The Costs of Being Married

I was married for 28 years before being divorced in 2016. Naturally, I got married because I was in love, but there was another pressure pushing me to tie the knot. I was 27 years old and all of my friends were already married. I never stopped to think about why I was getting married. It was just the next box that needed to be checked on the script that each of us is given in life.

Don’t get me wrong. I wanted to be married. I had sowed a lot of wild oats up until that point in my life, and I was ready to settle down with one person. I looked forward to building our life together, to starting a family, and to growing old together. What I didn’t realize on the day we said our vows was how hard marriage can be, how much work it takes, and in some ways, how unnatural it can feel.

I’ve always been the type of person who enjoys spending time with friends. As a kid and young adult, I was involved in a ton of different activities with a ton of different people. That continued when we were first married. We socialized with friends, both old and new. We’d take annual vacations with other couples. Our social network remained strong and active.

That changed when our friends started having kids. We didn’t see each other as often. My ex and I were the last in our group to have kids. By that time, we weren’t as involved in as many outside-the-home activities and we didn’t see our closest group of friends nearly as often. We were busy with other priorities. We were building careers, expanding our family, and enjoying all that young family life had to offer. At the time, we barely noticed that our social network was fraying and that we were much more isolated than we had ever been.

I’m a fan of long-term, monogamous relationships and believe such a relationship is necessary to have happiness and success in the rest of life. But I wonder if marriage, especially at my age where my kids are grown and out of the house, is a good idea. I’m not alone. According to a study conducted by Pew Research, only about 50% of American over the age of 18 are married. That’s down significantly from where it was in 1960, when 72% of American adults 18-years and older were married.

One shift we have seen in the past several decades is that people are getting married later in life. The median age for Americans getting married for the first time is 30 for men and 28 for women. While most never-married people plan to marry eventually, 41% say they aren’t sure if marriage is right for them. Of that group, about one-third says they don’t plan to ever marry. Despite these numbers, Americans still marry at higher percentages than in most Western countries, and we divorce at a rate higher than any other country.

There are reasons for this decline in marriage. It involves economic considerations (housing prices, student loans, etc.) and  job demands. Getting married and starting a family isn’t quite as easy as it used to be. But the thing that interests me more is the loneliness that comes along with being married.

I know that last sentence sounds counterintuitive. On the surface, being married should be less lonely than being single, right? In practice, it doesn’t work out that way.

As the great Russian writer, Anton Chekov once wrote, “If you’re afraid of loneliness, don’t marry.” According to two separate studies–one conducted at Boston College by Natalia Sarkisian, the other at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst by Naomi Gerstel–marriage tends to weaken, rather than build, ties. Married people tend to call or visit their extended family less often than their single peers, and they are less likely to offer a helping hand or emotional support. In addition, married people are less likely to socialize with friends and neighbors.

By contrast, single people (especially those that have never been married) are more likely to take care of ill and aging parents and siblings. They are also more likely to socialize with friends and neighbors, and offer support when help is needed.

Extrapolating this out, the researchers found that the trends continued, even after kids grew up and moved out. Older married couples found themselves together, but lonely. After years of not calling or visiting family, not socializing with friends nor neighbors, and not lending or asking for help, former social ties were frayed, if not broken. Friends had moved away from each other, making socializing more difficult. And meeting new people–especially in a post-Covid world–was not as simple as it had once been.

In recent years, I have had the opportunity to meet and date several women. One thing I have found is that the longer they have been without a serious relationship, the busier they tend to be. For some, so busy that they no longer have time for a committed relationship, despite the fact that they often yearn for such a relationship. They have rebuilt their life to include activities and friendships that keep them busy, and to a certain extent, fulfilled.

By contrast, women who have only gone a few years without a serious relationship tend to be more ready and available for another relationship. They haven’t yet jumped back into activities, organizations, and friendships that take up the majority of their time.

What does this mean? It appears that the farther away people get from marriage, the less lonely they tend to be and the more busy they become. There is a cost that comes with being married, a cost with raising a family and stretching, if not breaking, social ties.

When I look at my kids, I’m happy I got married and started a family. They are my heart. Yet, I mourn the damage done to friendships and my social life. We are quick to question the cost paid by someone who never marries nor has children, but we seldom question the cost of getting married and starting a family.

I wonder how my married friends feel about this. I’m certain that none of them would say that getting married and having kids was a mistake. But I wonder if they too feel the loneliness that comes once the kids are gone, the socialization with friends and neighbors has dwindled, and the days unfold uncertainly.

The older I get, the more I realize the importance of being around other people, supporting them, encouraging them, and being supported and encouraged in return. I want to be in a committed relationship, but I also want to spend time with friends and family. To me, that’s what life is all about.



One Reply to “The Costs of Being Married”

  1. I am over Medicare age, never married, but I had babies. I worried when the last of my children, with my grandchild, moved out of state. Would I be feeling the void, the empty nest? My last dog had died a few years prior, my house was now empty. I had the whole place to myself. That had never happened in 40+ years. What was I gonna do?!
    Not a damn thing, if that is what I chose to do. I learned quickly, possibly many things I may have blamed on my kids, may have been my fault. Crumbs, smudges, tracking in on the carpet, it must be me. I am the only one here.
    I have to admit I’m not lonely. I don’t feel the void. Distances are easier now with FaceTime and messaging, texting. I get to take vacations to visit my children.
    I don’t see getting married in my future. I don’t feel like I’ve missed out. I may have dodged a few bullets in my relationships. But I was blessed! First, with a son when I was 21, then 13 years later at the age of 34 I felt God decided if I was going to keep having sex without getting married, he’d bless me with twins. My children and grands have truly been the best parts of my life. The places we have gone, activities we were involved, found me making more friends than I could’ve imagined, in all different circles. Those are the relationships that have worked for me.
    This comment is turning into a biography. Sorry.

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