“Don’t you get depressed? Don’t you want someone there with you? Don’t you need someone?” That was the gist of the questions a young adult had for me when she learned that I had always been single and always would be. The idea that someone might choose to be single was foreign to her. “Single at heart” was not in her vocabulary. She could not imagine ever embracing single life.
Lurking in her question about depression were several assumptions: that single people are more depressed than coupled people; that they need a romantic partner; and that getting into a romantic relationship or getting married would transform a depressed single person into a less depressed romantic partner. In making those assumptions, she was similar to many social scientists who have studied marriage. They, too, have long believed that getting married transforms depressed single people into mentally healthy spouses.
I have been scrutinizing the research on marital status for two decades, and I have found that most claims like the one about depression are grossly exaggerated or just plain wrong. Two recent studies of depression are especially telling.
Sometimes, when people first get married, they experience what researchers call a “honeymoon effect.” They get a little happier around the time of the wedding, then they go back to feeling as happy or as unhappy as they were when they were single. But even that brief increase in happiness does not always happen – sometimes it only occurs for the people who get married and stay married (and not for those who eventually divorce), and sometimes it does not happen at all. Generally, people do not get happier after they get married.
What about depression? In one carefully analyzed study, the researchers studied people’s patterns of depression over time. They looked at all the people who went from being single to getting married (or moving in together). They did this for the people who stayed together as well as for all people who got married or started cohabiting, regardless of whether they stayed that way. (That’s an important point, methodologically; I’ll focus on those more inclusive results.) They also looked separately at those who had made the transition to marriage or cohabitation no more than three years ago, and those who had made the transition a longer time ago (between four and six years). That way, they could see whether any decrease in depression was just a honeymoon effect.
It was. The people who had recently gotten married (or moved in together) were less depressed initially. But then, after three years, they were no less depressed than they were when they were single. They were also no happier and no healthier, and their self-esteem was no higher.
There was only one way that the people who got married or started cohabiting always fared differently than they did when they were single. They became more insular. As single people, they were more likely to spend time with their friends and stay in touch with their parents. The participants were always more interpersonally connected when single than when coupled. It didn’t matter if the researchers looked only at the first few years of a union or all the years, and it didn’t matter whether they looked only at the couples who stayed together or all the couples, even those who divorced or moved out. People who become coupled turn inward. Single people stay connected; they are our social glue.
When the young adult asked me that question about depression, I don’t think she only had marriage or cohabitation in mind. I think she expected people in a coupled relationship – even just a dating relationship – to be less depressed than solo singles who have no romantic partner.
Another study, just published days ago, compared solo singles to single people who were dating. The researchers also included in their study people who were cohabiting and people who were married. They made the same predictions that my questioner probably would have made. They thought the married people would be the least depressed, followed by the cohabiting people, and then the singles who were dating. They expected the solo single people to be the most depressed (and the most stressed and the loneliest).
So were the singles who were dating less depressed than those who had no romantic partner? No! There were no differences, for the women or for the men. In fact, for the women, the four categories (married, cohabiting, dating, single and not dating) hardly differed at all. One of the few differences went against the researchers’ expectations: the women who were dating tended to experience more stress than the single women with no romantic partner. Among the men, the cohabiters were less depressed than the dating or single men with no romantic partner, but the married men were more depressed than the cohabiting men.
Overall, then, the study of married, cohabiting, dating, and solo singles found no consistent evidence for the belief that people in romantic relationships would be less depressed than single people without a romantic partner.
There was, though, a set of experiences that was consistently related to feeling less depressed. People who said that they could open up to friends and family, and rely on them when they had a problem, were less depressed than those who did not have social support from friends and family. That was true of both the women and the men.
The young adult who thought that I would be depressed because I was single seemed to think that single people don’t have anyone. But many single people who do not have a romantic partner do have someone. In fact, they may have more than one person in their life who is important to them. They are probably doing more to maintain their connections with people such as friends, parents, siblings, and neighbors than married or cohabiting people are. If they can rely on their friends and family, that will probably matter more to their psychological health than whether they have a spouse or romantic partner.
[Take a look at my TEDX talk, “What no one ever told you about people who are single,” if you are interested. Also, this collection of articles on all sorts of topics relevant to single life is always available. Check out my website, too, if you’d like.]