People without romantic partners are often stereotyped and stigmatized. But if you go by how they really do feel about their lives, rather than how other people assume they feel, the story of single life looks very different. Over time, historically, single life gets better and better. And for individuals who are 40 and older, as they age, their satisfaction with their single lives gets even better, too. Experiences of loneliness have also changed. Maybe having a romantic partner was once relevant to feelings of loneliness, but it is not so relevant anymore.
The good news about single people is from a study, “The changing relationship between partnership status and loneliness: Effects related to aging and historical time,” in The Journal of Gerontology: Series B. Authors Anne Boger and Oliver Huxhold, of the German Centre of Gerontology, analyzed data from the German Ageing Survey, a nationally representative sample of people between the ages of 40 and 85, recruited in 1996, 2002, 2008, and 2014. They focused on 2,552 people from 2008 who were re-interviewed 6 years later, in 2014, though some of their analyses included participants from 1996 and 2002 as well.
The four clearest findings showed how satisfaction with single life increased over time, historically, and with age, and how partnership status became less relevant to loneliness over time, and with age. As for the relationship satisfaction of people with partners and how that changed, the results were less straightforward.
Over the course of their later adult lives, and over time historically, single people become more satisfied with their lives
In this study of 40- to 85-year-olds, people who stayed single became more satisfied with their lives as they grew older.
The results for the people with romantic partners were not so straightforward. During their middle adult years, the couples said that the quality of their relationship was decreasing. It started increasing when they got older.
Over time (between 1996 and 2014), single people have become more satisfied with their lives.
Again, the results were less straightforward for the couples. Depending on how the analyses were done, results showed that people with romantic partners are not any more satisfied with the quality of their relationships in recent years than they were in past years, or that they are more satisfied, but that happens mostly for the people in middle adulthood.
Over the course of their later adult lives, and over time historically, whether people have a romantic partner becomes less relevant to how lonely they feel
The authors compared the loneliness of people who have a romantic partner to those who do not. People with a romantic partner were those who were married, living together, or who said they had a stable partnership. For the unpartnered category, the authors averaged together people who were widowed, divorced, and living apart from their spouse, along with lifelong single people. This is a common though unfortunate practice. Typically, when there are differences in loneliness, it is the previously married people who differ most from the married people; those who have never been married often report low levels of loneliness.
Considering the inappropriateness of including lifelong single people in with widowed and divorced and separated people, it is not all that surprising that the authors found, on the average, that people with romantic partners were less lonely than people without romantic partners. Other findings were more telling.
As people grew older, any differences in loneliness between people with and without romantic partners decreased. As people age, whether or not they have a romantic partner becomes less relevant to how lonely they feel.
The historical trends were similar.
Over time (between 1996 and 2014), differences in loneliness between people who do and do not have a romantic partner have decreased. People with romantic partners may have felt less lonely than people without romantic partners in 1996, but by 2014, having a romantic partner mattered a lot less.
Why has single life gotten better and better over the course of individual lives, and over time?
The authors did not test any explanations for why single people became more satisfied with their lives as they grew older, or why today’s single people are more satisfied with their lives than single people were a few decades ago.
In Singled Out, I wrote about the ways in which marriage has become less important over time, historically, especially for women:
Financial freedom – women’s, in particular – is high on the list of social changes that have empowered many single people. Although women are still paid less than men for comparable work, and far too many women and men live in poverty, there are currently sizable numbers of women who earn enough money on their own to support themselves, and maybe even some kids. They are no longer tethered to husbands for economic life support. Neither men nor women need a spouse to have sex without stigma or shame. Children born to single mothers now have the same legal rights as those born to married mothers. With the advent of birth control and legalized abortion, and with progress in medical reproductive technology, women can have sex without having children, and children without having sex.
When sex, parenting, and economic viability were all wound up together in the tight knot that was marriage, the difference between single life and married life was profound… Now, the institution of marriage remains ensconced in our laws, our politics, our religions, and in our cultural imagination. But it is of little true significance as a meaningful life transition.
Boger and Huxhold could only speculate as to why people without partners become more satisfied with their lives as they grow older. One reason they offer is that there is less of a stigma to being single as you get older, because there are more people your age who are also single.
They are probably right about that. But there may be other, more exuberant reasons as well. Previously, I described the big things that single people are doing in their lives that they may not have done if they were in a committed romantic relationship. I also pointed to research showing that people who stay single experience more personal growth and more autonomy over a five-year period than those who stay married. There may be less predictability to how your life unfolds if you stay single, as compared to following the more celebrated life script of marrying and having children, but less predictability can mean more possibilities, and that can be exhilarating.
As for loneliness, as the authors noted, whether you have a romantic partner or not just isn’t all that important anymore. People with partners can feel terribly lonely and people without partners can be mercifully free of loneliness, or vice versa. For women, especially, partnership has little to do with loneliness these days, even if partnership is assessed less crudely.
The authors may have overestimated any link between partnership status and loneliness by not taking into account other ways that the people with romantic partners may have differed from those without – for example, in their financial resources. Consider, for instance, a subset of mostly single people – those who live alone – and how they compare with people who live with others. Another German study of more than 16,000 adults found that if you just compare all the people living alone with all the people living with others, the solo dwellers report more loneliness. But the people who live with others differ from them in important ways – for example, they are better off financially. If you compare the people who live alone to similar people who live with others (similar, for example, economically), then it is the people who live alone who are less lonely.
We still have lots to learn about why single life is getting better over time, historically, and why, for the midlife and older singles in this study, it gets better with age. At long last, scholars are starting to take single people more seriously. Now they need to become more sophisticated in how they think about people who do not have romantic partners, rather than just lumping everyone together, regardless of whether they are widowed or divorced or separated or have been single their whole lives. It is probably still a surprise to many of them that the lifelong single people are often doing the best.