A lot of recent research has concluded that, because I am single, I am more likely than my married friends to get cancer. I’m more likely to suffer from stress and depression, get pneumonia or dementia, or suffer from a heart attack or stroke.
Well that sucks.
Don’t get me wrong—a life partner sounds nice, and being single can sometimes feel lonely. But these days my life feels rich without a husband, so I’m not motivated to hunt one down. Which I guess means sucking it up and accepting that I’m about to die.
But am I? I work out a lot. I eat really well. I don’t smoke and I rarely drink. I don’t experience much stress and am definitely not depressed, and my doctors say I’m super healthy. And then there’s how I felt when I was married: stressed out, miserable, most likely mildly depressed. I know I’m just one person, but I had to wonder whether the research is right.
Isolation can kill you, but being single doesn’t have to be isolating.
As any well-trained researcher knows, no matter how provocative or desirable a conclusion is, if the research process or methodology is flawed, then the findings are flawed. And as it turns out, most research touting the health benefits of marriage rests on poor methodology. Moreover, simply being married isn’t as important as the quality of that marriage (one study suggests that a
stressful marriage is as unhealthy as a regular smoking habit). Plus, being married doesn’t count as much as having a support system. Isolation can kill you, but being single doesn’t have to be isolating.
That’s a relief. But it begs the question: why do we assume that being married is superior—even healthier—than being single?
System justification bias might explain it. System justification is the idea that people are motivated to defend the status quo, even rationalize its superiority, despite evidence to the contrary. In other words, people believe that marriage is awesome just because it’s traditionally been a major—if not the major—social institution in this country.
But maybe supporting the status quo isn’t such a bad thing. There’s a reason why marriage is such an important institution, right? Justifying its superiority can’t be all bad... right? Maybe. But when you think about how many socially unjust institutions (like racist or sexist ones) have persisted because of system justification, you start to wonder whether we should put marriage on a pedestal simply because “we’ve always had it.” I’m not saying marriage can’t be great. I’m just saying it might not be that great.
Why do we assume that being married is superior—even healthier—than being single?
Why do people lean toward system justification? One reason is that the status quo means order and predictability. Randomness and unpredictability can freak people out, and many will do what it takes to avoid the stress of uncertainty.
This might be especially true of conservatives. Research suggests conservatives are more likely than liberals to need certainty and hate ambiguity at a core psychological level. This might be why they are much more committed to preserving the institution of marriage as it has traditionally been defined, rather than accepting alternative lifestyles, including being single. In any case, political persuasion aside, people generally feel unsettled when something they’ve grown to accept as a huge part of life is challenged.
So while marriage may not necessarily make you healthier, it is the defining institution when it comes to meaningful relationships. And because of this, it may get credit for a lot of things (like lowering your blood pressure) that it can’t truly take credit for.
Interestingly, most single Americans are likely to support marriage as an institution. Data from a recent study I conducted for Avvo reveals that only 10 percent of single Americans believe that marriage is outdated. Still, most single folks don’t buy that marriage is an ideal: only 14 percent of single Americans believe that marriage should be a life goal, and 74 percent say they’d rather be alone, successful, and happy than in a relationship where they’re not happy. Being single is, for many, a viable and enriching alternative.
Right now, being single is enriching for me. Like I said, I’m not on the hunt for a husband, and my divorce was the start of a new life more than it was the end of one. Maybe I’ll never remarry and instead grow old with a circle of friends, much to the horror of those who might assume there is something “wrong” with me. That’s fine. As long as my doctors give me a clean bill of health, I’m not going to worry about it. Besides, the oldest person in the world attributes her longevity in large part to being single. I think that’s good enough for me.