Are you an adult who would like a little social support? Someone to talk to about your worries? Someone to help you when you have a problem? The mindless answer we’ve been offered for far too long has been "turn to your spouse." More and more often, though, adults don’t have a spouse.
It is becoming common knowledge that young adults in the US (and other places, too) are delaying marriage for longer than ever before, with unprecedented numbers predicted to stay single for life . Perhaps less well-known is that Americans are more often shedding their spouses in later life, too. Overall, the divorce rate has stopped its upward climb, but adults 50 and older are an exception. For them, the divorce rate doubled between 1990 and 2010.
With no spouse in the house, are these older unpartnered people getting support from other kinds of people (such as friends, family members, and neighbors), and is that support linked to greater emotional well-being? A recently published study found that older people, whether partnered or unpartnered, often look to people other than romantic partners for support. For the single people, though, that support is more strongly connected to their emotional well-being than it is for married or cohabiting people. Single people, it seems, get more emotional rewards out of their friendships than coupled people do.
The study, by human development professors Ashley Ermer and Christine Proulx, was published online in November 2018 in the journal Research on Aging . A national sample of 2,361 adults who were 62 or older were interviewed between 2010 and 2011.
What Kinds of Questions Did the Participants Answer?
The participants were asked about the people in their social networks and the support they got from them. They were also asked about their health and their emotional well-being.
Who is in your social network?
Participants were asked to name up to five people in whom they could confide. They were also asked whether there was anyone else they felt close to. In this study of the support seniors get from people other than romantic partners, only data from the top five people who were not a spouse or romantic partner were included.
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How close do you feel?
For each person in their network, participants answered the question, “How close do you feel is your relationship with X?”
Do you get support from your friends and family?
Participants were asked two questions about their friends and the same two questions about their family:
“How often can you open up to friends/members of your family if you need to talk about your worries?” and “How often can you rely on them for help if you have a problem?”
Do you have social ties with your neighbors?
Participants were asked three questions about their neighbors: (1) “How often do you and people in this area visit in each other’s homes or when you meet on the street?” (2) “How often do you and other people in this area do favors for each other?” and (3) “How often do you and other people in this area ask each other for advice about personal things?”
How is your health?
Participants indicated whether their health was poor, fair, good, very good, or excellent.
How emotionally healthy are you?
Emotional well-being was evaluated by scales measuring depression, happiness, overall mental health, and loneliness.
Results: Social Network Support Is Good for Everyone, But It Is Especially Good for Single People
Averaging across all of the participants, including those with and without romantic partners, the study showed that feeling close to the people in your social network is linked to better emotional well-being. The closer the participants said they were to their network members, the happier, more emotionally healthy, less lonely, and less depressed they felt.
Support from friends, family, and neighbors mattered, too. Across all the participants, when they got more support from their friends and family and neighbors, they also reported greater emotional well-being. People who got more support from their friends also enjoyed better health.
Support from friends seems to be especially powerful because it is linked to better physical health as well as to better emotional well-being. People who say that they can open up to their friends more, and rely on them more when they need help, report better physical health as well as more happiness and mental health and less loneliness and depression.
Caring for Caregivers
The single people seemed to reap even more emotional benefits than coupled people did from the support they got from their friends. For both single and coupled people, the more support they got from their friends, the more emotionally healthy they were. But the link was stronger for the single people.
Something else was connected to the emotional well-being of the single people and only the single people – the number of people in their social networks. For the participants without romantic partners, the more people they could confide in, the happier, more emotionally healthy, less lonely, and less depressed they felt. For the coupled participants, the number of people in their social networks just didn’t matter. There was no relationship whatsoever between the size of their network and their emotional well-being.
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Why Is This Happening?
Why is it that for single people, more so than people with partners, the support they get from friends might translate to emotional benefits? The authors have no way of knowing for sure, but they suggest that single people rely on friends more since they don’t have a romantic partner, and that’s why the support they get from their friends seems to make a bigger difference to their emotional well-being.
That’s possible, but I wonder whether there may be other reasons. Maybe the friendships single people have are closer or more enduring than the friendships of coupled people. Maybe single people value friendship more, and that’s why being able to open up to friends, and rely on them, translates into greater happiness and less loneliness and depression than it does for coupled people.
Another study showed that people who are not married squeeze more happiness out of their individualistic values. For both unmarried and married people, the more they value creativity, trying new things, and freedom, the happier they are. But the link is stronger for people who are not married. The participants in that study were more than 200,000 adults of all ages (not just seniors) from 31 European nations.
Both studies suggest that single people get more emotional benefits from the kinds of things that matter to them, whether that is their values or being able to confide in their friends and rely on them. I think that is an interesting pattern and it would be good to understand more about it.
Ermer and Proulx’s study also showed that for married and cohabiting people, it just didn’t matter how many people they had in their social networks. Having more people they could confide in (other than their romantic partner) did not have any relationship whatsoever to their emotional well-being. For single people, though, having bigger social networks meant better emotional health. The more people they could confide in, the happier, mentally healthier, less lonely, and less depressed they were.
Given the scientific consensus that the planet is warming—and a recent report by the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicting global temperatures will increase 1.5 degrees Celsius by 2040—“it’s fairly clear that we should be concerned about the effect of climate change on mental health,” says lead author Nick Obradovich, a political scientist who researches the societal impact of climate change at the MIT Media Lab. The study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, relies on data from the largest behavioral health survey in the world.
The researchers believe that it is important for the single people to have more different people to rely on because the people in their networks are not obligated to help them. Friendships are voluntary. You need more of them because some of them might not come through. That’s possible. It is also possible that relying on different people for different things – which single people probably do more than coupled people – is more emotionally satisfying. In fact, a series of studies that looked specifically at the implications of relying on different people for different things, rather than the same person most of the time, found that people with a diverse portfolio of "emotionships" are more satisfied with their lives.
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My Usual Words of Caution About Studies Like This
It may be tempting to conclude that having social support from friends causes single people, even more than married people, to experience greater emotional well-being. But the study is only correlational, so we can’t know what’s causing what. Maybe, for example, feeling happier and less depressed makes single people feel especially confident that they can confide in their friends and rely on them when they need them.
Another cautionary note that I should add more often is that the results of all studies are just averages. There are always exceptions. For example, if you are the kind of person who does not like to keep up with lots of friends, then maybe having a big social network would not be very beneficial to your emotional health.