Friends are nice, but they are rarely equivalent to a spouse. The level of on-call commitment and intimacy is simply different. Your spouse knows you in a 24/7 way that few if any others do, especially in a society organized around the nuclear family rather than the extended one. (A spouse also multiplies your extended family by two.) As my economist husband likes to put it, being married also creates a “joint utility function.” Your happiness becomes entwined with your spouse’s, giving you strong incentives to make an extra effort.
Recalling how the “epidemic of care giving” in response to AIDS helped make the case for same-sex marriage, the writer Jonathan Rauch argued that by “assuming the burdens of marriage at its hardest,” gay men demonstrated that “no relative, government program or charity is as dependable or consoling as a dedicated partner.” What’s true of AIDS is true of cancer as well.
People don’t like to hear that. It’s not fair to single people. It’s not constructive. “Our results suggest that patients who are not married should reach out to friends, cancer support or faith-based groups, and their doctors to obtain adequate social support,” lead author Ayal Aizer, chief resident in radiation oncology at Harvard Medical School, said in the oncology society’s news release.
But trying to turn the study’s findings into a general call for “social support” ignores its stark result. Single people aren’t, of course, doomed to die of cancer. Their friends and family can in fact help them do better. But we shouldn’t pretend that marriage isn’t a huge advantage.
Virginia Postrel is a Bloomberg View columnist. Her next book, “The Power of Glamour,” will be published Nov. 5 by Simon & Schuster.