In the week leading up to Valentine's Day, the "In Theory" blog at the Washington Post published a series on Singlehood in America. The editors initially invited six experts and scholars to contribute. The introductory article at first listed only those six. If only those people wrote for the series, it would have been one of the most insightful, respectful, and non-stigmatizing set of writings about single life ever to appear in a major publication.
A few days into the series, though, an unannounced voice appeared. A New York Post columnist and former Wall Street Journal editor wrote an article shaming single mothers and their children. Then a few days after that, another singles-bashing article appeared, this one taking aim specifically at young single men. It was written, unsurprisingly, by Brad Wilcox, who already has an enormous platform and gets his pro-marriage writings published just about everywhere. But apparently he, like the New York Post columnist, was not about to let a positive, dignified, enlightened series of writings on single life stand unblemished.
I'll list the original contributors here, then share some excerpts from their articles. As for the singles-bashers, I have been critiquing their put-downs for well over a decade, so I'll just mention a few of the familiar problems with their work.
Here are the 6 people who wrote about single people and single life without shaming singles or repeating false claims and demeaning myths:
I think all six articles are worth reading in their entirely. Here are the links to them, along with excerpts and my brief commentary.
For well over a decade, I have been trying to explain what's wrong with all of those claims about how getting married makes you happier, healthier, less self-centered, more connected and better in all sorts of others ways, too. I wrote extensive explanations in places such as Singled Out and Marriage vs. Single Life: How Science and the Media Got It So Wrong. Finally, with the opportunity to write for the Washington Post, I got to do what I've always wanted to: Make my case very concisely (in less than 1,000) words.
Here are some excerpts:
"What the research actually shows is that our conventional wisdom about single people can be spectacularly wrong. For example, the belief that single people are isolated and “don’t have anyone” is so pervasive that the word alone is routinely used as a synonym for single. Yet multiple national surveys have shown…
"Media headlines often proclaim that, according to the latest research, married people are in some way better off than single people. Then it is implied (or even stated outright) that if only we single people would get married, we would be better off, too. Those studies typically include in the married group only those people who are currently married. But many people who get married end up getting a divorce, and it’s unlikely these marriages were making them happier and healthier. Advocating for marriage without taking this into account is akin to making the case for start-ups by referring only to companies that stayed in business."
#2 Why it's time to stop glorifying marriage, by Sarah Wright
Because I am one of the administrators of the Unmarried Equality Facebook page, I can see how many people looked at each article that is posted there. Never have I seen any post achieve a greater reach than Sarah's article for the Washington Post.
Share it on your Facebook page and the title will show up as, "How long will single people have to subsidize married life?," with the tag line, "It is time for government to get out of the marriage business."
Here are some excerpts:
In fact, public support for people who constitute functional but poor families of any type should be based entirely on need. If the body politic ever reaches consensus on comprehensive immigration reform, for example, marital status could be replaced by citizenship as the basis for doling out various benefits. This is in line with more recent suggestions that the state remove some of the benefits attached to marriage and give them to those who need them most. Another option would be to expand the definition of family to encompass more than just romantic unions, and to extend the benefits of marriage to the unmarried, including the advantages that accrue through Social Security and tax law.
Or, the state could leave the marriage business altogether.
A few years ago, a colleague and I collected dozens of statements in support of getting government out of the marriage business. They came from people all across the ideological spectrum. Dozens more could be added by now. And Sarah's suggestion that we expand the definition of family is one that would resonate with the millions of people who are not living in nuclear family households.
#3 Advertisers want you to hate being single. Don't buy in, by Michael Cobb
I think this is a brilliant critique of the ways in which the stigmatizing and shaming of single people translates into huge profits, and how even those who are partnered are preyed upon in ways that tap into insecurities that are universal.
I’m convinced that most discussions of singlehood should primarily be understood as the perpetual marketing and branding of the deep fears of our lives: Why do I often feel lonely? What is valuable about me? Is my life meaningful? Will I be remembered? Can I rely on anyone? Who will kiss me goodnight? Who loves me?
Thus, the negative branding of singlehood lurks in everyone’s anxious heart, especially when we’re feeling depressed, unsettled, unsatisfied and bored. And the Big Romance Business certainly profits from keeping everyone single in this way at least some of every day.
#4 Being single shouldn't mean being alone, by Eve Tushnet
This is a beautifully written essay on what our narrow focus on romantic love has cost us, with some welcome suggestions included at the end.
This vision that exalts and even idolizes couplehood should feel alien to most cultures and should feel especially wrong for Christians.
The fascination with romantic love also forgets forms of love that were once common in society. Devoted friendships that functioned like kinship used to be normal. Friends would share homes and finances, and pledge to care for one another’s children; often godparenthood cemented these bonds.
There are practical changes that can help — employers could allow their unmarried employees to designate a friend as family, so they can take time off if their friend needs care. (Many have noted the centrality of friendship for veterans, and the barriers they face in getting non-vet employers to understand that their comrades were their family.) Changing zoning laws that make it harder to share housing would also help friends make a home and a life together. Churches can help by blessing friendships, by marshaling the casserole brigades for people exhausted by care-giving for close friends, by acknowledging from the pulpit the love and sacrifice shown by unmarried people. I was deeply moved when my sister included my best friend in our family photo, showing that she was truly a part of our family.
Such shifts will usually arise as responses to changes in the way people are already living.
As I documented in How We Live Now: Redefining Home and Family in the 21st Century, more and more people are already living in ways that put friends and family members other than a spouse at the center of their lives.
#5 Why being single in your 30s is better than in your 20s, by Lisa Bonos
When is single life most challenging? Is it when you are approaching 30? When you are older? In research studies, my colleagues and I found that people think single life gets more and more difficult over time. Yet, the research that is available (which is not as plentiful or as definitive as it should be) suggests that just the opposite is true. That's what Lisa Bonos believes, too, as she explains in her essay:
Most important, my life is full with or without a partner: something I didn’t necessarily foresee in my 20s when I thought about what it might be like to be single in my 30s.
Learning to be happily single isn’t something that’s often preached in places of worship or taught in schools. And perhaps it can’t be. It’s achieved through life experience, as plenty of older single adults have shown me…
#6 Single or married: Does it really matter anymore? By Stephanie Coontz
I confess that I freaked out when I saw the title of that article. How could anyone – and especially someone as wise and knowledgeable as Stephanie Coontz – suggest that there is no difference between being single and being married. What person with any interest whatsoever in matters of unmarried equality does not know that there are more than 1,000 federal laws that benefit and protect only those people who are legally married? And what about all the endless ways that marital status is a privileged status, and not just in the courtroom?
I needn't have panicked. Coontz was arguing something that I have long embraced – that there should not be special legal or interpersonal perks just for married people:
Most Americans will experience singlehood at several stages of life, during which they often adopt many of the interpersonal commitments that used to be reserved for marriage. And most married people no longer abandon the identities, habits and friendships they acquired as singles. It no longer makes sense to see singlehood and marriage as two distinct and stable social categories that should be accorded different legal rights and social esteem.
#7 and #8: The two who would not let a week of respectful and positive perspectives on unmarried life stand unblemished
And now, finally, a word about the last two contributors. The one who derogated single mothers and their children had this to say: "…there is something sad about the fact that these boys do not have a father…" Knowingly or not, she also thereby put down children raised by two mothers and any other configuration that does not include a father. She also repeated the familiar inaccurate or exaggerated claims about how the children of single parents are doomed. They aren't, as I explained in this brief book, Single Parents and Their Children: The Good News No One Ever Tells You, and in various other articles you can find here.
When I wrote my contribution to the Washington Post series, I focused on the flaws in the claims that if only single people would get married, they'd be better off. If I could have written another 1,000 words, I would have explained some of the problems that plague claims about how the children of single parents are doomed.
I'll offer just one example. Sometimes researchers compare children whose parents are divorced to those whose parents are married and find that the children of the married parents look better in some way. But that's looking at them at just one point in time. Other researchers follow children for many years, first while their parents are married and later after they divorce. What they find is that children's problems, when they have them, start while their parents are still married. What was difficult for the children was living in a home with married parents who are at each other's throats, or who coexist in frigid silence.
Brad Wilcox's contribution is to insist that young married men are far superior to young single men. To do so, he uses some of the same dubious techniques and assumptions that I described in my article, plus a few others I didn't get to. (For critiques and discussions, click here.) The problem with single men, he believes, is that they don't have "the meaning, direction and support offered by marriage." What people like Wilcox never acknowledge when they say that marriage brings support is that the support is unearned. Get married, and you get that treasure trove of more than 1,000 federal benefits and protections, regardless of whether you are a good spouse or a good person or do anything else that sets you apart from anyone else. Get married, get government largesse. That's the formula. Plus, get all those other social, psychological, and interpersonal privileges, too. If Brad Wilcox really does believe that married men are better off than single men, will he also acknowledge that his demeaning attitude (which he implicitly urges others to share), along with the matrimania and singlism rampant in society, all play a role in creating that difference?
[Notes. (1) This originally appeared at Unmarried Equality. I'm republishing it here with the organization's permission, and I thank them for that. The opinions expressed here are my own, and not the official position of Unmarried Equality. (2) Collections of links to articles on all sorts of topics relevant to single life are here (scroll down after clicking).]