A recent study has shed light on how experiences of singlehood in young adulthood can impact life satisfaction and earnings after a breakup. The findings, published in the Journal of Marriage and Family, indicate that experiencing singlehood as a young adult could provide valuable skills and resilience, helping individuals navigate the challenges of relationship breakups later in life.
“Much of the research on how singles differ from partnered people is about how they lack something and how they are worse off (e.g., loneliness),” said study author Lonneke van den Berg, a researcher at the Netherlands Interdisciplinary Demographic Institute.
“We were interested in a potential positive element of singlehood – how young singlehood might have a developmental value. This interest was sparked by several studies that show that young singles see being single as a time to focus on development, such as building a friend group, investing in education or a career, and learning how to live by themselves. Such investments might be important over the life-course. In this paper we studied one moment in which such investments may be important: when separating from your partner.”
The researchers delved into 36 years of data (from 1984 to 2019) from the German Socio-Economic Panel (SOEP), a household panel that tracks various aspects of people’s lives, including income, housing, life satisfaction, and family life. They focused on 1,003 individuals who had experienced leaving their parental home, cohabiting or marrying a partner, and eventually separating from that partner.
The study mainly focused on two dependent variables: life satisfaction and labor earnings. Life satisfaction was measured on an 11-point scale (“How satisfied are you with your life, all things considered?”), while labor earnings included income from employment, bonuses, and more.
To ensure that their findings were robust, the researchers set several criteria for their study participants: individuals had to be younger than 25 years old when they left home, they had to be observed both before and after separation, and they needed valid information on key control variables, like education.
The participants were classified into two separate groups: Initially single refers to those who, after leaving their parental home, initially lived on their own without a romantic partner. Immediately coupled individuals are those who, upon leaving their parental home, quickly entered into a romantic relationship or partnership. They did not spend a significant period of time living independently or single after leaving home.
For women, whether they were initially single or immediately coupled before separating from their first partner didn’t make a significant difference in how their life satisfaction changed over time. Both groups of women experienced a drop in life satisfaction in the year of separation, but there wasn’t a substantial difference.
Among men, the picture was different. Immediately coupled men saw a more significant decline in life satisfaction in the year of separation compared to initially single men. However, the good news for the initially single men was that their life satisfaction quickly rebounded after the initial drop.
The study also examined how the duration of singlehood played a role. It found that for men, the longer they had been single before partnering, the smaller the negative effects of separation on their life satisfaction. This suggests that initially single men may have built up skills and resources during their singlehood that helped them cope better with the crisis of separation.
When it came to earnings, initially single women had higher annual labor earnings than immediately coupled women two years before separation. However, the earnings gap decreased after separation, and there was no significant difference in earnings between the two groups of women after one year post-separation.
Initially single men had higher labor earnings two years before separation compared to immediately coupled men. Interestingly, immediately coupled men saw an increase in earnings in the year following separation and two years after separation.
The findings indicate “that there are positive sides to singlehood. And that we see differences between individuals later in life based on experiences in young adulthood, such as living on your own without a partner after leaving home,” van den Berg told PsyPost.
“Among men, we saw that the steep decline in life satisfaction in the year of the divorce, the so-called crisis effect, was much smaller if men had already been single before and if they have been single for a longer period. Among women, we saw that the earnings of women who had been single before were already higher before separation. In particular, the earnings of women who were immediately coupled after leaving home went up after separation; women who were single for the first time had to increase their labor market participation more than women who had been single before as the latter group was already more economically independent.”
But the study, like all research, includes some caveats. This study focused on data from Germany, where attitudes toward singlehood and relationship dynamics may differ from other countries. Future research could explore whether similar patterns exist in different cultural contexts.
Additionally, the study looked specifically at the impact of singlehood on life after a breakup. Future studies could examine whether singlehood in young adulthood has lasting effects on other aspects of life, such as career trajectories and how individuals cope with different stressful life events.
“We needed quite specific data for our research question: we had to follow individuals from the year they left home up to at least a year after separation from a cohabiting/married partner,” van den Berg explained. “A caveat is that this implies that most of the initially single individuals were only single for a few years. It would be interesting to see in future research how individuals fare who were single for a long period (e.g., 10 years).”
“A question we were not able to answer with these data was how individuals cope socially after separation. Based on our theory we expect individuals who were initially single to have a larger personal network; immediately coupled individuals might share more of their network with their partner. It would be interesting to see if initially singles indeed have a larger personal network and if they get more support after separation.”
“Moreover, for future research it would be interesting to study differences between initially single and immediately coupled individuals in other life situations,” van den Berg added. “We studied coping with separation but it would also be interesting to see, for example, what happens in case of unemployment and health problems later in life.”
The study, “The link between singlehood in young adulthood and effects of romantic separation“, was authored by Lonneke van den Berg and Ellen Verbakel.