Living Single

The truth about singles in our society.

Are Couples Mean to Singles?

Some couples are just uncritically repeating the conventional wisdom.

Usually, I decide for myself what to write about here, but every so often, a story shows up in my inbox so many times that I feel that I have no choice but to share it. An essay in the BBC News Magazine is a recent example.

In the title of the essay, British novelist James Friel asked, “Why are couples so mean to single people?” As evidence of such meanness, Friel offered several examples. One is the ubiquitous dinner party question addressed to a single person by a person who is coupled: “Why don’t you have a partner?”

Another example was even more egregious. A single woman with no children recounted her experience of going on a date with a man who had married three times and had a child with each of the wives. The man had the audacity to ask her “why she had failed at life.”

Friel enjoys turning the tables, as do I. (See, for example, ‘Why are you single’ meets ‘why are you married.’) He muses about the possible responses he only fantasizes about giving to the coupled people who ask him why he doesn’t have a partner: “Why have you settled for him? Why are you stuck with her? Were you so afraid of being alone?” Those come-backs would be considered rude, unlike the questions addressed to single people about why they are single.

The author believes that the legalization of same-sex marriage has broadened the scope of meanness. Now, even gay singles need to “account for not having a partner.”

He’s not buying that “you complete me” business. In fact, he speculates that singles “sense that we do not need to be completed by another, somehow sense that we are able to complete ourselves. The single person might just be too self-possessed.”

Friel’s question was, “Why are couples so mean to single people?” I titled this post, “Are couples mean to singles” because I do not think that all of them are. I also don’t see much of an answer to the “why” question in Friel’s essay.

There are lots of possible answers. The couples who do practice singlism sometimes are just uncritically repeating the conventional wisdom. They have never been nudged to think about whether what they just asked the single person really makes sense or whether they realize that their question could be offensive.

More interesting psychologically is the possibility that the couples who ask demeaning questions of single people are doing so not because they are so secure in their status as couples but because they are so insecure. They find single people threatening, and not necessarily because they think the single person will steal their partner. Single people – especially happy and successful single people – threaten their worldview that assures them that to be happy, you need to be coupled. If single people are doing just fine, then maybe there is no inherent superiority to being coupled.

[Notes: (1) There is some research relevant to my last point, written from the perspective of “system justification theory.” I discussed it in Singlism as well as in blog posts here, here, and here. (2) Thanks to the people who sent me links to the BBC story. Those willing to share their names are Kath, Steve Karau, Jason McMahan, and Susan Hurt. (3) Teaser image is from bossip.com. (4) A few other recent blog posts are listed below.]

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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