I remember the day, a couple of months into COVID, when a close friend walked into my living room and said, with despair in her voice, “I don’t think I’m ever going to be hugged again.” Up until that point, we’d had a few folks over but had been maintaining some distance, trying to be reasonably cautious. That afternoon, though, it all went out the window, and I hugged my friend.
What’s remarkable is that this particular friend is about as introverted as they come. She’s never been married and doesn’t have children. Her family doesn’t live locally. She had roommates when she was younger, but bought a house on her own in her early 30s, and absolutely loves living alone. Yet COVID lockdown was hard. Even my extremely introverted friend felt lonely and isolated, cut off from most of her normal social and professional interactions, and without any human touch at all for months. It took a toll.
Of course, my friend isn’t unique. We could all list people we know who experienced serious depression during lockdown. I heard it particularly from my unmarried friends. I saw adults move in with their parents or with friends just to stave off the isolation. People struggled with loneliness, with uncertainty about their jobs, with fear about the future, and with anxiety about getting sick. And all of it seemed, perhaps predictably, to be more acute among single people.
A recent study seems to confirm this. While COVID has been hard on everyone, the effects have been particularly severe among unmarried people, while marriage, it seems, really does reduce levels of depression and anxiety and help safeguard mental health.
The Census Bureau, through its biweekly Household Pulse Survey, keeps track of patterns of mental health among U.S. adults. Among many questions, they ask how frequently people have lost interest or pleasure in doing things, a classic symptom of depression. Over the first couple of weeks of October, 52 percent of married people said “not at all,” while only 31 percent of those who had never been married said the same thing. At the other end of the spectrum, only 6 percent of married people said they’d felt these depressed symptoms every day, while 12 percent of those who had never been married did. Results for other questions about mental health showed similar results.
Of course, there are all sorts of other factors that could be playing into this, but even after controlling for income, education, sex, race, and age, there was still a noticeable difference between married and unmarried people. The researchers then looked specifically at people who had lost jobs, which increases anxiety and depression and negatively affects mental health for everyone, married or not. What they found, though, was that people who were married weren’t as negatively affected by job loss as those unmarried. Yes, married people who lost jobs were anxious about it, but they weren’t nearly as anxious as their unmarried counterparts.
And that makes sense. For married people, there is usually another person in the household either already working or able to start. Married people who have children at home can shift work, childcare, educational, and household responsibilities when one spouse loses a job. Married people are more likely to have strong emotional supports in place.
It is important to remember, however, that God does not call everyone to marriage. As Paul said in 1 Corinthians, it is good to be unmarried, as he was. While in this particular instance, married people were found to have stronger mental health than their single counterparts, that in no way elevates or promotes marriage as overall superior to singleness.
It must also be said that there are exceptions to the statistics found in this survey, particularly for those in abusive marriages. This data doesn’t tell us anything about the quality of marriages, so there’s no way to sort out the good from the bad, but we know from other research that people with abusive or addicted spouses have suffered increased levels of domestic violence during COVID. I certainly don’t want to trivialize that very real problem in any way.
Still, for the majority of people in this specific period of time, marriage acted as an important protection against the depression and anxiety brought on by this pandemic. As people of faith, who believe God created marriage and has given it to us as a good gift, we’ve long believed these benefits of marriage were real. This study backs that up.
POVs are point of view articles from NC Family Staff and contributors