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Discrimination Against Singles

We should be aware of singlism, act against it, and support those suffering.

Key points

  • Singlism refers to the stereotyping, stigmatization, and discrimination against people who are not married.
  • Matrimania is the over-celebration and hyping-up of marriages, relationships, and weddings.
  • Perceived discrimination can have a strong effect on mental and physical health.
 Life Matters/Pexels
What singles feel in today’s society.
Source: Life Matters/Pexels

Bella DePaulo and colleagues have established two terms that are helpful in understanding what singles feel in today’s society. The first, singlism, refers to the stereotyping, stigmatization, and discrimination against people who are not married. The second, matrimania, relates to the over-celebration and hyping-up of marriages, relationships, and weddings, which negatively impacts those who do not or do not wish to participate in coupled life.1

Singlism's Particularly Negative Effect

Unlike other groups of minorities, singles are often not protected in any way from prejudice, most frequently because singlism is not recognized as prejudice. In contrast, matrimania fits the relationship and family-structure hegemony very closely. In other words, being married and not wanting to be single are two assumptions so heavily normalized that individuals guilty of singlism are not aware of the fact they are inflicting prejudice on others. It is therefore unsurprising that the practice of singlism is acceptable and its negative effect can be harsh.

The Manifestation of Singlism

Singlism is also manifested in legal and business transactions. Take, for example, a study conducted in which 54 real estate agents were contacted regarding their preferences for renting a property. The realtors were presented with the choice of three options: a married couple, a cohabiting couple in a romantic relationship, or a man and a woman who were presented as just friends.1

While the three potential pairs of residents were described similarly in terms of education, job, age, demographics, and interests, the clear majority (61 percent) preferred to rent to the married couple. Correspondingly, 24 percent indicated a willingness to rent to the cohabiting couple, and only 15 percent chose to rent to the cohabiting friends.

In cases in which the realtor did not prefer to rent to the cohabiting friends, the investigators challenged the decision and explained that the choice was discriminatory. The typical response to this was to use an explanation that included the reasoning "because [the couple] are married," indicating that not being married is an explanation in and of itself for prejudice and discrimination. Unlike racism, sexism, or other commonly acknowledged forms of discrimination, singlism was not recognized in this instance.

Further evidence of singlism can be found in the negative stereotyping and discrimination in social spheres. In one study, 1,000 undergraduate students were asked to list characteristics that they associated with married and single individuals.2 Compared to single people, married individuals were more likely to be described positively, being referred to as mature, happy, kind, honest, and loving. Conversely, singles were perceived to be immature, insecure, self-centered, unhappy, lonely, and even ugly.

A subsequent part of the study, which asked the same students to describe married and singles at two different ages (25 and 40 years old) found that the negative traits of singles become more pronounced with age. Forty-year-old singles were deemed to be particularly socially immature, not well-adjusted, and more envious, with gaps of more than 50 percent in some measures.

Another way in which singlism and discrimination against nonmarried individuals are manifested is through legislation that systematically provides advantages to married individuals without offering anything to lighten the burden on singles.

For instance, societal prejudice against unmarried individuals and the preference of married couples can leak into other fields.3,4 While some countries and states, particularly in the West, forbid marital status discrimination by law, these are far from universal, and even where they do exist, they are not necessarily implemented effectively.5

Many employers subsidize the cost of health care and other benefits for spouses and domestic partners of employees but offer no such care to parents, siblings, or friends of single employees. In addition, married individuals may receive special leave to care for their spouse (for example, in the United States, under the Family and Medical Leave Act), while singles are usually not eligible for the same benefits for someone in their own generation.

The Effect of Singlism on How Singles Feel in Today's Society

To understand the impact of singlism on the happiness and well-being of singles, it is useful to consider research that investigates the effects of perceived discrimination against other marginalized groups. Discrimination has effects on the mental health of not just minorities but also anyone exposed to what they perceive as a discriminatory practice.

Large-scale survey data reveal that the prevalence of major lifetime perceived discrimination, as well as day-to-day experiences of discrimination, are strongly associated with mental health issues.6 Although this relationship is stronger for those who have disadvantaged or minority social status, more than one-third of the majority reported being victims of major lifetime discrimination and 61 percent to elements of day-to-day discrimination. In these instances, discrimination also moderated a decrease in mental health.

In other words, even if individuals do not recognize their own discrimination, or do not identify to be a part of a marginalized group, they are vulnerable to the mental health effects and reduced well-being associated with discrimination.

This is an important point regarding singles, who for the time being are explicitly discriminated against, but for the most part, do not recognize this to be true. Moreover, in the future, as singles make up larger parts of the population, movements to improve the social and legal standing of the unmarried may raise self-awareness to marginalization and therefore have large consequences on the mental health of the growing population of singles.

Mays and Cochran investigated the potential role of perceived discrimination in reduced mental health for stress-sensitive psychiatric disorders among lesbian women and gay men.7 An analysis of the National Survey of Midlife Development in the United States revealed positive associations between perceived discrimination and indicators of reduced mental health, suggesting that there is likely a relationship between well-being and discrimination in this case.

In another instance, evidence was found to show how perceived discrimination can reduce the mental health of racial minorities. A study involving African American young adults in the United States8 indicates that poor mental health could be predicted based on the number of cases of racist or discriminatory events that were reported by the participants.8 Similar conclusions have also been reached by those studying the mental health of refugees and immigrants.9

Subsequent and more recent meta-analyses have concluded that perceived discrimination has an effect not only on mental health but also on physical health.10 In fact, perceived discrimination is strongly associated with weight gain and obesity,11 as well as higher blood pressure among minorities.12 Evidence suggests a link between discriminatory practices and physical health has also been found for women, regardless of their minority status.13

Finally, elevated discrimination is associated with increased levels of smoking, alcohol consumption, and substance abuse,14 particularly among minorities,15 thereby suggesting possible knock-on risks for the well-being of discriminated singles.

While the mechanisms that moderate the relationship between mental health and perceived discrimination appear to differ for different social groups, the overall trend seems to suggest that singles, in any case of perceived discrimination, are likely to suffer in mental health. The implications may be particularly strong for widows and divorcees, who in some societies and contexts are more heavily stigmatized than other singles.16

While support from one’s in-group has been shown to reduce the negative effects of perceived discrimination on mental health,17 a lack of a supportive community for singles, particularly older singles, may make some single populations especially vulnerable to these effects.

We should therefore aim to be aware of singlism, act against it, and support those who suffer from it. The age of singlehood will come this way or another, and we should prepare society for accepting and embracing singlehood.


1. DePaulo, B., Morris, W. The Unrecognized Stereotyping and Discrimination against Singles', Current Directions in Psychological Science, 15 (2006), 251–254; DePaulo, B. Singled Out: How Singles Are Stereotyped, Stigmatized, and Ignored, and Still Live Happily Ever After (New York: Macmillan, 2007).

2. Morris, W., DePaulo, B., Hertel, J., Taylor, L. D. (2008). Singlism—Another Problem That Has No Name: Prejudice, Stereotypes and Discrimination against Singles.

3. Morris, W., Sinclair, S., DePaulo, B. (2007). No Shelter for Singles: The Perceived Legitimacy of Marital Status Discrimination, Group Processes & Intergroup Relations, 10, 457–470.

4 Wendy L Morris, and Brittany K Osburn, 'Do You Take This Marriage? Perceived Choice over Marital Status Affects the Stereotypes of Single and Married People', Singlehood from individual and social perspectives (2016), 145-62.

5 Bella DePaulo, and Wendy Morris, 'Singles in Society and in Science', Psychological Inquiry, 16 (2005), 57-83.

6 Ronald C. Kessler, Kristin D. Mickelson, and David R. Williams, 'The Prevalence, Distribution, and Mental Health Correlates of Perceived Discrimination in the United States', Journal of Health and Social Behavior, 40 (1999), 208-30.

7 Vickie M Mays, and Susan D Cochran, 'Mental Health Correlates of Perceived Discrimination among Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual Adults in the United States', American Journal of Public Health, 91 (2001), 1869-76.

8 Ann R Fischer, and Christina M Shaw, 'African Americans' Mental Health and Perceptions of Racist Discrimination: The Moderating Effects of Racial Socialization Experiences and Self-Esteem', Journal of Counseling psychology, 46 (1999), 395.

9 Samuel Noh, Morton Beiser, Violet Kaspar, Feng Hou, and Joanna Rummens, 'Perceived Racial Discrimination, Depression, and Coping: A Study of Southeast Asian Refugees in Canada', Journal of health and social behavior (1999), 193-207.

10 Elizabeth A Pascoe, and Laura Smart Richman, 'Perceived Discrimination and Health: A Meta-Analytic Review', Psychological bulletin, 135 (2009), 531.

11 Haslyn ER Hunte, and David R Williams, 'The Association between Perceived Discrimination and Obesity in a Population-Based Multiracial and Multiethnic Adult Sample', American Journal of Public Health, 99 (2009), 1285-92.

12 Nancy Krieger, and Stephen Sidney, 'Racial Discrimination and Blood Pressure: The Cardia Study of Young Black and White Adults', American journal of public health, 86 (1996), 1370-78.

13 Eliza K Pavalko, Krysia N Mossakowski, and Vanessa J Hamilton, 'Does Perceived Discrimination Affect Health? Longitudinal Relationships between Work Discrimination and Women's Physical and Emotional Health', Journal of Health and social Behavior (2003), 18-33.

14 Luisa N Borrell, Ana V Diez Roux, David R Jacobs, Steven Shea, Sharon A Jackson, Sandi Shrager, and Roger S Blumenthal, 'Perceived Racial/Ethnic Discrimination, Smoking and Alcohol Consumption in the Multi-Ethnic Study of Atherosclerosis (Mesa)', Preventive medicine, 51 (2010), 307-12.

15 Frederick X Gibbons, Meg Gerrard, Michael J Cleveland, Thomas A Wills, and Gene Brody, 'Perceived Discrimination and Substance Use in African American Parents and Their Children: A Panel Study', Journal of personality and social psychology, 86 (2004), 517.

16 Lyn Parker, Irma Riyani, and Brooke Nolan, 'The Stigmatisation of Widows and Divorcees (Janda) in Indonesia, and the Possibilities for Agency', Indonesia and the Malay World, 44 (2016), 27-46.

17 Samuel Noh, and Violet Kaspar, 'Perceived Discrimination and Depression: Moderating Effects of Coping, Acculturation, and Ethnic Support', American Journal of Public Health, 93 (2003), 232-38.

18 Michael Reece, Debby Herbenick, Vanessa Schick, Stephanie A. Sanders, Brian Dodge, and J. Dennis Fortenberry, 'Background and Considerations on the National Survey of Sexual Health and Behavior (Nsshb) from the Investigators', The Journal of Sexual Medicine, 7 (2010), 243-45.

19 Edward O Laumann, The Social Organization of Sexuality: Sexual Practices in the United States (University of Chicago Press, 1994).

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