Many adults now choose to remain single. Some researchers refer to this group as the “never married”, to differentiate them from single after divorce. Johnston and Eklund (1984) noted three decades ago that much attention had been placed on married and divorced adults, with journals devoted to their study, but single adults have received less attention in research. However, as the percentage of adults who remain single has increased since their report, research on the “never married” has changed little. Recently, research has focused on low income single parents and the homeless. There are few studies in the single adult population, even as the adult single population has grown, across all income levels, and regardless of parental status. In other words, we still know less in general about the impact of personality traits and mental health issues, including problems of anxiety, for the single adult population than for married or divorced adults.
However, some preliminary insights can be drawn from the existing literature. For example, it appears that being single carries some risks. Scott et al. (2010) carried out a large, multinational study with over 34,000 adult participants. They found that adults who had never been married experience a somewhat greater risk of developing mental disorders (including those related to anxiety) compared to married adults. They also reported some differences by gender. Men who had never married had relatively greater risk for both depression and panic disorder (related to anxiety). Women who had never married were at relatively greater risk for substance abuse problems. In other words, being single may increase the degree of risk across the board for mental health problems in adulthood, but the risk becomes more serious for men in problem areas like depression and panic disorder (and probably other anxiety-related issues). Single women are less likely to be at greater risk for these sorts of problems, but they face other risks.
Nevertheless, just because single individuals are found to be at somewhat increased risk for various mental health problems—including anxiety disorders—than are married adults, it does not mean that being single directly led to these problems. The question is how might single status increase an individual’s risk for anxiety-related and other mental health problems?
One possible answer comes from an interesting study by Brown et al. (1996). They studied a sample of 404 women living with at least one child in inner-city London (these women came from a variety of backgrounds, some single, some married but separated, some divorced, and some widowed). The researchers assessed the various types of problems and mental health disorders these women living on the edge faced. They found they could sort the women into two groups: those who had experienced very bad situations as children (such as neglect or abuse) and those who had not. Among those women with the more difficult childhoods, adult mental health problems such as depression and anxiety disorders were common. However, among the adult women who had experienced stressors as adults—such as from divorce or death of a spouse—only depression tended to result. Thus, it may not be marital status itself that affects risk for anxiety-related problems in adults; it may be the luck of having had fewer severe problems in childhood.
In summary, the research shows that being single may increase one’s risk of developing anxiety. However, this risk appears to be relatively greater for men than for women. Also, other factors, like adverse childhood experiences, may increase the risk for anxiety, regardless of marital status.