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What’s Missing from the Recent ‘Comprehensive’ Survey About Singles?

Trapping singles into discussing only dating

Have you heard about the latest survey of single people? It is based on a nationally-representative sample of more than 5,000 Americans, ages 21 to 65+, who are divorced, widowed, or have always been single. It has been all over the media, and I've gotten numerous emails about it from those who are promoting it.

I'm all for nationally representative surveys of single people. Aside from those conducted by the Pew researchers (discussed here and here), they are rare. In one of the emails I received, the survey was described as "the most comprehensive, holistic study of singles in America to date." [Emphasis is theirs.] It was designed, the email continued, "to help better learn about and understand the behaviors, interests and thoughts of today's singles in America."

The study was funded by, which should raise some red flags, but it was designed by academics and conducted by an independent survey research group. Plus, the 5,200 participants were not users (such a group would not comprise a nationally representative sample). So it was possible that the survey really would be about "the behaviors, interests and thoughts of today's singles in America" and that the survey would be "comprehensive" and not just a bunch of questions about dating.

The media reports were all about dating, mating, and procreating, and some were heralded by cringe-worthy headings such as "Single ladies, don't despair: Men do want to commit" and "Men are now from Venus, women from Mars." But maybe the reporters were just zooming in on the stereotypical singles stories, when the survey really did ask singles about the entire expanse of their lives.

I asked one of the people who pitched the survey to me in an email if I could see the complete list of questions and the original research report, since I like to make sense of the data myself, and not go by other people's summaries. She very graciously provided me with the complete questionnaire but said that the full report of the results was not being released. I could interview one of the academics who designed the study (Helen Fisher) or ask about specific questions, but that was it.

Here's What Singles Were Asked in the 25-Page Questionnaire

The survey was comprised of 128 questions; with all of the different response alternatives given to the participants, that took up 25 pages. Here are the categories of topics in the questionnaire, exactly as they appeared:

  • Single lifestyle and attitudes
  • Dating
  • First date
  • Conditional dating
  • Single parents
  • Relationships section
  • Sex and singles
  • Romantic love
  • Breaking up

That's what the survey researchers consider to be a comprehensive survey of single people's "behaviors, interests and thoughts." I scrutinized the questionnaire, looking especially at those sections that may have addressed aspects of single life other than dating, mating, and procreating. I pinned my hopes on three of them - Single lifestyle and attitudes; Single parents; and Relationships section.

There actually was one question in that first section that allowed singles to say that there were aspects of their single life that they liked and that had nothing to do with becoming unsingle or becoming a parent. It asked, "What's the most empowering aspect about being single?" The response options were "making my own decisions;" "controlling my own finances;" "spending my time as I like;" "not being responsible for anyone else;" and "other (specify)."

Note the implication that if you are single, you have no responsibility for anyone else.

There was a parallel question about "the most challenging aspect about being single." The response options were "having to make difficult decisions alone;" "managing my finances alone;" "loneliness;" "not having someone to share my life with;" and "other (specify)." The underlying assumptions are obvious. Many Living Single readers have probably already recognized the obvious omissions. There is no option to say that the most challenging aspect of being single is having less access to health insurance. There is no option to say that it is problematic to be left out of the 1,138 provisions in federal law that privilege married people. There is no opportunity to say that American society is matrimaniacal, and sometimes scholars are, too. There is no option to say that it is daunting to pay full price all the time, while subsidizing the couples who are getting discounts on everything from auto insurance to health club memberships and vacation packages.

That section also included a question about "your attitude about seeking a relationship" (with one of the response options being that you "prefer to stay unattached," because the researchers apparently believe that unless you have a romantic partner, you have no attachments). That was followed by a question about how hopeful you are about finding a committed relationship in 2011. There was also the requisite long list of qualities you might want in a mate, and other predictable inquiries.

In addition, there was a list of "things that cause stress in your life." Participants got to indicate how stressful each one was. There was no parallel question about the things in your life that bring you fulfillment.

Let's turn to the section on single parents. Maybe there, the relevant participants would have a chance to talk about the importance of friends or family members, or the parts of their lives that are meaningful to them other than parenting or mate-seeking. Here is the complete list of questions in that section:

  • When would you first introduce your child/children to the person you are dating?
  • What types of activities would you use to introduce your children to the person you are dating?
  • Which of the following best describes the role your children play in your dating relationships?
  • When you begin to date exclusively, how appropriate do you consider the following activities around your children?

One last shot. Maybe the relationships section was the open-minded part, inviting singles to mention not just their romantic relationships, but their relationships with friends, family, neighbors, mentors, and anyone else they considered important.

Nope. Not gonna happen. There were lots of questions in that section, but none evidenced an appreciation of the many kinds of relationships that might matter to people. Here are some examples of the questions:

  • What are the top three benefits of a long-distance relationship?
  • How concerned are you about your biological clock running out?
  • Do you want to get married?
  • How soon would you like to get married?

What Was Left Out of the Survey?

Except for that one question (out of 128) about the most empowering aspect about being single (with a limited and stereotypical set of response options), the survey omitted every aspect of single life that is not about dating, mating, or procreating.

Suppose that what you find most fulfilling about single life is the opportunity to build the personal community that is most meaningful to you, or to create the most rewarding balance of time alone and time with others. Or suppose that you love the opportunity to pursue your passions, or to devote yourself to other people or causes that you find significant. The researchers do not seem to want you to lay claim to any of these parts of your lives. There is no option for you to declare the importance of your own personal network of people you care about (unless you check "other"). The closest you can get to the other possibilities I mentioned would be to check answers such as "making my own decisions" or "controlling my own finances."

Just to be sure I hadn't missed any relevant items, I searched the document for various terms, such as "friend." From the perspective of the survey designers, friends can be people who give you dating advice, whom you spend time with after a break-up, whom you might have sex with (friends with benefits), who can let you know about your partner's infidelity, and whom you may or may not want to spend time with, apart from your partner, when you are in a romantic relationship. They don't ever get to be people who are important to you in and of themselves, regardless of your romantic relationship status.

What Didn't Make It into the Media Headlines?

The focus of many of the media stories has been on how men are not the commitment phobes they are sometimes made out to be. As Time put it, "Single men are, on the whole, as likely to want to get married as are single women." Hence, the creepy headline at ABC News about how we single women don't need to despair (because without a man to commit to us, how could we ever live?). Other headlines included "Men, women flip the script in gender expectations," "the myth of the slippery bachelor," and the Mars/Venus one.

The Time story highlighted what it called women's greater independence. In a graph, the magazine showed that in a romantic relationship, women are more likely than men to want their own personal space, their own bank account, a regular night out with their friends, and so forth. That's important, but independence within a romantic relationship is just one variety, and perhaps not the one that interests singles most. We don't know, though, because the only kind of independence that the singles were asked about was the independence they wanted in hypothetical romantic relationships.

Here's what I consider to be the headline, from the limited data I could access from other people's reports: Across the entire sample of 5,200 single people, only 33% answered "yes" to the question, "Do you want to get married?" when the possible responses were yes, no, and uncertain. That, to me, should have been a clue to look into the entire expanse of single life, from friends and family to work and passions and solitude and creating a home and whatever else singles love about their single lives. But too late for that. Those kinds of questions were not included in the survey.

So What?

So what if still another study that is supposedly about single life is only about the same tired topics of dating, mating, and procreating? If the researchers were only interested in those topics, that would be fine (even if a bit boring and conventional). The problem is that the survey was not sold as a study of romance, it was pitched as a description of single life. As such, it perpetuates the most intractable of all stereotypes about single people: that what they care about - or should care about -- more than anything else is becoming unsingle.

Think of the 5,200 single people, ages 21 to 65+, taking the survey, and getting asked 25 pages of questions about dating, mating, and procreating. I don't know what they were told when they were invited to participate, but I have a guess about what they surmised after completing the 128 questions: These are the only aspects of your life that academics care about.

Then the media reports filled our screens, promising to tell us about groundbreaking new findings about singles in America. Wouldn't it be great to hear about singles living their lives fully and passionately, embracing their friends or their solitude or their homes or their work or their passions or whatever else is so attractive to them about living single? But that's not the ground that has been broken, we are told. The new and exciting finding is that men are not commitment phobes. Every reader of every piece written about this new survey now has their stereotype reinforced - that what matters most about single people is how they are doing in the domain of becoming unsingle.

I see this whole singles-survey episode as a great object lesson in the importance of diversity. The people who designed the survey are respected scholars but none of them is a scholar of single people. Their areas of expertise are topics such marriage or mating, which are important. But if you want to learn about "the behaviors, interests and thoughts" of single people, then maybe you also should include people whose primary grounding is in the study of single people as singles, not as people pining to marry.

Same for the journalists writing about such surveys. Almost all of them interviewed the primary scholars associated with the study, which is entirely appropriate. The next step, though, is to talk to people not involved in the study. Time magazine talked to one such person - Mark Regnerus. He's the person who wrote the op-ed in the Washington Post urging singles not just to marry, but to marry young. This is not the way to learn about single life as lived by people who are embracing their single lives and not fleeing them. (USA Today, on the other hand, interviewed Pat Palmieri, who is writing a history of singles in America. That's what I'm talking about. Too bad Sharon Jayson's story was the exception.)

In the press release about the singles survey, the EVP was quoted as saying that she hopes the study "will evolve America's understanding of singles, shape public discourse, influence policy and spawn further academic study." That's exactly what worries me - that this study, with such a narrow and stereotypical take on singles and single life, will indeed influence discourse, policy, and research to continue to be just as limited as it has always been.

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