Never Married, Over 40, Well-Adjusted

SATURDAY Dec. 5, 2009 -- Pity the poor single people who pass their 40th birthday without ever tying the knot, since research has shown that never-married adults have more health woes than married folks. And, um, isn't there something wrong with those who go it alone anyway?

Not so fast.

A new study looking at psychological measures shows that never-married people aged 40 and up can be just as resourceful, psychologically speaking, as their married counterparts.

Wait, there's more.

"If you look at never marrieds who are high on mastery -- they feel like they are in the driver's seat and in control of their lives -- and high on self-sufficiency -- they know how to take care of themselves -- they actually have better emotional well-being than married people," said study author Jamila Bookwala, an associate professor of psychology at Lafayette College in Easton, Pa. Her report is published in the Nov. 30 issue of the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships.

For the study, Bookwala drew on data from the National Survey of Midlife Development in the United States, looking at responses from more than 1,500 Americans aged 40 to 74. They identified themselves as married or never married. Most, 1,486, were married, while 105 had never married.

"What's new here is the never-married individual is getting attention," she said. Sometimes in research, she explained, they are combined with separated, divorced and widowed people as singles, but in her research she looked at never-married individuals only and compared them with married people.

Among her findings are that never-married adults, overall, do report lower levels of overall emotional well-being than their married counterparts in the same age group. But they are comparable when it comes to psychological resources, the stuff that helps humans deal with life challenges.

Bookwala looked at three measures of psychological resources, including personal mastery (the degree people think they have control over things in life, which is important to avoid depression), agency (the tendency to focus on oneself, which is good for mental health) and self-sufficiency (a sense of autonomy, which is also linked with better mental health).

The never-married participants do tend to have fewer social resources, she said. "In general they tend to report less [perceived] support from families than marrieds."

But the higher the never-married individuals scored on those psychological resources, the better their emotional well-being, she found. Better, even, than the married folks, if they scored high on those measures.

"In that sense, we find our study debunks that myth of something being wrong with the never-married individual," Bookwala said.

In fact, high levels of self-sufficiency may work against people in a marriage, she noted. "For a marriage to work well, you need a certain amount of interdependence," Bookwala said. It could, in fact, explain why some never-married people decided not to wed.

Or, she said, they may have developed self-sufficiency the longer they stayed single.

The study suggests that marriage -- often touted as the best lifetime relationship goal -- may not be best for everyone, said Patrick Markey, an associate professor of psychology at Villanova University in Villanova, Pa.

For most people, marriage might be a desirable goal, he said. "But there might be a subset of people, the ultra-independent individual, for whom this may not be the best life course."

He's referring to those people who Bookwala found high in self-sufficiency. "They might actually be happier because they didn't get married," Markey said.

But, he pointed out, the sample size of never-married participants in the study, a little over 100, is low. So, it's possible that a larger study with never-married people might produce different results.

More information

To learn more about marriage statistics in the United States, visit the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Posted: December 2009


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