01/24/2012 08:40 am ET Updated Mar 25, 2012

Happily Ever After? You Must Be Talking About Single People

A just-published study followed the lives of more than 2,700 Americans, all of whom who started out single and not cohabiting. By the time the study ended six years later, some of them had cohabited, others got married and still others stayed single.

In some ways, the single people did better, and in other ways, the people who got coupled did better. The advantages of the single people were lasting. The benefits of those who got coupled were fleeting -- by the end of the study, none of the initial advantages posted by the couples had endured.

All participants were asked at the beginning of the study, and again six years later, about the extent to which they maintained contact with their parents, and the amount of time they spent with friends. The idea that authors Kelly Musick and Larry Bumpass were testing was that getting partnered increases your social support. Theoretically, coupled people "connect their partners to larger networks of friends, kin, and community that can be drawn upon in times of need." That is not what they found.

Instead, those who entered into a cohabiting relationship or who got married had less contact with their parents and spent less time with their friends than those who stayed single. What's more, the couples did not become any less couple-y over time. In the first three years of the study, those who got coupled were less connected to others than were the people who stayed single, and in the last three years, they remained less connected.

The conventional wisdom about getting married, even among many social scientists, is that it improves people's health and wellbeing relative to staying single. The study in the February 2012 issue of the Journal of Marriage and Family tested that, too. Within the first three years, the results looked promising. Those who had gotten married or who had entered into a cohabiting relationship were initially happier, healthier, less depressed and higher in self-esteem than those who stayed single. Those results, though, turned out to be mere honeymoon effects. When the results were analyzed for years four through six of the study, the people who had become coupled were no happier, no healthier, no less depressed and enjoyed no better self-esteem than those who had stayed single.

The authors began the report of their study by describing the prevailing theories as to why getting married should result in better life outcomes. For example, married people are supported by legal structures, they have social roles that supposedly provide meaning and purpose, they presumably have more extensive social support, and they have commitment in their lives. So how did it happen that only the people who stayed single showed enduring advantages? Why, with all of the legal benefits and protections afforded to married people, along with their purported superiority in social roles, social support and commitment, did any benefits to their health or well-being dissipate by the end of the study?

I think the study begs us to reconsider our stereotypes of the poor, pathetic, miserable and lonely single people. What are the strengths and resources and motivations of people who stay single? How do they eventually experience just as much happiness, self-esteem and good health as people who get coupled, in a country teeming with singlism and matrimania?

Great questions, but you will not find any proposed answers to them in the report of the study. There is much discussion of the well-being of the married people, and how it compares to that of the cohabitors, but nothing about the people who stayed single. Social scientists are so preoccupied with marriage that they view their findings only from the perspective of people who are coupled, even when their own results are pleading with them to think more deeply about single life.

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