In the decades I have been studying single people, one particular story comes up over and over again. Single people tell me that they had other single friends they socialized with frequently, but then when those friends got serious about a romantic partner, they didn’t see those newly coupled friends much anymore. They wonder about two things: Does this happen to other single people, too? And, are they just getting sidelined temporarily because their friend is newly infatuated with a romantic partner, or is their marginalized status going to continue?
There is lots of research showing that, compared to single people, married people are less attentive to their siblings, parents, friends, and neighbors. This is all part of the research on what sociologists call “greedy marriage” (related to what I call “intensive coupling”). That research shows that married people are less likely than single people to help, support, visit, and maintain contact with friends, family, and neighbors. The research includes several national samples.
One big problem plagues most of those studies – they compared single and married people only at one point in time. That means we could not know for sure whether people who get married then neglect their friends and relatives, or whether the kinds of people who would eventually get married were already neglectful of friends and relatives, even when they were still single. Additionally, studies comparing married and single people at one point in time obviously cannot address the alternative hypothesis – couples do not want all the time and attention for themselves (as the “greedy marriage” perspective suggests), they are just temporarily infatuated with each other. They will emerge from their couple-bubble eventually.
A study by Kelly Musick and Larry Bumpass answered those questions. In the study, more than 2700 American adults were surveyed at one point in time and then again 6 years later. The participants included in the analyses were all single (and not cohabiting) and under 50 years old when they were first surveyed.
Participants reported the time they spent with friends and the amount of contact they had with their parents at both points in time -- when the study first started and everyone was single, and six years later. (Participants also described the quality of their relationship with their parents, but there were no significant differences among the groups for that measure.)
To see whether the retreat from other people was just a new-couple sort of thing, the authors looked separately at those who had become partnered relatively recently (within the past three years) and those who had become partnered between four and six years previously. They compared the social ties of both groups to those of the people who stayed single the whole time.
First, the results for those who had gotten married (or started cohabiting) relatively recently: They had less contact with their parents and spent less time with their friends than those who stayed single. Maybe they were just newly infatuated.
Now the results for those who had gotten partnered less recently (between 4 and 6 years previously): They had less contact with their parents and spent less time with their friends than those who stayed single. These couples were still marginalizing their friends and contacting their parents less often even after four, five, or six years.
The withdrawal from friends and family and neighbors was the same for both groups. It was not any less pronounced for those who had been partnered longer.
To answer the two questions, then: Yes, the experience of getting marginalized by friends who become coupled does happen to a lot of people. And, it is not just something that happens when couples first move in together or first get married – it is still happening between four and six years later.
As is true for every study in the social sciences, there are always exceptions. Some people get married and pay just as much attention to their friends and parents as they ever have – maybe even more. And it is also possible that the people who stay single have a hand in this, too – if, for example, they less often include in their plans their friends who have moved in with a romantic partner or who got married. That was not addressed in the study.
The research tells us what does happen. It doesn’t mean that it has to continue to happen. Social norms and practices can change.