What If Marriage Is Overrated?

Bella DePaulo. Photo: TEDx Talks

When I attended the American Psychological Association’s annual conference in Denver last August, the best and most well-attended talk I saw was by Bella DePaulo, a social psychologist at the University of California, Santa Barbara, who studies single people. For years, DePaulo has been chipping away at the commonly held belief — a myth, in her view and according to her research — that marriage offers unique happiness and well-being benefits. These findings are seriously overstated or misleading, DePaulo has argued, and if there weren’t so much intense social pressure to get married, a lot more people would be single, and many of them might be happier as a result.

DePaulo sees it as her project to better understand single adults — a relatively under-studied group — and to better understand the differences between how people think marriage will be and how it actually is. I haven’t come across many psych researchers who are better and more engaging at discussing their research than DePaulo is (based on the audience’s reaction; her speech was a hit), so I was excited to see that she has released a TEDx talk. It’s very much worth a watch:

DePaulo describes how, when she was in her 20s and 30s, she was, like just about everyone, convinced she would get married one day, and that it would make her happier. “I thought science had already shown what the fairy tales promised — get married and you will live happily ever after, not like those single people.” Now 63 and happily single, she says part of her goal is for people to understand the sheer magnitude of the social pressure against singlehood — and that some of the claims about marriage changing one’s life for the better might be overstated.

After telling a couple stories about single people she has encountered, she explains that “positive, affirming stories about single life would have resonated with Joan and Kay, just like they would have resonated with me all those years ago, but those stories have never been part of our lives the way fairy tales have.” None of this means marriage is bad, of course, or that there aren’t a lot of people for whom isn’t the better choice. DePaulo just wants a better, more nuanced and scientifically informed conversation on the subject, and for those new to her research, her video — or this Science of Us article summing up some of the work she’s done — is a good start.

What If Marriage Is Overrated?