Living Single

The truth about singles in our society.

When Do Women Cling to Mythologies about Marriage and Coupling?

For women, relationships are often central to their identity

In my latest series of posts (here and here), I've been trying to figure out, with the help of a new series of studies, why it is that people cling to mythologies about marriage and coupling and why they stereotype single people - sometimes with great passion. The first 5 studies I described offer some insight about men's defense of marriage. For men, when some important aspect of the status quo is threatened (for example, by information suggesting that their own country is unfair), then they are especially likely to insist that the marriage mythology is true. They become even more certain that, for example, everyone wants to marry and that married people are better than single people. Conversely, if you threaten their faith in coupling (by reminding them of the high divorce rate and growing number of people who are single), then they will ramp up their defense of the fairness of their own society. If you tell them that high quality committed romantic relationships are linked to happiness and a sense of stability and order, then they will embrace the myths about marriage all the more tightly.

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Women, though, do not respond in any of those ways. What's going on? It is unlikely that threats to the status quo simply do not bother them, because other research on system justification theory (not about marriage mythologies) finds that women do react to such threats in other ways.

One possibility the authors suggested, based on other research, is that for women, marriage and romantic relationships are more likely to be central to their identity. So maybe, when some aspect of the status quo is threatened, women respond by defending their own romantic relationship, rather than defending an abstract mythology.

The authors (full reference is below) found evidence for that in a simple study of both men and women who were in romantic relationships. Half of them had their belief in Canadian society threatened and the other half were told that Canada was doing just fine. (This is the same approach that was used in a previous study I described here.) Then they were asked about their romantic partner. Some questions were designed to assess whether they viewed their partner as part of their own identity. Examples included "My romantic partner is an important part of my identity" and "When I think of myself, I often think of my romantic partner also." Other questions tapped the participants' sense of security in their relationship; for example, "My partner loves and accepts me unconditionally."

The women who had their faith in the status quo of Canadian society shaken were more defensive about their own romantic relationships than were the women who were told that Canadian society was in good shape.  They were especially likely to claim, for example, that their romantic partner was an important part of their identity and that their partner loved them unconditionally. The men did the same thing.

From a systems justification perspective, it is unsettling to have your basic beliefs about the fairness of the status quo threatened. If you do experience such a threat, you look for other ways to restore a sense of certainty and control and predictability. Women look to their own romantic relationships and declare them amazing. Men cling to their romantic relationships and to marriage mythologies.

That study still doesn't tell us whether there are conditions under which women might cling to myths about marriage and coupling. Going back to the research showing that romantic relationships are more likely to be central to the identities of women than of men, the authors wondered whether threatening women's belief in their own romantic relationship abilities would make them more defensive about mythologies of marriage and coupling.

Men and women took personality tests, then were given bogus feedback indicating that their "personal ability to have a good, healthy and positive committed relationship in your life" was either good (78th percentile) or not so good (38th percentile). The authors expected the women who were told they were not very good at relationships to express even more belief in the myths about marriage and coupling than the women who were told that they were good at relationships.

That's what they found. Women who were given negative feedback about their relationship abilities were even more likely to endorse marriage myths (such as "Committed relationships improve the lives of both partners involved") than the women who were given positive feedback. So that's when women embrace myths about marriage and coupling - when their own relationship abilities are threatened. Again, the predicted results occurred for the men as well as the women.

What I love about this last study is that it defies one of the taunts we happy single people are used to hearing. We can't really be happy, we are told. We are just rationalizing. In fact, we are losers with no relationship talent and deep down inside, we know that. We just claim to like our single lives because we can't bear to face the fact that we have no other choice but to be single.

That last study suggests that the psychological dynamics may be just the opposite of those taunts. The people most likely to insist that coupled people are better people are those who are insecure about their own relationship abilities. Pretty interesting, I think.

Who Is Especially Likely to Justify the Status Quo?

There were some great discussions in the comments sections of the last two posts on this system justification topic, and a few good questions as well. I found data to address one of the questions, posed by Alan. He asked about the other beliefs and characteristics of people who are especially likely to defend the status quo.

We don't know any more about the people who defend marriage mythologies other than what I've told you in this series of posts. The authors of the 7 studies were breaking new ground with their work. There is, though, quite a lot of research on other mythologies and ideologies, such as the belief in a just world or the defense of social and economic inequality. I'm drawing from a brief review of some of that work (Jost and Hunyady, Current Directions in Psychological Science, 2005).

Defenders of the status quo tend to be:

  • People who have high needs for order, structure and closure. They don't like ambiguity and they like to make decisions quickly and then stand by those decisions.
  • People who see the world as a dangerous place.
  • People who are anxious about their own mortality.
  • People who are not especially curious or open to change or to new experiences.

Nicky asked the question I would love to have answered: How do we use this new research on clinging to marriage mythologies in order to make social change more likely to happen? We can all generate possibilities. If I find any directly relevant research, I'll let you know.

Reference:

Day, M. V., Kay, A. C., Holmes, J. C., & Napier, J. L. (in press). System justification and the defense of committed relationship ideology. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

 

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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