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Valentine’s Day marred by loneliness crisis

Get this man a wife. Credit: Getty

February 14, 2024 - 7:00am

This Valentine’s Day, the news is awash with stories of loneliness and atomisation among adults across the West. Though clinical attention has focused on this brewing crisis, the remedies are often misplaced.

Last year, US Surgeon General Vivek Murthy issued an advisory on this new national problem, which was exacerbated by the Covid lockdowns. Following his appointment to the position, Murthy noted growing numbers of Americans approaching him, reporting that they “felt isolated, invisible, and insignificant”. Today, Murthy claims, “about one in two adults in America [have] reported experiencing loneliness”, while the effects of social isolation on mortality are about the same as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.

This loneliness outbreak emerges from the fraying of our most fundamental social bonds — friendships, neighbourliness, church attendance, participation in charitable causes — most of which have been in decline in recent decades. All the while, social media erodes the character and quality of our in-person relationships. Murthy and other observers of our loneliness crisis acknowledge many of these causes in their diagnosis and prescriptions about what we can do to reduce loneliness in America.

But one important word is missing in the public conversation about loneliness: marriage. In the course of researching my new book, I found not only that the happiest and most financially secure Americans are married but also that the least lonely Americans are married. Meanwhile, marriage tends to matter more than many of the factors that public health leaders such as Murthy focus on.

According to analysis of a 2021 YouGov survey by the Institute for Family Studies and the Wheatley Institute, unmarried adults aged 18-55 were twice as likely to say they are lonely “most of the time” or “all the time” as married adults (28% vs.14%). The difference is still significant after controlling for education, income and other demographic factors. In fact, marital status matters more than income, race, gender, age, and education when it comes to predicting who is lonely in America.  

Going off this data, marriage reduces the odds of being lonely by 48%. Having a household income of over $100,000 reduces the odds by 27%, while a college education does so by 23%. This issue is vital because the marriage rate has fallen more than 60% since 1970, to the point where 25% of 40-year-olds haven’t married, compared to just 6% in 1980. Today, the share of Americans aged 60 and older who are divorced or never married has more than doubled, up from 12% in 1970 to 25% in 2021. This number will only climb in the coming years.

Indeed, loneliness was declared a public health emergency last week in San Mateo County, California. This Bay Area county of roughly three-quarters of a million people is the fourth-richest in the United States, with a median income of just under $150,000. And yet feelings of isolation have emerged as a concern even in America’s most privileged areas. 

We’ve seen this story play out in Japan, where these trends are further along. As the New York Times has observed, the “extreme isolation of elderly Japanese is so common that an entire industry has emerged around it, specialising in cleaning out apartments where decomposing remains are found”. About one in four Japanese young adults (18-34) say they have never had sex, the rates of the never-married young men and women in the island nation keep climbing, and fertility is well below replacement rate.

The United States is not yet close to reaching the family collapse unfolding in Japan. But the signs across America, including San Mateo County, are concerning. Where California goes, so America follows, as they say.

Policymakers fail to acknowledge the precipitous declines in dating, marriage, and childbearing, and the effects these have on loneliness. Murthy’s list of solutions for today’s loneliness crisis had little to say about marriage and childbearing, even though there is no group of Americans less lonely than married parents. 

As we mark this romantic day, more young and middle-aged single adults would do well to date with an eye towards getting married. Those who are in good relationships should consider putting a ring on it. And for those of us who have already tied the knot, there are always new ways to deepen the tie that binds.


Brad Wilcox is Future of Freedom Fellow at the Institute for Family Studies and nonresident senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. He is the author of the book Get Married: Why Americans Must Defy the Elites, Forge Strong Families and Save Civilization, which published in February 2024 by HarperCollins.

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Ian Barton
Ian Barton
5 months ago

Surely one of the best ways to avoid loneliness is to develop a number of close social relationships – e.g. by joining clubs/societies – in addition to any existing “partner relationship”
As the stats point out, marriage is helpful, but it’s not a silver bullet.

Milton Gibbon
Milton Gibbon
5 months ago
Reply to  Ian Barton

That’s all well and good up to the point the government bans you from attending your chosen club/society. During Covid the precedent was set – even asking us not to meet with friends/relatives. It will take a lot more coercive control for the state to ban husbands and wives and their children from living together.

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
5 months ago
Reply to  Milton Gibbon

That’s your excuse is it? A lockdown that ended years ago?

Julian Farrows
Julian Farrows
5 months ago
Reply to  UnHerd Reader

There must be two Unherd Readers here. There is one who makes intelligent, well-reasoned comments, and then there is you. Could you please change your name to Herd Reader?

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
5 months ago
Reply to  Julian Farrows

I’m the other Unherd Reader. How do I change it to my name?

ralph bell
ralph bell
5 months ago
Reply to  Ian Barton

I think that was exactly the point in the article. Marriage is the silver bullet and most significant variable to reduce loneliness and improve wellbeing and health.

Ian Barton
Ian Barton
5 months ago
Reply to  ralph bell

The article just suggests that being married is better for loneliness than non-marriage. My point is that there are more variables involved in the subject of loneliness than this article is covering.
It might be telling that the author has chosen not to cover non-married couples as a category.

Steve Murray
Steve Murray
5 months ago
Reply to  Ian Barton

Indeed, and there’s nothing more lonely than a marriage where love has died, or where violence – either physical or psychological – has taken the place of love. Advocating marriage for the sake of it is fundamentally flawed.

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
5 months ago

Wow groundbreaking content for a book. Everyone pre-order the hardback to find out why couples are less lonely.
Does the date reliably distinguish between those who live as couples and those who have married (presumably here being the traditional nuclear family 1950s kind)?
Anyway the argument puts the cart before the horse. We are all lonely for the same reasons we are not getting married. Marriage isn’t the solution it’s a symptom.

sarah rutherford
sarah rutherford
5 months ago

You can be lonely and among people. You can be lonely in a marriage. Loneliness comes from a feeling of disconnection, of lack of close relationship, not necessarily physical isolation although for many this may play a large part.

2 plus 2 equals 4
2 plus 2 equals 4
5 months ago

The upside of marriage is that there is always someone there to talk to.
The downside is the same.

Will Crozier
Will Crozier
5 months ago

Haha! Nicely put

Hans Daoghn
Hans Daoghn
5 months ago

Let me talk to my wife about that.

Ian Barton
Ian Barton
5 months ago


. and to listen to 🙂

Alex Lekas
Alex Lekas
5 months ago

How many more things are we going to pathologize? Loneliness is now a public health issue? Here’s an idea: set down that smartphone for 15 minutes and have a face to face conversation with someone. Put down the game console and go have a drink with a couple of friends. If you’re in an office building, pull out the earbuds during lunch and eat with a colleague in the breakroom or, even better, a nearby restaurant. Go to church, join the local theater, take a class, try this thing called living that, by definition, involves interacting with other people in a non-digital manner.

Dennis Roberts
Dennis Roberts
5 months ago
Reply to  Alex Lekas

I agree, but those things are getting harder to do. Smartphones are addictive, the drink is expensive, working lunches are the norm, society in general is less apparent. Some will be fine in that world, others will not. And it’s not just down to you – others have to reciprocate. If there are fewer or no clubs to join, it’s harder to join a club.

laurence scaduto
laurence scaduto
5 months ago

The number of truly pressing problems that have popped up since the spread of smart phones is impossible to not see; depression, anxiety, loneliness, anger, etc.
Yet most of you can’t seem to admit that to yourselves.
Strangest of all, most of what you’re looking at is un-dated, recycled and manipulated footage of past disasters. Or the depressed, anxious, lonely and angry ravings of very un-happy people.

William Shaw
William Shaw
5 months ago

Governments have been passing anti-male laws for decades in response to women’s demands.
No wonder men are reluctant to commit to marriage.

Susan Grabston
Susan Grabston
5 months ago

Diversity is our strength? Disaggregation is the outcome. Go figure.