So, my last post caused a bit of a stir. “23 ways single people are better: The evidence,” was its title, and married people rushed to the comments section to let me have it. To which I say: Mission accomplished. The article had a purpose beyond the usual. I was sharing information and analysis, as always, but I was also testing.
I wanted to know the answer to this question: What would happen if I wrote an article touting the superiority of single people, using the same tone and the same kind of wording that so many others do when writing about the supposed superiority of married people? So I went off-tone, for me, and wrote in a way I usually don’t.
I wanted to compare the response to my article, describing 23 ways, based on scientific evidence, that single people are better than married people, to the responses to decades of articles and headlines declaring that married people are better.
I wanted my article to be as comparable as possible to the matrimaniacal ones I read all the time, but in the end, I just couldn’t get myself to go all in. Those articles touting the purported transformational power of marrying often include no qualifications at all. They do not tell you the ways in which the research may be limited or even wrong. They just say, “Married people are better. Research proves it. Nyah Nyah.”
The scientist in me would not allow that. So by the time you got to the third paragraph of my “23 ways” post, you were already being cautioned about methodological limitations. (I copied that paragraph at the end of this post.) Then you read more words of qualification along the way.
People who publish misleading, inaccurate, scientifically embarrassing, and methodologically indefensible claims about the superiority of married people typically get away with it. If they write for the AP or the New York Times or any other reputable outlet, they don’t even bother to write a follow-up “clarification” if they are ever called on their inaccuracies (which they usually aren’t, except by me). People who blog about those stories do not typically get livid readers heading to the comments section to protest.
But look what happened when I wrote about “23 ways singles are better,” drawing from dozens of scientific studies.
First, though, some more background.
Why I wanted to write the “23 ways” article
My desire to turn the tables has been stoked by decades of misleading claims about the superiority of married people, both in the media, and (most disappointingly) in scientific writings. My breaking point came when I was sent an article to review for a scientific journal showing that a big group of single people was doing better than married people in some very important ways. (I can’t be more specific because the article is not published.) That, of course, was contrary to the authors’ predictions, but instead of trying to understand what it was about single people that gave them these advantages, the authors simply explained away their own data. They never even considered the possibility of taking their own data seriously. Instead, every single thing they said about those results was an excuse—a reason why married people really are better, even though their data suggested the opposite. The article, predictably, repeated misleading claims about what previous research has shown.
For more than a decade, I have been critiquing media stories, and the studies they are supposedly based on, about the alleged superiority of married people and the purported benefits of getting married. In all that time, there has probably never been a single week without a big headline somewhere proclaiming that married people are in some way better than single people. It is relentless. Yet, as I have shown elsewhere (for example, here and here), there is, so far as I know, not even one methodologically-respectable study that shows definitively that getting married results in lasting benefits to health or well-being or just about anything else. (Some exceptions: Marriage is good for your financial bottom line, largely because of all of the discriminatory laws and practices that make it so. It is good for your social standing, too.)
Remember, for example, the headlines proclaiming that “married men are better men” or that “married men are nicer”? Those are actual headlines, from respected news sources such as Reuters and the Sydney Morning Herald. There were plenty more just like them.
Married men aren’t really better or nicer in that blanket way the headlines suggest; in important ways, single men are “better” and “nicer” than married men. But countless headlines whipped around the world, with no qualifications and no apologies. Bad reporting, getting top billing.
Where were all of the protests to those stories or to all of the other thousands of articles misleadingly proclaiming that married people are better? Mostly what we get are crickets.
What’s my preferred tone and my actual attitude toward single and married life?
I don’t like to write as starkly as I did in “23 ways.” My real feelings are that some people do better living single, and others do better when they are coupled, and everyone should get to live the life that is most meaningful to them as a unique individual. As I’ve said before about this Living Single blog, “Even more than single life, this is about authenticity and choice.”
That’s not to discount any of those 23 ways that singles are better. But all of those studies (just like all of the studies pretending to show that married people are better) are based on averages across all of the people who participated. Some people – especially those who are single-at-heart—are going to do better living single, and others are going to do better if they are married; studies that average across all kinds of people don’t tell us about those important differences among individuals.
If I had been writing in my usual tone and with my usual attitude, I might have instead said that “single life” may be better in those 23 ways, rather than “single people.”
But like I said, I’d had it with all the relentless matrimania. Plus, on the positive side, reporters were starting to ask me about scientifically-documented ways in which single people and single life are superior.
What was the response to my off-tone test article?
Once “23 ways” went live, a married woman was one of the first to jump into the discussion in the comments section, boasting of all her stellar qualities, as if that were “evidence” comparable to the research I cited. She also said I was “picking a very single statistician as a research partner” and that I “can't pick and choose.” Never mind that she is citing her own experiences, as one married person, and I had cited dozens of studies. One set of one person’s anecdotes versus tens of studies based, probably, on tens of thousands of participants.
Showing that she has never read a “Living Single” column until I posted the daring “23 ways singles are better” headline, she actually told me that “Not all research is good, solid, unbiased research.” Exactly right. And overwhelmingly, the studies that are not “good, solid, unbiased research” are studies claiming the superiority of married people. I showed that in much detail in Singled Out, and have continued critiquing bad, flimsy, biased studies of the supposed benefits of marrying ever since. (Sets of links can be found in “Everything you think you know about the benefits of marrying is wrong: The evidence.”)
Where were that woman’s comments protesting the many other matrimanical claims on the same site where my “23 ways” appeared?
[To the person who commented: No, of course I do not expect readers to be able to cite studies. But it takes no special training to be even-handed in your skepticism.]
A married man also joined the “Living Single” discussion (again, apparently a first-timer) to tell us about how happy he is and how “prized” he feels, and to call single people “bitter.” He, too, is angry that I said that single people are BETTER (he used caps), saying that my choice of that word was “prejudiced, detrimental and misguided.” He got involved in critiquing individual results (e.g., “Since when going to gym and sweat everyday makes one people better…”).
He added more comments later, clarifying that he did not mean to say he was better than single people but that we should “just focus on mutual respect of choices and way of life instead of promoting detrimenal comparisons.” (He also makes some accurate points about correlation and causation; if he had read anything else I’d ever written – or even the third paragraph of the “23 ways” article he is critiquing [copied at the end of this piece] – he would know that I’ve been making those points for decades. The articles that don’t bother to mention that problem are typically the ones proclaiming the superiority of married people.)
Again, I ask: Where are this man’s protests against the stark claims that married people are better, or against the questionable methodology of the Marriage Mafia? And I wonder whether he minded the subtitle of the book I critiqued throughout Singled Out, which was a blanket statement of the superiority of married people.
Under the heading “Be Careful,” another reader admonished me “to be careful with this kind of an article which doesn't even attempt to also recognise benefits of marriage.”
Another said my title was “alienating.” (But, I suppose, all the headlines touting married people’s superiority are just fine.)
Then there was this: “Is this post from PT or the Onion?!” Apparently, it is not possible that there are ways in which single people are better. That has to be a farce.
To anyone who has ever said that singlism does not exist, that there is no prejudice or stigma or discrimination against people who are single, I suggest this: Read the comments on “23 ways.” That’s not the best evidence; most of that is in the Singlism book. But I think you may find yourself enlightened all the same.
Happily, the enlightenment will come not just from the protestors. It will also come from other readers who appreciated what I had to say. I recognized a number of them as long-time readers of Living Single, and I thank them for being part of our community.
From just some of the readers who said it well
The very first person to comment nailed it, predicting exactly what would happen:
“Thanks, Bella. I'll assume the marrieds and mommies will show up soon enough to talk about how much they love married life and how they are so important and so involved they don't have time for exercise, looking after those needy family members, maintaining friendships or helping out within the community.”
Then the person captured my sentiments precisely:
“For decades we've been hearing none-stop about the benefits of marriage and reading biased and inaccurate "studies" that claim marriage will result in a better living experience. Yet, Ms. DePaulo has unearthed several competent studies that say just the opposite. Yes, maybe it is time for a "Singles Are Better" article, just a tiny spec against the tidal wave of dangerous pro-marriage propaganda.”
Another said this:
“"we singles have had it with being told we're not as good" through countless studies when those studies are usually bogus and funded by pro-marriage and/or religious groups. Propaganda anyone?”
“It's true this headline is a bit provocative, but is a refreshing counterpoint to what Dr. Depaulo calls matrimania.”
One last point
I think there’s something else the protestors did not like about my article. Instead of just saying, “no, married people are not better,” I actually had the audacity to point to ways in which single people are better. That’s like the difference between saying you don’t mind being single and saying that you choose to be single. It is the choosing that sends people over the edge.
There is even research on that point: “It’s true: They’re mad at you for CHOOSING to be single.”
[Note: Below that cautionary paragraph, the third one in "23 ways." It is the kind of note that is so often missing from matrimanical articles.]
[My usual caveat: Some studies compare people of different marital or relationship statuses at just one point in time. As I have often explained (for example, here and here), the results of such studies are open to different interpretations. True experiments are impossible, since people can’t be randomly assigned to get married or stay single, but longitudinal studies, in which the same people are followed over time, are better than the studies comparing people at just one point in time.]