Pavel Lysenko/Shutterstock
Source: Pavel Lysenko/Shutterstock

Single people are often stereotyped: Numerous studies conducted in the U.S. and elsewhere show that people think many singles are miserable, isolated, selfish, and doomed to lives that are nasty, brutish, and short. 

But individuals who hold disparaging views of single people are wrong. As I’ve discussed many times before, scientific research does not support the myths about the superiority of married people.

So why do people cling to harsh beliefs about single people? Here are four reasons, suggested by scientific studies:

1. When people insist that married people, or people in committed romantic relationships, are "better" than single people, that belief sometimes comes from a place of insecurity.

In a study that demonstrated this, participants who were insecure about their “personal ability to have a good, healthy, and positive committed relationship” were especially likely to believe that married people, and people in committed romantic relationships, have better lives than single people do. People who were more secure about their own romantic relationship abilities were less likely to put single people down.

2. For some people, valuing committed romantic relationships is part of their self-concept.

They don’t want to believe that single people can fare just as well emotionally and interpersonally as coupled people, because that would be inconsistent with an important personal value.

Beliefs about marriage and single life are not just personal; they are also cultural and ideological. There is important psychological work being done on the false beliefs that getting married makes people happier, healthier, less self-centered, more interpersonally connected, and likely to live longer. Those beliefs constitute an important way of viewing the world. They add up to a worldview in which people are often deeply invested—and not just married or coupled people, but often single people, too.

3. The myths about marriage offer predictability and control.

Think about what those beliefs about marriage tell us: Find “the one” and all the pieces of your life will fall in place. Once you marry, you will be happier, healthier, more connected, and more altruistic. You will also live longer and be more respected. It all sounds so easy, who wouldn’t want to believe it?

4. Belief in the superiority of married people is a way of defending the status quo.

It is a way of justifying the prevailing social system. For personal, cultural, and ideological reasons, many people want to believe that married people are better off than single people. And they want everyone else to believe that, too.

... and the Truth

If such statements about single people were true, some very interesting psychological dynamics should follow: First, people should resist the notion that single people can be truly happy. And they should also be more likely to disparage single people who have chosen single life than those who are single, but wish they were coupled.

That’s exactly what research has shown.

Wendy Morris and I created pairs of biographical sketches identical in every way except that half the time, the person in the sketch was described as single, and the other half, as married. We asked participants to indicate how happy they thought the person in the sketch really was, and how happy the person would say they themselves were. Our participants seemed to think that just about everyone exaggerates their happiness—that they say they are happier than they really are. But they thought the single people exaggerated their happiness even more than married people did. Basically, they were saying to us, “Those single people, they are only saying that they are happy. But they really aren’t.”

Wendy and I wondered if there was some way we could persuade our participants that the single people were truly just as happy as the married people. So we created different versions of our biographical sketches, in which we highlighted different kinds of skills and accomplishments. For example, we created profiles in which the single people (and the married ones) were described as having great career successes or wonderful interpersonal ties. In another variation, we mentioned how remarkably altruistic they were. None of that mattered: Our participants still insisted that the single people were exaggerating their happiness more than the married people.

In two other studies, one conducted in the U.S. and the other in Israel, participants read brief biographical sketches of people who were married (or coupled); people who were single but wanted to be married (or coupled); and people who were single and wanted to stay single. As other studies have shown, the single people were judged more harshly than the married people. But the people who were disparaged the most were the single people who chose to be single. Those single people had the life they wanted—and yet, other people insisted that they were less happy than single people who wanted a different life.

The participants also said that the single people who wanted to be single were more insecure, more self-centered, and lonelier. They were kinder toward the single people who wanted to escape their single lives: Those single people were seen as warmer and more sociable. Most interesting, the single people who wanted to stay single made other people mad. More anger was expressed toward them than toward the single people who were pining for a partner.

What is the sin of happy, single people? Being single and happy. People who choose to be single, who live their single lives joyfully, threaten a cherished worldview. They make it hard for everyone else to keep believing that everyone wants to marry, and that the only way to be truly happy is to get married.

References

Day, M. V. (2016). Why people defend relationship ideology. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 33, 348-360.

Day, M. V., Kay, A. C., Holmes, J. C., & Napier, J. L. (2011). System justification and the defense of committed relationship ideology. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 101, 291-306.

DePaulo, B. (2006). Singled out: How singles are stereotyped, stigmatized, and ignored, and still live happily ever after. New York: St. Martin’s Press.

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