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Over 40 and Never Married? New Research Shows You Are Just Fine

A new study reports that adults over 40 who have never married are just as psychologically resourceful as adults who marry. The research, appearing in the forthcoming issue of the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, was conducted by Jamila Bookwala, associate professor of psychology at Lafayette College in Easton, Pa.

Bookwala and her co-author, Erin Fekete of the University of Miami, analyzed data from the National Survey of Midlife Development in the United States (MIDUS I), examining responses from more than 1,500 Americans age 40 to 74 who identified themselves as either “married” or “never married.”

According to the researchers, the results of their study reveal that although never-married adults report somewhat lower levels of overall emotional well-being as those adults in the same age group who chose to go the marriage route, they are comparable to their married counterparts on the possession of psychological resources that are handy in coping with life’s challenges.

“When it comes to psychological resources, these individuals do not seem to be at any disadvantage whether they remained single or got married,” says Bookwala. “This may also serve as one more factor to dispel the old myth that states that there may be ‘something wrong’ with people over 40 who never married.”

The researchers compared three specific psychological resources—personal mastery, agency, and self-sufficiency—between heterosexual never-married and married adults. (Those who reported being widowed or divorced were not included in the sample). Personal mastery has been described as the degree to which individuals believe that they have control over the events that occur in their life, and has been found to play a protective role in the development of depression. Agency refers to a tendency to focus on the self rather than others, and has been associated with superior mental health, including less depression and anxiety. Self-sufficiency can be characterized as a sense of autonomy, which has been linked in other research to a sense of autonomy and better mental health.

In general, she adds, never-married adults are a neglected group in terms of empirical research on marital status and its impact on wellbeing. “They are either excluded or collapsed with other non-married groups,” she says. “In this study, however, this group is of central focus.”

She says their results showed that never-married adults scored lower than married adults on social resources such as social integration in groups and organizations and perceived support from family, but no differently from married adults on psychological resources—personal mastery, agency, and self-sufficiency. “And, more interestingly, our research indicates that these psychological resources played a stronger role in emotional wellbeing for never-married adults than for married adults. This suggests that never-married adults may rely more heavily on their psychological resources to enhance wellbeing”

When never married persons who had high levels of personal resources were compared with their married counterparts who had similar levels of these personal resources, the researchers found that the never-married respondents reported superior emotional wellbeing than those who were married.

An especially intriguing finding was that while higher self-sufficiency is a positive for never-marrieds, it can be detrimental for married individuals, according to Professor Bookwala. “It is possible that self-sufficiency may undermine the interdependence between spouses.” Among married adults, those who reported being less self-sufficient, and thus likely possessing a higher level of interdependence, were happier than their counterparts who were less self-sufficient adults. However, in the group that remained single, higher emotional wellbeing was characteristic of those who had greater self-sufficiency.

“The findings suggest that while being self-sufficient when one is single predicts higher emotional well-being, being self-sufficient within marriage may work against such wellbeing,” she says. “A possible explanation for this difference is that, in marriage, interdependence—rather than self-sufficiency—may foster higher emotional wellbeing.”

The research is slated to appear in the next issue of the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships: an international and interdisciplinary peer reviewed journal that is the leading journal in the field, publishing empirical and theoretical papers on social and personal relationships. It is multidisciplinary in scope, drawing material from the fields of social psychology, clinical psychology, communication, developmental psychology, and sociology.

For more information, contact Jamila Bookwala, associate professor of psychology at Lafayette College at 610-330-5285 or or contact Kristine Y. Todaro, director of news services, at 610-330-5119 or

Kristine Y. Todaro | Newswise Science News
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