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Confronting Singlism in the Psychology Classroom

Students call singles advocate Joan DelFattore a “badass”

[Bella’s intro: I think that Joan DelFattore is one of the most important new voices of single life. Her insights and wisdom have already been shared with “Living Single” readers in her guest post, “Why I’m single, then and now.” She has also written guest posts for me elsewhere, “In a hospital, friends are not people” and “It is time for singles to stop subsidizing couples.” This article she wrote for another site is also brilliant and so very important. Today, Joan shares with us her experiences talking to college students over the past several years. Thank you, Joan!]

Confronting Singlism in the Psychology Classroom

By Joan DelFattore

"Did you always not want to get married?" The question, earnest if intriguingly convoluted, came from a tall young man at the back of the classroom. Not "Did you always want to live single?" but "Did you always not want to get married?"

For the last few years, I've been giving a guest lecture each semester in a health psychology course at the University of Delaware. At first, I focused on my experiences and feelings as a cancer patient, serving as an interactive case study for the students to practice on. Little by little, though, I started introducing problems specific to being a never-married woman with no children. I've written about some of those issues before -- like the time my friends couldn't find out how I was doing during an operation, although I'd signed the hospital's consent form authorizing the release of information to them, because they weren't immediate family. And then there was the oncolo­­gist at a prestigious cancer center who proposed to give me less than the optimal chemotherapy, assuming that without a husband and children, I couldn't possibly have the support necessary to handle strong drugs. As the semesters passed, and I learned more about singlism in medical care, I began telling the students about research documenting the breadth of the problem.

In its own small way, being encouraged to incorporate singles issues into a university psychology course is evidence of a gradual, but nonetheless noticeable, change in the field. Traditionally, psychological literature hasn't had much to say about single life, except to pathologize it by assuming that normal adulthood requires the presence of a romantic partner -- just as homosexuality was once defined as a disorder to be "cured." More recently, though, Bella DePaulo was not only invited to give a plenary address on single life at the 2016 American Psychological Association convention, but drew a standing-room-only crowd.

The psychology majors to whom I spoke, some of whom will probably go on to become practicing psychologists, were far more accepting of single life than earlier generations have been. Tales of discriminatory treatment aroused their indignation, and heads nodded vigorously as I referred to individual differences in the need for solitude and autonomy.

And yet. When that student asked his question, he didn't say, "Did you always want . . . ." but rather, "Did you always not want . . . ," implying that marriage is an affirmative state, a norm, whereas single life is merely its absence. The other students didn't appear to notice, as they presumably would have reacted to a similarly inverted description of race, gender, or sexual orientation. And you know what? I didn't notice, either. With my attention focused on teaching, I felt a fleeting ping of discomfort that made the question stick in my mind, but the significance of its phrasing didn't strike me until later. Even I, a singles advocate, am so used to hearing my lifestyle described as an absence -- as not-marriage -- that it took me a while to process what I'd heard.

That experience reminded me, yet again, that attitudes toward single life are not as simple as either/or: either judgmental or accepting, prejudiced or enlightened. Rather, they're a moving target reflecting an ongoing process of transition. Nonjudgmental as those psychology students may try to be, they -- like the rest of us -- can't help being influenced by the singlism that lingers in the culture as a whole, as evidenced by the unconscious use of language. But asked at their next class meeting for feedback on my talk, they declared it "inspiring" and described me, in the nicest possible way, as a "badass." Not so very long ago, a defense of single life would have been considered pathetic, with phrases like "attachment disorder" and "denial" freely tossed around. But "badass"? Now, that's what I call progress.

photo provided by Joan DelFattore
Source: photo provided by Joan DelFattore

About the Author

Joan DelFattore is a professor emerita of English and legal studies at the University of Delaware. Her publications include three books with Yale University Press as well as dozens of articles, mostly about freedom of speech and religion. Her current project is a memoir about being a lifelong single-by-choice, including dealing with singlism in medical care.

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