Which is better, single or married? The vast majority of research suggests that measured against a whole variety of scales including meaning, happiness, and longevity, just to name a few, being married wins. Like most things however, there are many ways to measure, so it is not totally surprising that new research conducted by Professor Bella DePaulo, suggests that there are areas of life in which the benefits of being single outstrip being married. These include a heightened sense of self-determination and reporting a greater sense of themselves growing and developing.
So which is really better – single or married? It’s actually a dumb question. The real question are, who do each of us want to be in life, and do we appreciate the costs and benefits of any relational arrangement that we hope will help us get there?
Personally, I come down heavily on the side of marriage, but will not argue that point here. I will just invite you to consider which you would choose, if offered the option of increased happiness, meaning and longevity on the one hand, or self-determination and development on the other. Seems like a no-brainer to me, but that’s me.
Instead, I want to draw our attention to something Professor DePaulo said in her recent remarks to the American Psychological Association – words which point to a reality that is actually more important for those of us who celebrate marriage than they are for people, like the professor, who celebrate singleness:
“Increasing numbers of people are single because they want to be.”
While I am not totally convinced by her claim that people are single because they choose to be, and even more dubious about it being a free and happy choice for many who embrace it as a choice at all (not because I doubt their reporting, but because people often choose to report things as choices in order to claim a measure of coherence and power over the events of their lives) I think that she is correct about the increasing freedom people have regarding the kinds of relationships they want to construct.
For thousands of years, marriage was not only an emotional, psychological, and even theological desideratum, it was an economic necessity. That is not meant cynically, but as a statement of the interdependence of our emotional, spiritual, and physical well-being. In fact, the shift from polygamous to monogamous marriage, at least is western culture, was shaped not only by an increasing evolution toward greater human equality between men and women – until recently the presumed marital partners – but by economic realities which allowed increasing numbers of people to sustain decent lives when there were only two marital partners.
So it is not entirely surprising that as economic evolution continues from agricultural to industrial to postindustrial, there is increasing pressure on marriage altogether. In other words, one need not be married to survive. But that doesn’t mean it’s not worth it. It is clear to me that it is.
Now, I don’t want to get into a data contest with the pro-single folks,. I simply want to suggest that we can celebrate people’s increased choices when it comes to with whom they want to share their lives, and in what arrangements, without necessarily defending the particular choice they make. Choice is an inherent expression of human dignity, and even when it creates pressure on marriage it is, by and large, a truly positive thing. I think Professor DePaulo has that right, and while I reject her seemingly triumphalist approach to singleness, I celebrate the personal dignity which comes with being able to freely choose the life one wants – married or single.
Like I said above, the real question is not which is better. The real questions, for all of us, are who do we most want to be in this world, what relationships help us to get there, and what are the costs and benefits of whatever choice we make?
Brad Hirschfield is the co-founder and co-executive editor of The Wisdom Daily. A rabbi, Brad has been featured on ABC’s Nightline UpClose, PBS’s Frontline, Fox News and National Public Radio. He wrote a long-standing column, “For God’s Sake,” for the Washington Post, and has also written for The Huffington Post and Beliefnet.com. He authored the book, You Don?t Have To Be Wrong For Me To Be Right: Finding Faith Without Fanaticism. Brad also serves as President of Clal, The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, a leadership training institute, think tank and resource center in New York City.