Is There a Stigma to Being Single?

Even in modern times, singles are plagued by discrimination.

Posted Mar 04, 2021 | Reviewed by Davia Sills

  • In many countries, there are now more singles than couples, but people continue to view marriage as a symbol of status and success.
  • Singles face discrimination, prejudice, and financial challenges as they often earn less and pay more for social benefits, health care, and income taxes, according to research. 
  • Many people enjoy being single, which has advantages such as freeing up time for meaningful pursuits. 

Have you ever been in the process of filling out a form only to arrive at the question about marital status? “Why are they asking?” might be your first reaction—particularly if you are unmarried. Never mind the separate issue about why they are asking if you are “single” versus “divorced.” Unless such a distinction is relevant to the reason you are filling out the application in the first place, many people don’t think past failed relationships should be anybody else’s business.

But perhaps the most immediate question is, why the defensiveness in the first place? After all, as I note in a previous post, many single women are blissfully happy. But not everyone. Stigma related to being single is significant because single people compromise a large portion of society.

Source: StockSnap/Pixabay

The Rise of Singleness

Alexandra N. Fisher and John K. Sakaluk (2020)[i] note that within the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, and many Scandinavian countries, there are more singles than couples (married or common-law). They view this as a trend attributable to the fact that people tend to date longer, marry later in life, divorce more frequently, and value career over relationships. 

Accordingly, there are scores of activities designed specifically for singles, recognizing that they comprise an enormous demographic. But Fisher and Sakaluk observe that despite the cultural shift toward flying solo, marriage continues to be viewed as a symbol of status and success. They note that most people believe marriage will bring happiness and a sense of personal fulfillment, stemming from experiences of married couples, as past research demonstrates a link between marriage and enhanced well-being.  

Unfortunately for the unmarried, Fisher and Sakaluk recognize that societal adulation of marriage devalues singlehood. Perhaps not surprisingly, they note research indicates that, even in modern times, singles may be a demographic still plagued by discrimination.

Singles Face Prejudice and Discrimination

In their research, aptly entitled “Are Single People a Stigmatized ‘Group’?” (2020), Fisher and Sakaluk note that similar to members of other stigmatized groups, singles face prejudice and discrimination stemming from negative beliefs, attitudes, and stereotypes. They point out that singles also face economic challenges because they earn less and often pay more for social benefits, health care, and income taxes as compared to their married counterparts. They even note that some people admit engaging in overt discrimination against singles, giving the example of some people voicing their preference to rent an apartment to a married couple rather than a single person.  

Regarding identification and group identity, Fisher and Sakaluk found that singles were less likely to identify with other singles as compared to identification with other identities or as compared to the group identification of those who were “partnered.” Interestingly, they also found that contrary to expectations, single people did not perceive less discrimination towards singles as compared to other facets of their identity.

Regarding prejudice, Fisher and Sakaluk found that prejudice towards singles was “more acceptable than prejudice towards national and sexual orientation groups.” They note that the acceptability of such prejudice was predicted in part by the perceived responsibility for being single.  

Satisfied and Single

The good news is that many people really enjoy living unattached. And for those who don’t, Fisher and Sakaluk note that their research indicating how singles both identify and are perceived as a group, while also maintaining a sense of uniqueness, is a valuable first step towards addressing the experience of singlism and ways to enhance well-being.  

On the bright side, from fitness to friends to faith, being single frees up time to pursue a wide variety of life-enhancing activities and practices. True, their coupled-up counterparts enjoy their own advantages and challenges, but they are merely different, not better.


[ii] Fisher, Alexandra N., and John K. Sakaluk. 2020. “Are Single People a Stigmatized ‘Group’? Evidence from Examinations of Social Identity, Entitativity, and Perceived Responsibility.” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 86 (January). doi:10.1016/j.jesp.2019.103844.