Lots of research shows that single people are judged more harshly than married or coupled people. That happens when people talk freely about other people who are single or married. It also happens in experiments in which pairs of biographical profiles are created that are identical, except that in one of the profiles, the person is said to be single, and in the other, married. People who see the profile of the single person typically perceive that person as less happy, secure, and mature, as well as lonelier and more self-centered, than people who see a profile that is exactly the same, except that the person profiled is said to be married.
Much to my great disappointment, single people can be just as critical of other single people as married people are. They often buy into the same stereotypes. They are invested in the same mythologies and ideologies that promise that if only you find “the one” and get married, you will live happily ever after.
I’m often asked if there are gender differences in this stereotyping. Specifically, are women especially judgmental and mean in what they say about single women? The caricature of the “catty woman” would predict that they are. Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant have shown that in the workplace, the idea that women are especially catty or cruel to each other is just a myth. My colleagues and I have demonstrated the same thing in our research on perceptions of single people: Women are not particularly cruel in their judgments of single women.
Instead, women judge single men more harshly than single women, and men judge single women more harshly than single men. Both women and men are kinder to people of their own gender.
One possibility—boring, but possibly true—is that when people evaluate single people, they are thinking about them as potential romantic partners. Because most of the participants in the studies were heterosexual, perhaps the men scrutinized the single women especially closely and rendered harsher judgments, and the women did the same with the single men.
In a chapter in which we described our findings, Wendy Morris, Janine Hertel, Lindsay Taylor, and I offered another explanation:
Another possibility is that perhaps people empathize more easily with their own sex. We might more easily understand why someone of our own sex would either choose to be single or remain involuntarily single. Those who like their single status (and, according to the 2005 Pew Internet and American Life Project survey, most single people do) can easily see why other people like themselves would, too. The single people who would like to be coupled, and who have an ideologically based view of coupling as an achievement that is deserving of status and privilege, may think that dating and marriage are more difficult for their own sex to achieve than it is for the other sex. This self-serving belief could enhance the self-esteem of singles who wish to be coupled by providing an external attribution for being single. This belief also could allow coupled people to feel particularly good about themselves, having achieved something that is considered difficult to achieve. To the extent that people do empathize more easily with singles of their own sex, then people would be more likely to attribute the single status of someone of their own sex to external circumstances but someone of the other sex to negative personality characteristics.
I don’t like any of this. I would like to see the end of singlism. Someday, I hope, both single and married people will be judged based on meaningful criteria such as the content of their character, and not on their marital or relationship status.