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  • Married people are less involved in the lives of their parents, siblings, and friends--but that's not inevitable. Tweet This
  • Only in contemporary society does marriage tend to reduce, rather than expand, one's community ties. Tweet This

Last week's long, colorful New York Times article on the changing American family touched briefly on the argument that marriage undermines people's ties to their relatives and friends:

Single people, reporter Natalie Angier wrote, “live alone and proudly consider themselves families of one — more generous and civic-minded than so-called ‘greedy marrieds’”:

“There are really good studies showing that single people are more likely than married couples to be in touch with friends, neighbors, siblings and parents,” said Bella DePaulo, author of “Singled Out” and a visiting professor of psychology at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

The article gives no specific citation, but according to one illustrative study by Naomi Gerstel and Natalia Sarkisian, DePaulo is quite right. Data from two large national surveys show that, even after controlling for age and class status, married men and women in the U.S. are less apt to be involved in the lives of their parents, siblings, friends, and neighbors. Specifically, they're "less likely to visit, call, or write" their parents and siblings than the unmarried, and "less likely to give [them] emotional support or advice and less likely to provide practical support such as help with household chores or transportation."

Married people are also "less likely to socialize with neighbors and less likely to hang out with friends," while never-married singles "are more likely than the married...to give either practical help or emotional support." Having children mitigates this effect to some degree, as "married parents provide as much emotional and practical help [to friends and neighbors] as single parents or childless singles," but both single and married parents unsurprisingly spend less time with neighbors and friends overall.

To some extent, given practical limits on people's free time and energy, these gaps are inevitable. Marriage entails prioritizing one's spouse over one's pre-marital social life, and of course one's children typically need  more attention than one's siblings or neighbors.

In unindustrialized societies, ‘marriage is often used to expand rather than limit community ties.’

On the other hand, as Gerstel and Sarkisian point out, another important factor in this "marriage penalty" on other relationships is cultural. The "intense emotional involvement" that characterizes marriage today means spouses are less apt to confide in their parents or friends, and less likely to hang out with coworkers lest their spouse "feel emotionally deprived." The norm of self-sufficiency likewise plays a major role, they argue: family members and friends would help married people if asked, but "couples think they should be able to support and care for themselves."

This is not universally the case, however. In unindustrialized societies, "marriage is often used to expand rather than limit community ties...This ensures that family members of married couples can rely economically and politically on a broader array of relatives." In contrast to today's weddings highlighting romance and individualism, "weddings are clearly community events in this context---they celebrate newly formed kin alliances rather  than the special relationship of the marital pair."

No one is proposing a return to the era when men and women were married off, with no say in the matter, to further the political and economic ambitions of their clans. But the existence of alternative models suggests that marriage need not mark an end to close community ties. Integrating married couples into the community---or, to put it more personally, consciously ensuring that your own marriage does not spell the death of your relationships with your family and friends---could benefit everyone. Married people could drop the unreasonable expectation that their spouses could fulfill all their emotional and social needs, and they as well as their relatives and friends could enjoy mutually supportive relationships even after the honeymoon. For both single people and married people, self-sufficiency is overrated.