21 January 2009

Don't be alone, it might suck

I have bad news for you/us unmarried people. A recent article I read is titled "Together is better? Effects of relationship status and resources on young adults' well-being." It's from the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships (possibly my new favorite site/magazine if I can somehow subscribe) and it says that married is better than single. I know, totally revelationary. How'd they come to this stunning conclusion? Allow me to summarize. First, a quote from the beginning of the piece.

"Marital status has long been viewed as an important marker with respect to several measures of well-being. For a variety of reasons, married people tend to have fewer psychological problems, are healthier, and more satisfied with life than the non-married.

The proliferation of alternative living arrangements (e.g., unmarried cohabitation, living apart together, or long term relationship without cohabitation) and the increase in divorce rates have blurred the once clear-cut distinction between married and unmarried adults. Marital status is still used as an indicator of people's relational involvement, although as [a researcher] suggested, this indicator may be inadequate to capture the effects of romantic relationships on subjective well-being in modern societies.

The ambiguity of marital status is particularly apparent for young adults, because young adulthood is 'a demographically dense period'. Young adulthood is a period of life when many transitions occur in a relatively short time span. In addition, given that forming romantic relationships is a primary developmental task, it is a period in which relational experimentation is widespread. Therefore, there is great diversity in relationship types among young adults, particularly in dating and unmarried cohabitation."
-Together is better?-
Through the course of the paper, it's revealed that single people are at the lowest rung of well-being because they don't have as many resources as those who are dating, cohabiting, or married. First, let's talk about what those resources are. There are three broad categories: material, social, and personal. Material resources are things like possessions, income, education, and employment. Basically we're talking money and the things that money can buy. Or resources that will allow you to get more money, such as education. Or quick hands and low morals.

Personal resources include things like self-esteem, optimism, or neuroticism. I've been looking for a definition of neuroticism and theirs is quite good: "Neuroticism can be considered as the lack of the resource of emotional stability." People with low neuroticism are better able to cope with stress and are less negative in general. Thus, personal resources are basically things that allow you to cope with stress and deal with how unfair life is. Neuroticism was measured with the Eysenck Personality Questionnaire. I was too impatient to sit through all the questions so I have no idea what my results were. I probably got a C-, probably.

The last resource, social, can be simply explained by measuring a person's social web and social support network. It also includes anything that helps achieve "valued outcomes" in social situations. So if you want to be well liked, social resources can help you do that. Or help you be vilified if that's what you desire. Furthermore, there are two sub-scales for this: emotional support and instrumental support. "Emotional support taps the exchange of emotions of trust, acceptance, love, care, and empathy. Instrumental support focuses on tangible forms of support, like assistance with odd jobs."

With all that laid out, the initial hypothesis and resulting conclusion matched: Single people are sad sad people. See, it's all math. Two is better than one. More material, more personal, and more social resources are had when two people join up. The greater your access to these resources, the better off you'll be. In addition, a partner provides resources that are hard to provide for yourself. Yes, we're talking about sex. But also love and intimacy. You can love yourself but apparently that's not the same thing. After reading through the paper even I was halfway convinced marriage was the answer.

But then I got to thinking. In your previous relationships, has simply combining resources with someone actually made your life better? I mean, things like self-esteem, stress, and social circles can all be negatively affected in a relationship right? Where's the scale that measures the positive or negative effects of being in a relationship or being married. Currently my single friends are pretty evenly divided between the "I'm so happy I'm single" and "I'm depressed, I need someone" camps. The former group generally feels free and unattached, the latter group feels lonely. Clearly, the beauty of singledom is in the eye of the beholder.

While I don't want to discount the research done here, I'm philosophically opposed to its conclusion. Married isn't always better. Maybe for most people it is but some people don't necessarily want to get married. It could be possible to duplicate all of these positive resources in a single lifestyle by strategic use of friends and family right? I'd imagine that the longer someone is single, the more they build a network that provides them with resource sharing. But then again, as my mom likes to remind me, "What happens when all your friends are gone?" Um, I don't know. Buy some more? "With what material resources?" Hum, good point...

What I do like about this study is that it organizes some basic relationship needs into a simple triangle. By thinking about which of these resources you value, which ones you have an abundance of, or which ones you'd like in return, it could help you identify what your current (or future) dating life should be. I mean, I've never cohesively thought about whether or not I'm providing these resources to my partner. If I did, maybe I wouldn't fail so often? So while I must object to the "marriage is better" conclusion, I will take the study to heart and use its framework to find some answers.

Notice that the title of the study includes the phrase "young adult." That's key because this is a study that focused on young people, just like you and me. This was also done in the Netherlands and maybe those enlightened Dutch have different viewpoints than us ("The Dutch culture is rather individualistic and tolerant towards cohabitation.") so that could be a factor. Actually, the article goes through lots of moderating effects and possible flaws and exceptions but I'll gloss over those here. If you're really interested, email me and I'll forward you a copy of the thing for your own reading pleasure. But wouldn't you be better off using that reading time to hit the streets and finding that lucky someone to get married to? Happy happy joy joy...

This paper was provided to me by a friend who is in grad school and working on her fascinating thesis. I can't even talk about it because it's something so top secret and exciting that I don't want to blow up her spot. Let's just say that it's on a topic I'm very intrigued by. I can't wait till it's done. Until then, I hope to keep getting fed this sort of thing. I'll conclude with a few quotes I've recently come across. They kind of say the same thing but from opposite viewpoints.
"Girls aren't cool. They can be pretty or 'cute,' and with some serious dieting, even sexy. They can be nice. Dumb, but nice. But who wants 'nice'? You want interesting people around you. Has a girl ever introduced you to any new music or recommended a book you didn't already read in high school? Anything just slightly outside the mainstream? If so, she got it from an ex, her brother, her father. They just pretend.

Guys in long term relationships become so lame. They get sucked into this feminine sphere of TV series and nice dinners. They get less and less time to read and listen to music. Eventually they don't even miss it. They end up as understimulated, bourgeois retards."

"I think marriage is an insurance for the worst years of your life. During your best years you don't need a husband. You do need a man of course every step of the way, and they often are cheaper emotionally and a lot more fun by the dozen."
-Sex and the Single Girl-