People View Single Life Just As Positively As Married Life, Study Finds

Contributing Sex & Relationships Editor By Kelly Gonsalves
Contributing Sex & Relationships Editor
Kelly Gonsalves is a sex educator and journalist. She received her journalism degree from Northwestern University, and her writings on sex, relationships, identity, and wellness have appeared at The Washington Post, Vice, Teen Vogue, Cosmopolitan, and elsewhere.

Image by BONNINSTUDIO / Stocksy

Although there's still a lingering perception in the U.S. that being in a relationship is somehow better than being single, the tides are finally starting to shift.

A new study published in the Personal Relationships journal found most people do not perceive married life more positively than they do single life across the board. Instead, people think there are certain parts of life that are better when you're single and other parts of life that are better when you're married.

Where being single is better than being married. 

A team of researchers led by Amanda Gesselman, Ph.D., a social psychologist and research director at the Kinsey Institute at Indiana University, looked at data on 6,576 people who were asked to compare different aspects of single people's and married people's emotional and social lives. The researchers found people tended to believe single folks have more friends, more interesting social lives, more sex, more desire to stay fit, and more career-mindedness than married folks.

"Across our analyses, single life was perceived to positively exceed married life in terms of friendships and social life, sexual behavior, working hard to stay in shape, and career-mindedness," Gesselman and her co-authors wrote in the paper on their findings. "Although marriage is often seen as the optimal arrangement, our findings did not show more positive perceptions of married life across all domains."

That said, people did associate marriage with more positive "emotional experiences and frame of mind." Participants said they believed married people tend to exceed single people in terms of feeling content, confident, and secure.

Interestingly, people who've been married (whether formerly or currently) tended to view the differences between married and single life more starkly. Compared to people who'd never been married, people who were currently or formerly married tended to perceive singlehood as involving more sex and socializing to an even greater extent. Similarly, people who'd never been likely were particularly convinced that marriage comes with a lot more feelings of contentment, compared to people who've experienced marriage. The researchers referred to this as a "'knowing from experience' effect."

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Shifting away from singlehood stigma.

"Marriage is regularly upheld as the pinnacle of a normal and healthy romantic relationship and subsequent family life," Gesselman and her team wrote. "As with most societal expectations, conformity to this relational norm is reinforced with social rewards that provide substantial advantages to those who marry in comparison to unmarried individuals. For instance, there are currently over 1,000 federal laws privileging married people."

Past studies have demonstrated that these social norms result in what the researchers call "singlism," in which single people tend to be perceived more negatively than their married peers. Married people tend to be described as "happy, fulfilled, stable, reliable, kind, giving, and loving," while singles are seen as unsuccessful, unattractive, more risky, and "as walking amalgamations of bad traits and behaviors."

But despite these social norms, the researchers noted that singlehood is becoming an "increasingly prevalent and progressively normal adult state." U.S. Census Bureau 2017 stats indicate roughly half of American adults are unmarried, and the age at which people get married keeps getting pushed back later and later, with women getting married at age 27 on average and men at age 29. "With increasing numbers of single adults in the United States, conceptualizations of marriage may be changing to be less positive, or at least less discrepant from conceptualizations of single life," the team writes.

The results from this study certainly suggest a welcome shift toward viewing all life paths as potentially rewarding, albeit in different ways.

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