Kerry’s Korner is a weekly feature by Good&Co’s co-founder and chief psychometrician, Dr. Kerry Schofield. It addresses contemporary issues, drawing on behavioral and experimental psychology, psychometrics, and social science to analyze the ways we live.
In the literature of social psychology, the classic finding when it comes to relationships is that men should, and women shouldn’t. The study, conducted by American sociologist Jessie Bernard, dates back to the early seventies. As we all know, this was a time when by default, men did, and women weren’t allowed to (regardless of what ‘it’ was). Perhaps that is why Bernard found that single women fared better than married women, while the opposite was true for men.
Generally, research on sex differences has always been something of a mare’s nest; as gender identity develops as early as six years old, aside from a few obvious broad physical aspects, it is virtually impossible to disentangle social imperatives from biological ones. Besides which, most of the ‘classic’ studies focussed on a very simplistic model of relationships. Navigating the question of which sex does better out of marriage becomes much more complex – and interesting – when we make it inclusive of gay, bi, asexual, transgender and intersex people; when we add to marriage other forms of romantic relationships both committed and informal; and when we introduce the influences of culture, age, and many other factors.
A few researchers have begun to explore the rich tapestry of human interaction more fully. For example, Wienke and Hill (2009) found that gay couples in long-term relationships were happier than gay single people, but slightly less happy than straight, married people.
In fact, plenty of studies seem to suggest that there is something important especially about marriage, over and above other kinds of long-term committed relationship. In October 2009, New York Times reporters Tara Siegel Bernard and Ron Lieber suggested a surprising, and convincing, reason for this, which had nothing to do with the human heart and mind, and everything to do with the human wallet. They compared the economic cost of being single, or partnered but unmarried – using a hypothetical gay couple as a test case – with the equivalent cost of living for a married woman. At the time the article was published, a single woman earning $40K a year would pay $245,000 in income tax over their working life. A married woman on the same wage would pay only $206,000. More striking still, if we double this figure to an income of $80K per year, a single woman would pay $645,000 in income tax, while a married woman earning $80,000 paid $490,000 — a difference of $155,000.That’s without mentioning the pension benefits, or the legal, financial, and medical importance of being able to legally designate one’s partner as next of kin. Marrying for money takes on a whole different meaning when put this way!
Perhaps, then, it is not so much that marriage confers a psychological advantage, but that we as a society disadvantage singles – especially women – and partnered couples. The reasons behind this could, and do, take up libraries of books; just one thought for the present – it is changing. As this news article from the UK demonstrates, the legal status of cohabiting couples is on the verge of change.
Findings from the most cutting-edge relationship research reflect these socio-economic changes. Wright and Brown (2016) report that marriage and cohabiting are confer roughly the same psychological benefits for men, while women seem entirely unaffected by relationship status. This second finding is consistent with the classic literature. While socio-economic developments in attitudes towards marital status, and towards women in general, may explain this to some extent, why would single women fare better than single men, instead of equally well?
Dr. Bella DePaulo, author of Singled Out: How Singles Are Stereotyped, Stigmatized, and Ignored, and Still Live Happily Ever, has an interesting take on this. Single women do better, she suggests, because women tend to communicate more than men, in or out of a relationship. Single men in general have a less supportive social network available to them than women, while for both sexes, being part of a couple tends to substantially narrow the range of opportunities for socialising. Single women, then, have the best of both worlds: a social network which is both varied, and intimate enough to provide emotional support. Single men, on the other hand, might have a wide social circle, but less in the way of close, supportive relationships.
However, like any researcher worth their salt, Dr. DePaulo does not take sides. At an American Psychological Society conference, she said:
“There is no one blueprint for the good life. What matters is not what everyone else is doing or what other people think we should be doing, but whether we can find the places, the spaces and the people that fit who we really are and allow us to live our best lives.”
We couldn’t agree more! In relationships as well as in the workplace, good fit – whether with a partner, multiple partners, or your own company — is crucial for a happier, more productive, more fulfilled you.