Time was that the persistently single male was seen as an unhealthy lump, prone to nightly feastings on pizza and beer – probably destined for an early grave because of his unhealthy lifestyle and poor social integration. Marriage or cohabitation, though, would soon give this slob an ordered life with plentiful social and psychological support and therefore a longer lifespan.
Or so the story goes.
New research by Hui Liu and Debra Umberson published in the Journal of Health and Social Behavior, suggests this story may be changing. Liu and Umberson looked at self-reported health data obtained as part of a huge US survey from over 1 million participants. They were interested in seeing how the relationship between marital status and health had changed between 1972 and 2003.
What they found was that the health gap between married men and men who had never been married narrowed in this 30-year period. By 2003 there was very little difference in health status between unmarried and married men. It seems that marriage no longer confers the same health benefits on men that it once did.
Women and cohabiters
For women no such narrowing in the health gap was seen, mainly because there was little gap to narrow in the first place. In 1972 unmarried women were only slightly less healthy, on average, than married women. In health terms, in 1972, it was only men who were the major beneficiaries of marriage, but this difference is now substantially reduced.
Cohabiters were excluded from the main study, but Liu and Umberson do find that in health terms cohabiting is much the same as being married. Data wasn’t collected for cohabiters before 1997 so it wasn’t possible to make any comparisons over time about men and women.
Reduced stigma of singledom?
Liu and Umberson offer a partial economic explanation for these changes with the dataset they were using. They find that in the 31 years of the study there had been a relative decline in family income for whites (but not for African Americans) in US. This ties in with the modern idea that the economic benefits of marriage are now much less pronounced than they once were.
Of course economics can’t fully explain the change. Liu and Umberson suggest that single men are now able to obtain emotional and social support outside marriage, support that presumably wasn’t available in 1972. Perhaps also being a single man is now more socially acceptable, less of an aberration or a sign of implicit deviance to society’s core values. As a result single men may see themselves in a more positive light, which is reflected in better health.
That explanation, though, suggests being a single women was more socially acceptable than being a single man in 1972, and I’m not so sure that’s true. What do you think about this or other explanations?
About the author
Psychologist, Jeremy Dean, PhD is the founder and author of PsyBlog. He holds a doctorate in psychology from University College London and two other advanced degrees in psychology.
He has been writing about scientific research on PsyBlog since 2004. He is also the author of the book “Making Habits, Breaking Habits” (Da Capo, 2003) and several ebooks.