the benefits of marrying are the significant rewards of single life. In a study comparing lifelong single people to continuously married people over a five-year period, it was the single people who experienced more personal growth. They also enjoyed more autonomy in everyday life choices and more profound matters, such as becoming more confident about living by their own values.

Image: A bride rests before the start of a race
Ready or not.Marko Drobnjakovic / AP file

In their work lives, meaningfulness matters to single people. In a study conducted by Washington State University sociologists, participants were asked when they were high school seniors, and again nine years later, what kinds of jobs they wanted. In their late 20s, the people who were single, on the average, cared more about the meaningfulness of their work, whereas the married people were more concerned with extrinsic considerations such as pay and job security. As high school seniors, those who would stay single were already valuing meaningful work more than those who would go on to marry.

Single people also find meaning by giving. They volunteer more often than married people for just about every kind of cultural or community service organization, except for religious organizations. More often than married people, they are there for their friends, neighbors and co-workers who need rides, help with errands or moral support. When aging parents need help, they are more likely to get it from their single offspring than their married ones.

Securely single

Studies that compare married people to singles typically include all single people — not just those who have chosen single life. But what if we were to skim the satisfied singles off the top — just as so many studies do in focusing on a select group of married people? Compared to those who are afraid of being single, people secure in being single are less likely to be lonely, depressed or neurotic. They are less sensitive to rejection and get their feelings hurt less easily. They are more imaginative and more open to new experiences. They don’t need to marry in order to live happily ever after. They already have it figured out.

In anticipation of Unmarried and Single Americans Week this year, the Census Bureau has released its annual compilation of statistics about single people. As has been true of every major Census report for decades, this one documented the continued rise of single people. The number of unmarried Americans 18 and older has again hit an all-time high. There are now 110.6 million, edging ever closer to the number who are married. Some are divorced or widowed, but most (63.5 percent) have been single all their lives.

Untold numbers of them are not whining about single life but embracing it. At long last, we are beginning to understand why.

Bella DePaulo is the author of “Singled Out: How Singles Are Stereotyped, Stigmatized, and Ignored, and Still Live Happily Ever After” and other books. She has been writing the "Living Single" blog at Psychology Today since 2008.