Living Single

The truth about singles in our society.

Are Married People the True Victims of Singlism?

Any bias against married people is small in comparison

I’m going to violate all of those hallowed principles of good narrative suspense and tell you the answer to the question that is the title of this post right now. No, married people are not the true victims of singlism!

I want to underscore that point because over at the Huffington Post, a featured contributor to the Science section claims that married people are just as harmed by singlism as are single people. The author of the post makes that argument by redefining singlism to mean prejudice and discrimination against both single and married people. That’s not what singlism means. Even if we set aside the incorrect definition and just compare the stereotyping and stigmatizing and discrimination against single people to an analogous bias against married people, there is really no comparison. Discrimination against single people is written into more than 1,000 federal laws.

I do not typically cross-post, but the Huffington Post readership is huge, and so without aggressive correction, there is a risk that the incorrect definition of singlism will take hold, or at least muddy the definitional waters.

So below is a version of something I posted both at Psych Central and at the Huffington Post (where they published it in the Women section, instead of the Science section where the original misleading article appeared.) If you have already read one of those posts, you can skip reading now, and I’ll add my miscellaneous note here at the top: There was a problem when I first posted my most recent entry here at Psych Today, and I’m not sure whether it went out to all subscribers. In case you missed it and didn’t mean to, it is here.

Singlism: You Don’t Get to Define It Any Way You Want

A recent essay published here at the Huffington Post is titled, “It’s complicated: The psychology of ‘singlism.’” Author Wray Herbert discussed some intriguing research in his post but his description of singlism – a concept I introduced – is inaccurate.

Herbert begins by saying that he “never felt judged, or discriminated against, for choosing to be single or for choosing a partner.”

Then he continues with this:

“So it came as a surprise to me to read recently about "singlism." Apparently, some people do feel judged, and unfairly, for their status. And intriguingly, this subtle form of discrimination appears to cut both ways. That is, people who are single by choice claim that they are treated unfairly for not tying some kind of knot, while married people -- especially in large urban centers -- feel that they are marginalized in a predominantly singles culture.”

The essay ends with one last misleading claim:

“In short, singlism is indeed potent and double-edged. Because most people still do opt for marriage, this bias probably hurts more singles overall. But the intolerance that couple people feel is no less real or harmful.”

Because I coined the term singlism, and published the book by that name (with contributions from 28 others), I can say definitively that singlism does not cut both ways. By definition, singlism is what single people experience. It is the stereotyping, stigmatizing, and discrimination against people who are single. Although people who are married may feel that they are marginalized, that feeling is not an example of singlism. Furthermore, any bias experienced by married people is simply not the equivalent of the prejudice and discrimination against single people. That’s not just my opinion – it is the conclusion of years of research.

In Singlism: What It Is, Why It Matters, and How to Stop It, my fellow contributors and I document the ways in which singles are targets of stereotyping, stigmatizing, or discrimination in domains such as politics, religion, the workplace, the marketplace, college teaching and research, the media, advertising, and everyday life. Evidence comes from experimental studies (for example, of housing discrimination) and analyses of laws and policies (for example, the tax structure) as well as personal experiences. (Over at Onely, Christina and Lisa are working on a detailed, systematic analysis of singlism that, when finished, will be the definitive assessment of the economic costs of being single.)

Because singlism is built right into American laws, it is not possible to be single and not be a target of discrimination. If you have followed the marriage equality debate, then you probably know that there are more than 1,000 federal laws that benefit or protect only those people who are legally married. Even if same-sex marriage becomes legal throughout the land, all those people who are single – whether gay or straight or any other status – will still remain second class citizens.

Wray Herbert is not the only person who is, or was once, single and believes he has never experienced singlism. In a group discussion of how single diners are treated in restaurants, for example, one single woman said that she does not experience discrimination because she does not allow it: When a hostess leads her to a table at the back of the restaurant near the swinging door to the kitchen, she refuses to sit there. (Of course, her anecdote is actually an example of singlism.) Others claim that their friends and family are open-minded and do not judge them in any negative way because they are single.

Happily, there are smart and savvy people who do not judge or stereotype people who are single. However, in a program of research, my colleagues and I have shown that they are the exceptions. In study after study, we found that perceptions of single people are overwhelmingly more negative than perceptions of married or coupled people. That’s true even when we create brief biographical sketches of people who are sometimes said to be single and sometimes married but are described identically in every other way. The single people are viewed more harshly and more stereotypically than the married people.

Studies of perceptions of single people have been conducted in other countries as well. Again and again, single people are stereotyped. A particularly compelling set of studies assessed actual differences between single and coupled people, as well as perceptions of differences. The perceptions were pervasive, with singles getting derogated (relative to couples), but the actual differences were few and far between. (The journal article is here; the results are also summarized and discussed in Chapter 11 of Singlism.)

For decades, the number of people in the United States who are single (whether divorced or widowed or always-single) has been increasing. There are now nearly as many unmarried adults as married ones. Looking at households instead of individuals, married-couple households are already in the minority. As these trends continue, perceptions of singles are likely to become less caricatured and more accurate. Changing the laws that enable discrimination, though, will be a much greater challenge.

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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