Does being single shorten your life?
After a particularly stinging betrayal and years of a roller coaster of fluctuating periods of affection followed by abuse, Marianne ended a ten year relationship. Feeling bereft, abandoned and lonely, she plucked up the courage after a few months to attend a “Singles Fair” in her home town. It was held on a former industrial site and involved crossing an almost empty gravel car park, where the only sound was of her crunching feet. There was no signposting, so she had to ask some workmen the way – therefore feelings of shame also had to be managed. The route into the exhibition hall was through a sinister disused railway station, with youths circling on bicycles on the old platforms. Somehow she managed not to turn back. Once inside, rather than stands celebrating the single lifestyle, they were all about how to end one’s single status : dating agencies, life coaches, personal presentation courses, speed dating events, lingerie stores and a stand featuring large pink vibrators – ie so you can pretend you aren’t single even while you still are. “The message was if you’re single, you’d better do something about it,” she said. “And I had been trying to tell myself being alone was better than being in a bad relationship for years.”
One of the oft-cited factors which contribute to long life is being married. This creates a sense of smugness in those who are married, and guilt and despair in those who are either divorced or single. The message is, if you die before your time well, it’s kind of your fault for being unloveable or selfish. But what this much-quoted statistic does not tell you is why married people live longer, and what kind of long-term relationship lengthens life. Some facts :
• Many studies only feature men. It is no secret men benefit more from marriage than women. Single men are less likely to seek medical help in the first stages of disease whereas a partner is likely to prompt them to do something about it. Clearly social isolation increases mortality. A Harvard study reported that socially isolated men have a 82% higher risk of dying of heart disease compared to men with strong personal relationships; not eating properly, drinking too much and engaging in other risky behaviours also worsens the health of single men.
• People with families have a sense of purpose about both their past and their future. But this does not factor in the enormous strain of raising children, particularly when things go wrong, which they almost always do at some point. Moreover, it is a fallacy to suggest people without families have no purpose; in fact they are more likely to have wider circles of friends than marrieds, who find themselves more isolated when a spouse passes away and therefore exposed to the risk of dementia. We will all be single at some point in our lives unless we predecease our mate.
• Longevity statistics are affected by the fact married people commit suicide at lower rates than singles.
• The studies may be self-selecting, as healthy people may be more likely to attract a mate. If you are healthy and single, this factor can therefore be eliminated.
• Studies claim children whose parents live together but are not married are more likely to do badly at school and develop a serious illness. But this is clearly a question of income and education, not the marriage bond, since until recently less educated people were less likely to marry. This is no longer the case (only half the population on average is now married) probably because the advantages of marriage are dwindling by the year (except for divorce lawyers). Obesity greatly reduces any advantages of having got married, as it is a major risk factor for heart disease and diabetes. The number of diabetic Americans doubled from 1998 to 2013.
Being single has nothing at all to do with dying sooner. Happiness and social connections however do seem to affect how long and how healthily we live.