It seemed like marriage was having a moment. After the Supreme Court legalized gay marriage in all 50 states, people across the country were taking to the streets to celebrate that another swath of American society would be able to have their relationships recognized by the state. Hardly a month later, 2015 has been dubbed the “summer of divorce.” Over the past few weeks, we’ve been bombarded with news of high-profile separations: Ben Affleck and Jennifer Garner, Gwen Stefani and Gavin Rossdale, Blake Shelton and Miranda Lambert, even Kermit the Frog and Miss Piggy.
Divorce is obviously a major life event for individuals, but what bearing do separations have on the couples’ communities? On society at large? Champions of marriage take for granted that the institution is good for society. At least since the French sociologist Emile Durkheim expounded on the subject in the nineteenth century, conventional wisdom has dictated that married people, in committing to each other, also end up becoming more involved with their broader social networks. And they’re thought to be in a better state to make commitments to the community; there’s evidence that married people tend to have better mental and physical health than their single peers.
In 1995, research team (and married couple) Margaret and Wolfgang Stroebe found that married adults sustained a lower risk of various health conditions, including heart disease and premature mortality. In 1991, a pair of psychologists calculated rates of depression among married, single (never married) and divorced adults. In a 12-month period, they found, 1.5 percent of married adults experienced an episode of major depression, compared to 2.4 percent of single adults and 4.1 percent of divorced adults. The unmarried cohabiting and the twice-divorced fared the worst, with rates of 5.1 percent and 5.8 percent, respectively.
But not everyone agrees that marriage fosters stronger ties to society. According to another school of thought — espoused by people like the writer Kate Bolick, who celebrated the richness of her social life as a single woman in her recent book Spinster — it’s single people who have the time and the mental energy to maintain strong extra-familial ties. There’s academic research on this side, too. A 2001 paper found that getting married is associated with a decrease in sibling contact, while divorce is tied to a renewal. Other scholars have found that single people have more friends, spend more time socializing, are more likely to give and receive help, and are more likely to call and visit their parents.
A new paper, “Does singlehood isolate or integrate?” in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, adds to the debate. Natalia Sarkisian, a sociologist at Boston College and Naomi Gerstel of the University of Massachusetts Amherst studied the link between marital status and social connections to non-family, drawing on data collected between 1992 and 1994 from the National Survey of Families and Households and the General Social Survey in the 2000s — both of which asked respondents questions like how many times they’d spent “a social evening” with friends or neighbors in the previous month and how often in the past months they had given or received emotional support, like advice or encouragement, or practical support (help with errands, housework or child care), to neighbors, friends, siblings, and parents.
Sarkisian and Gerstel controlled for variables like race, self-reported health, number of siblings, and geographic distance from parents and siblings. They also divided their results by gender; marriage can have different effects on the social lives of men and women, with women potentially more likely to sacrifice their other relationships, stop working outside the home and invest more heavily in family life.
Marriage, they find, takes a toll on non-marital social relationships. Never-before-married men and women are far more likely to be in touch and exchange favors with their parents, siblings, friends and neighbors than their coupled-up counterparts. The divorced come in somewhere in the middle: they’re more engaged with their communities than their married peers, but not as involved as single people: “marriage extends its reach after it ends,” Sarkisian and Gerstel write. Not all relationships can bounce back from a period of neglect — and socializing is a habit that has to be practiced. Interestingly, the link between social ties and singlehood was stronger for men than for women — suggesting that women are actually better at maintaining their relationships while married.
Age is one confounding factor; the divorced tend to be older than the married, who are in turn older than the never-married. Yet researchers disagree on whether aging strengthens or weakens social ties, and even when members of all three groups were “at the same point in their life course and have equal resources, the single still have more connections to family, neighbors, and friends.”
A limitation of this paper is that it focuses on marriage in the U.S. — and Americans are unusual in holding the belief that the married couple (or the immediate family) constitutes a discrete unit that should be able to function on its own.
In the meantime, Kermit the Frog’s mom should be expecting a call.