Fewer Friends, Better Marriages: The Modern American Social Network

In A Book About Love, I wrote about research showing that the social networks of Americans have been shrinking for decades. Miller McPherson, a sociologist at the University of Arizona and Duke University, has helped document the decline. In 1985, 26.1 percent of respondents reported discussing important matters with a “comember of a group,” such as a church congregant. In 2004, McPherson found that the percentage had fallen to 11.8. In 1985, 18.5 percent of subjects had important conversations with their neighbors. That number shrank to 7.9 percent two decades later. Other studies have reached similar conclusions. Robert Putnam, for instance, has used the DDB Needham Life Style Surveys to show that the average married couple entertained friends at home approximately fifteen times per year in the 1970s. By the late 1990s, that number was down to eight, “a decline of 45 percent in barely two decades.”

These surveys raise the obvious question: If we’re no longer socializing with our neighbors, or having dinner parties with our friends, then what the hell are we doing? 

One possibility is screens. Conversation is hard; it’s much easier to chill with Netflix and the cable box. According to this depressing speculation, technology is an enabler of loneliness, allowing us to forget how isolated we’ve become. 

But there’s another possibility. While it seems clear that we’re spending less time with our friends and acquaintances (texting doesn’t count), we might be spending more time with our spouses and children. (McPherson found, for instance, that the percentage of Americans who said their spouse was their “only confidant” nearly doubled between 1985 and 2004.) If true, this would suggest that our social network isn’t fraying so much as it’s gradually becoming more focused and intimate.

A new paper by Katie Genadek, Sarah Flood and Joan Garcia Roman at the University of Minnesota, drawing from time use survey data from 1965 to 2012, aims to answer these important unknowns. Their data provides a fascinating portrait of the social trends shaping the lives of American families.

I’ll start with the punchline: on average, spouses are spending more time with each other than they did in 1965. This trend is particularly visible among married couples with children. Here are the scientists: “In 1965, individuals with children spent about two hours per day with both their spouse and child(ren); by 2012 this had increased 50 minutes to almost three hours.” Instead of bowling with neighbors, we’re taking our kids to soccer practice.

Of course, when it comes to togetherness time, quality matters more than quantity. One cynical explanation for the increase in family time is that much of it might involve screens. Maybe we’re not hanging out—we’re just sharing a wifi network. But the data doesn’t seem to show that. In 1975, couples spent 79 minutes watching television together. In 2012, that number had increased by only 13 minutes. What’s more, spouses are still making time for shared activities that don’t involve TV. Although our total amount of leisure time has remained remarkably constant – Keynes’ leisure society has not come to pass – we are more likely to spend this free time with our spouse.

This is particularly true among couples with children. The big news buried in this time use data is that parents are doing a lot more parenting. In 1965, parents spent 41 minutes engaged in “primary care” for their little ones. That number had more than doubled, to 88 minutes, in 2012. We’re also far more likely to parent together, with the number of minutes spent as a family unit quadrupling from 6 minutes in 1965 to 27 minutes in 2012. This increase in family time comes despite the sharp increase in women working outside the home.

It’s so easy to despair about the state of the world. What’s important to remember, however, is that these more intimate benchmarks of life are trending in the right direction.  Amid all the calls to make America great again, we’re liable to forget that the greatest generations spent a staggeringly little amount of time with their families. The nuclear family is supposed to be disintegrating, but these time diaries show us the opposite, as Americans are choosing to spend an increasing percentage of their time with their partner and children.

What makes this survey data more compelling is that it jives with recent research showing the growing role played by our spouses in determining our own life happiness. In a separate study based on data from 47,000 couples, Genadek and Flood found that individuals are nearly twice as happy when they are with their spouse as when they’re not. Meanwhile, a recent meta-analysis of ninety-three studies by the psychologist Christine Proulx found that the rewards of a good marriage have surged in recent decades, with the most loving couples providing a bigger lift to the “personal well-being” of the partners. In fact, the influence of a good marriage on overall levels of life satisfaction has nearly doubled since the late 1970s. Given this happiness boost, it shouldn’t be too surprising that we’re spending more time with our spouses. If we’re lucky, we already live with the people who make us happiest. 

Genadek, Katie R., Sarah M. Flood and Joan Garcia Roman. “Trends in Spouses’ Shared Time in the United States, 1965-2012.” Demography (2016)