Living Single

The truth about singles in our society.

Is It Bad to Notice Discrimination?

Should we shove singlism under the rug?

It still amazes me that at a time of such exquisite sensitivity to all sorts of isms (such as racism, sexism, ageism, and heterosexism), singlism is so often practiced without apology or even awareness. But if singlism is unrecognized, and - as I have acknowledged - it is not as vicious as some of the other isms, why not let it stay unrecognized? What's the point of increasing people's awareness of still another form of stereotyping and discrimination?

FIRST, HOW (IF AT ALL) DO YOU THINK IT WOULD MATTER IF STEREOTYPES OF SINGLES AND DISCRIMINATION AGAINST SINGLES WENT UNRECOGNIZED?

Let's generate some possibilities for what it might mean if the stigma of singlehood were to go unnoticed. Then in the next section, I'll tell you about some of the relevant research.

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I think that if stereotypes of singles were to go unchallenged, then single people (and everyone else) would believe that singles are miserable, lonely, and self-centered. They might further assume that if only single people would marry, they would be transformed into blissfully happy and altruistic beings. They might also presume that people who stay single "too long" need to answer for their "condition," explaining what it is about them that keeps them from marrying. This is the deficit or tragic-flaw perspective on singlehood - which, by the way, does not pass scientific muster (as I explained in Chapter 2 of Singled Out).

Another component of the stigma of being single is interpersonal exclusion. Sometimes people who have gotten married ditch their single friends not because the single friends have done anything wrong, or because they like their single friends any less, but simply because they have joined the Married Couples Club. Although there are many enlightened exceptions, couples often socialize primarily with other couples. If singles were more aware of the pervasiveness of this custom of exclusion, maybe they would stop searching for their personal tragic flaws to explain their own experiences of rejection.

Occasionally, single people claim that they have never experienced singlism. In some instances, the wording of their claims undermines their points. In a discussion of how solo diners are treated in restaurants, for instance, one single woman said that she is never seated near the swinging kitchen doors because whenever a hostess leads her in that direction, she objects and insists on being seated elsewhere.

More importantly, all singles experience singlism, because it is institutionalized in our laws and public policies. Think through the many arguments you have heard in favor of same-sex marriage. Often, they sound something like this: Gay men and lesbians should be able to marry because then they, too, could have access to the important benefits and protections available only to married people. There are more than 1,000 such privileges, including access to health insurance through a partner's employer-provided policy; estate tax protections; and medical decision-making rights. But even if same-sex marriage were legal everywhere, discrimination against people who are single - gay or straight - would still remain. If colleagues can put their spouse on their health-care plan at a reduced rate, but I can't put my sister or my best friend on my plan (and no such person can put me on their plan), then I am getting less compensation for the same work.

The view I am describing here is this: An awareness of the stereotypes, prejudices, and instances of discrimination that really do exist is mostly a good thing. As Jenny Crocker and Brenda Major suggested (in a paper that is now considered a modern classic), stigmatized people's self-esteem can be protected if they realize that sometimes, when things go wrong, the reason is not their own incompetence or unattractiveness. Instead, the blame should be pinned on other people's biases.

It is not just academics who believe in the possibilities of stigma-awareness. To many activists, consciousness-raising is one of the first steps toward powerful social movements and meaningful social change.

Still, there are other important points of view. For example, how can it not hurt to realize that you are devalued simply because you are single?

With regard to the more recognized isms, such as sexism and racism, there is an abundance of relevant research. We now know, for example, that whether it pains you to perceive discrimination depends on whether you are a member of a stigmatized group and you identify with that group. It also depends on your worldview. If you believe in a meritocracy, whereby people are rewarded because they deserve to be, then that first personal experience of undeniable discrimination can send a shudder down your spine and a jolt to your belief system.

When it comes to singlism, however, the research has only just begun. We cannot assume that the psychological dynamics will be the same for singlism as for other isms, because it differs in its contours and its intensity, and because awareness of it is so new.

IS IT BAD TO NOTICE DISCRIMINATION: WHAT DOES THE RESEARCH SHOW?

Recently, Monica Pignotti has been developing a scale to measure the negative stereotyping of people who are single. She has found, in correlational research, that singles who believe the negative stereotypes have lower self-esteem.

But as Wendy Morris has shown in her dissertation research, many single people do not even realize that there is a stigma to being single. What happens if you hasten the dawn of their awareness?

Wendy thought it would depend on what singles could do with their newfound knowledge that stereotyping and discrimination against singles really does exist. If, just after becoming sensitized to the stereotypes, singles also learned that the stereotypes were inaccurate, then maybe awareness would be a good thing. Or, if singles could look back on a time when they were treated negatively and realize that singlism may have been the reason, then that sort of "rearview revision" might also be helpful.

Across three studies, Wendy found no evidence that awareness of singlism was harmful to self-esteem. She found some indications that it could be good for single people's self-esteem and for their mood. Women were especially likely to benefit from becoming newly sensitized to singlism.

Readers of Singled Out and of this blog already know that in my opinion, when it comes to what singles face in contemporary American society, singlism is just the half of it. The other half is matrimania - the over-the-top hyping of marriage and coupling and all the accompanying myths. So here's another question: Does it matter if singles believe the myths about the magical transformations awaiting them if only they marry?

As always, there is not much relevant research, but what is available is tantalizing. Laurie Rudman and Jessica Heppen used an implicit association test to see what the word boyfriend seemed to mean to different women. Some women made quick mental leaps from "boyfriend" to words or phrases such as "hero" and "Prince Charming." Perhaps they thought of boyfriends as Knights in Shining Armor, who rescue poor bedraggled maidens and transform them into ravishing and everlastingly happy princesses. For other women, phrases such as "Average Joe" were more readily linked to the "boyfriend" idea.

If you are thinking that the fantasy life of the Prince Charming women sounds much more lively than that of the Average Joe women, consider this: The authors found that the women who were quickest to associate boyfriends with rescue heroes "showed less interest in high-status occupations, the economic rewards that accompany them, and the educational commitment they require." Who needs a fabulous job or a great education when you can just step into the glass slipper and live happily ever after?

Many of you already know how most research papers end - with the caution that more research is needed. Same here. Still, from what we've learned so far, I'd say that increasing sensitivity to singlism may well be good for your mental health. This is especially so if you learn not just that singles are stereotyped, but that the stereotype-peddlers are on the wrong side of the scientific fence. As your singlism-awareness develops, you may be less inclined to blame yourself when that blame is not deserved. With a mind unmuddled by matrimania, perhaps you will be more likely to pursue your educational degrees and your professional dreams. Those achievements can never be taken away from you, even if you do decide, at some point, that you want to be married.

A WHOLE OTHER QUESTION: WHAT IF YOU NOTICE SINGLISM AND COMPLAIN ABOUT IT?

Obviously, I think it is mostly good for your own peace of mind to be aware of the psychological dynamics set off by singlism. But once you get outside of your own head and into the world, a whole other set of issues awaits you. What if you don't just notice singlism, but also call it to the attention of others?

Here, the terrain is more treacherous. I'll write about that in a future post.

 

Bella DePaulo, Ph.D., is author of Singled Out: How Singles Are Stereotyped, Stigmatized, and Ignored, and Still Live Happily Ever After. She is a visiting professor at UCSB.

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