New Era, New Beliefs: Singles Do Better, but the Married Feel Better

We believe singles have more sex and friends, and marrieds are more content.

Posted Jan 22, 2020

Single people have been stereotyped for quite some time. But they are not just going to take that disparagement anymore. As their numbers continue to grow, single people are more and more emboldened to stand up to the prejudice I have called singlism.

Increasingly, singles have science on their side. Contrary to the stereotype of single people as isolated and alone, an avalanche of research shows that singles, on the average, have more friends and bigger social networks, and do more to maintain their relationships with the people who matter to them, than married people. Single people also exercise more than married people; perhaps as a result, people who marry do not become any healthier overall, and according to their own reports, may even become a bit less healthy. People who marry do not become lastingly happier than they were when they were single, either.

Have these new and affirming understandings about single and married people made their way to the general population? Or are most people still buying into old myths about how single people are miserable and lonely and that if they want to have more sex and more contentment, they had better get married?

A number of scholars have documented stereotypes of single people, my colleagues and I included, but many of those studies are at least a decade old. We need an update. Fortunately, Amanda N. Gesselman of the Kinsey Institute and five colleagues have provided one; they published it in the December 2019 issue of Personal Relationships.

I like their study, even though I don’t love all of the results. Its strengths include: (1) it is based on a reasonably representative sample of more than 6,000 adults in the U.S.; (2) the participants were asked about lots of different aspects of single and married life, including how single and married people are doing and how they are feeling; and (3) the researchers looked at whether perceptions of single and married life differed, depending on the participants’ own marital status (currently married, previously married, or always single).

Questions from the Survey

Participants were asked four questions about how single and married people were doing. “Compared to single people, do married people…”

  1. Have more friends?
  2. Have more sex?
  3. Have more interesting social lives?
  4. Work hard to stay in shape?

(They were also asked whether married people are more career-minded, but the results were not straightforward.)

Participants were also asked three questions about emotional experiences. “Compared to single people, do you think married people…”

  1. Are more content?
  2. Are more confident?
  3. Feel more secure?

In response to each question, participants answered “Yes,” “No,” or “Similar.”

Findings

People of all marital statuses agreed: Single people are doing better; married people are feeling better.

On all the questions about doing better – having more friends, more sex, a more interesting social life, and working hard to stay in shape – people of all marital statuses agreed that single people excelled.

The results were strongest for staying in shape. Overall, 57% said that no, married people were not working harder than single people to stay in shape. Only 15% said that they were, and 28% said that the two groups were similar.

Averaged across all participants, regardless of their own marital status, 42% said no, married people do not have more sex; 38% said they do. The others said both groups were similar.

For the question about having more friends, 40% said no, married people do not have more friends; 29% said that they do. The findings for an interesting social life were similar: 39% said no, married people do not have more interesting social lives, while only 27% said that they do.

The results were exactly the opposite for the questions about the feelings of single and married people. People of all marital statuses believed that married people feel more content, confident, and secure.

The findings were strongest for feeling secure: Overall, 63% of participants said that married people feel more secure than singles; just 17% said they don’t, and 20% said the two groups feel similar levels of security.

With regard to feeling content, 53% thought that married people felt more content; 23% thought they were not. Overall, 42% thought married people were more confident, compared to just 26% who thought they were not more confident than single people.

People who have experienced marriage view it less positively than people who have always been single.

One of the truly annoying stereotypes of single people is that they are bitter. Single people, that stereotype maintains, go around putting down married people because of that bitterness. The Gesselman study, though, suggests just the opposite: People who have never been married have more idealized views of married people than people who have had a taste of married life – those who are currently married or were married in the past.

For these analyses, the authors controlled for age, gender, parental status, and income. That means that they were comparing single and married (or previously married) people who were similar in those characteristics.

The people who were currently married or who had previously been married saw single people as doing particularly well. They were even more inclined than the lifelong single people to say that single people have more sex and a more interesting social life, and work harder to stay in shape.

People who were once married were also less likely to idealize marriage when they were asked about contentment. It was the people who had never been married who were most likely to think that married people are more content than single people.

This Is Mostly Good News

After years of studies documenting the relentless stereotyping of single people, I am pleasantly surprised to find that the word is out. The American public is no longer swallowing the stories claiming that single people are lonely, alone, fat, sex-starved, and unhealthy. They seem to know what research has shown: Single people are doing better than married people, on average, in terms of the number of friends they have, how interesting their social lives are, and the exercise they get. They aren’t showing the same overall decline in having sex that married people are.

Single people aren’t buying into the disparaging myths about themselves. Married people don’t believe them, either, and neither do people who were once married. In fact, the people who have experienced marriage are the least likely to see single life in stigmatizing ways. No one sees married people as doing better than singles in their social life, sex life, or staying in shape, but the people who come closest to romanticizing married people are the people who have never been married; they are especially likely to think that married people are more contented.

People of all marital statuses do still believe that married people are doing better than single people emotionally. They think they are more content, confident, and secure. As I argued in my TEDx talk, “What no one ever told you about people who are single,” there are good reasons why married people should be doing better in those ways. Married people are still valued, respected, and celebrated more than single people, sometimes way more. (I call that matrimania.) And they are the recipients of massive concrete advantages in the federal benefits they receive simply because they are married.

That makes it even more remarkable that getting married does not typically result in lasting increases in happiness. Maybe in another decade, the general public will start to realize that the emotional rewards they were promised for getting married may not last, if they even materialize in the first place; they are as fleeting and as fanciful as a fairy tale.