"So Why Have You Never Been Married?": A Case Study in Accidental Singlism

Don't answer this question: "Why aren't you married?"

Posted Jul 03, 2008

"So Why Have You Never Been Married?" That's the title of a book sent to me by its author, Carl Weisman.

Questions like that push my perversity button, and I can't help generating Q & A sequences. For example:

Clueless Question: "So why have you never been married?"
My Perverse Answer: So why have you never been an accountant?

Clueless Question: "Why aren't you married?"
My Perverse Answer: Why aren't you a Christmas tree?

Clueless Question: "When are you going to get married?"
My Perverse Answer: When did you last have sex?

Clueless Question: "Will you ever marry?"
My Perverse Answer: Maybe if I get hit on the head with a rock and turn into a different person.

Seriously, though, I was delighted to get Weisman's book, not because I'd ever stand behind it, but because it is so (inadvertently) telling about what it is like to be single in contemporary American society. Weisman's interest is in single men, but what I find so intriguing and disappointing about his book is relevant to single women, too.

I ended a previous post with the question, "Why is there such a disconnect between the negative perceptions of single men and the actual life experiences of those men?" Readers contributed some thoughtful answers to the comments section. Weisman's book provides another set of responses. The author did not mean to address that question, but wow, did he ever leave some delicious clues to those who are not content to take what they read at face value!

First, I'll give you some background about the book. Then I'll provide some examples that I found particularly intriguing and ask whether you can see the accidental singlism in them. Then, after each one, I'll tell you what I think about it.

About the Book
Carl Weisman, the author, is 48, heterosexual, and has always been single. He wanted to know how other men similar to himself - over 40 and (in his words) "never married" - would answer the question, "So why have you never been married?"

He collected responses to an online survey from 1,533 men. Then he interviewed 33 of them by phone, for at least a half-hour.

Upfront, Weisman tells his readers what he thinks: Marriage isn't for everyone. "I just wish," he adds, "that was the prevailing sentiment in our culture today, rather than what it is: that there is something wrong with you if you are not married or have never been married."

If that is truly his wish, I think he undermines it at just about every turn of the page. He's practicing singlism, albeit unintentionally. Here are eleven examples.

Accidental Singlism - the Examples

The title of the book is "So Why Have You Never Been Married?"

The author said he wanted to answer two questions for himself:
1. So why have I never been married? and
2. What's wrong with me?

Question #1: What (if anything) is wrong with the title of the book, and the author's two goals in writing the book?

(Think about your own answer, then read on.)

One possible answer (mine) to #1: The singlism in the author's second question is obvious, and even he recognizes the "built-in negative bias" that he has created. But I object to the "why" question as well. As I said to Weisman when he first offered to send me his book, I don't think any single people should have to answer the question of why they are not married.

The "why aren't you married" question teeters on the assumption that if you are past a certain age and still single, you have some explaining to do. I don't buy it. To me, the question is akin to the infamous "when did you stop beating your wife" in its presumption of wrongdoing.

The author said he wanted to make sure he "investigated every possible factor that may have had an influence on the men to get them to avoid or postpone marriage."

Question #2: What (if anything) is wrong with the author's framing of this goal?

One possible answer (mine) to #2: I'll make my answer personal. I'm not "avoiding" marriage, I'm living my single life - fully and joyfully.

Here is a list of topics covered in the author's online survey:
• Demographic information (age, race, education, salary, do you own or rent).
• Information about family and friends (e.g., are your siblings, parents, friends married? divorced? Do you have kids?)
• Information about past relationships (e.g., how many sexual partners, cohabiting partners, serious love relationships?)
• Information about current situation (e.g., are you currently in a love relationship? Are you afraid of marriage? Why have you never married?)
• Outlook for the future (e.g., will you be married some day? Do you have any regrets about not being married?)

Question #3: What (if anything) is missing from this list of topics? What else would you want to know if you were interested in all of the important factors in a single person's life? (For now, just consider the overall categories. Later, I'll get to the question of what is missing within the categories.)

One possible answer (mine) to #3: Even if I answered every question that the author posed, he would have no idea why I love my single life. He asks nothing about my work, nothing about my passions, nothing about what I appreciate about the texture of my everyday life. There is no place to tell him that I enjoy socializing and I also cherish my solitude, and as a single person with a place of my own, I can have both.

Weisman's online questions about my siblings include only the following: How many do I have? Are they younger or older than me? Have they been married? Have they been divorced?

What (if anything) is wrong with that?

One possible answer (mine): I'll start with an anecdote. Coincidentally, while I was studying the items in Weisman's online survey, I got a call from my "baby brother." (That's my term of endearment for him; actually, he's in his mid-40s.) I adore him. Just about every time I finish a conversation with him, I'm in a better mood than I was before.

But Weisman's questions in his online survey do not offer me an opportunity to mention any of that. If Weisman had interviewed me by phone, I think he would have asked me something like the following: How does it make me feel that my younger brother is married and I am not?

Here's my answer (and I think it is safe to say that it is not the one Weisman is expecting): It makes me smile. My brother likes being married; I like being single. We're both happy.

Weisman's online survey includes one question about my physical living situation: Do I own or rent?

What (if anything) is wrong with that?

One possible answer (mine): It is true - I rent. I wish I owned the place where I live. I did own a home when I lived in Virginia, but I can't afford one out here in California.

Now here's what I don't get to include in my response to the online survey: The place I rent is a beach house with a spectacular view of the Pacific Ocean. I've lived here for eight years and I never habituate to it. Every day when I wake up, I look out the window and I am in awe of my great good fortune.

One of the men interviewed for the book was Martin, a 54-year old who, for the past 10 years, has been caring for elderly relatives. The author tells us that the care-giving experience has made Martin realize that he is a selfish person.

What (if anything) is wrong with that?

One possible answer (mine): Martin has spent a decade of his life caring for elderly relatives. He wishes he did not have the obligation to provide this care, and that's why he sees himself as selfish. But he IS providing the care. That is not the least bit selfish. And, because he is doing this care work, others (perhaps siblings or other relatives) are not. I wonder if they see themselves as selfish?

Here's how the author described one of the men he interviewed: "Ryan is a forty-two-year-old sculptor from Wisconsin who wanted to be an artist from a young age, which distracted him from forming any real long-term relationships."

What (if anything) is wrong with that?

One possible answer (mine): If Ryan has wanted to be a sculptor since he was very young, then maybe art, to him, is not a distraction - it is a passion.

Donald told the author that if he were to marry, he would miss the ballgames, the golf, and all the other experiences he shares with his friends. The author muses (to his readers, not to Donald): "Even if [marriage] is about giving things up and sacrificing, surely we get things in return." For example, Weisman says, we get companionship.

What (if anything) is wrong with that?

One possible answer (mine): Donald already has companionship. He values his friends and the time he spends with them. The author seems to imply that the only companionship that really counts is kind that comes packaged with a romantic partner.

Sandy told the author that he is in a relationship with a woman who is emotionally and physically abusive. She is getting no professional help. Sandy thinks that maybe she is getting better.

Here's what the author says to his readers: "Sometimes it's one thing, one character flaw, that keeps the ball from crossing the goal line. It's that way for Sandy and his girlfriend. He wants her to win and he is rooting for her, so there is hope they could succeed."

What (if anything) is wrong with that?

One possible answer (mine): Apparently the author is rooting for this couple, too. But should he be rooting for them to marry, or for them to not even consider marriage until the woman gets professional help? Is this an example in which the mythical tug of marriage is so compelling that (to some people) even abuse should not stand in its way?

The author acknowledges that some men have no desire to ever marry. He's sure there are women like that, too. His conclusion: "these two groups should do their best to find each other."

What (if anything) is wrong with that?

One possible answer (mine): Okay, author, let me spell it out. I'm single. I want to be single. You acknowledge that. You also recognize that there are men who want to be single. Yet your conclusion is that you hope we find each other?

The author notes that before he even started this project, he was confident about one of the things he would find - that the fear of divorce would be one of the reasons why 40+ year-old men had never married. After interviewing 33 of the men, he concluded that he was right all along. Some, for example, had parents who divorced; others had parents who should have divorced.

What (if anything) is wrong with that?

One possible answer (mine): The author articulated an utterly conventional point of view: the assumption that "broken homes" (as the author calls them) produce adult children who stay single for life. He doesn't tally the numbers (even within his own unrepresentative sample) or cite scientific research. He just found some men whose stories seem consistent with the conventional wisdom, and that was good enough.

I don't know of any relevant studies, either. But I wonder what the author would make of my story. My parents were married for 42 years, until the day my father died.

That's just an example, not a piece of evidence. But here's my point: Why is lifelong singlehood seen only as something bad, that needs to be explained by damaging or distressing experiences? Why not at least entertain entirely different possibilities?

Maybe, for instance, some parents are secure enough to live the life that works for them, without assuming that the same life would work best for each of their children. Maybe what parents can give to their children, that is more valuable than just about anything else, is faith in themselves and the confidence to live an authentic life and not just an expected one.

Well, I have pages of additional examples, but you've probably already read more than enough. I'm not saying I'm right about these men. Weisman interviewed them; I did not. But by asking the men one question after another such as
• What is your biggest fear about being married?
• What is your nightmare scenario?
• Do you think you have a commitment problem?
the author made it quite clear what he believed. He also aptly represented the prevailing societal view of single life: Wanting to be single is not a plausible option.

If there were men in the author's study who feel as joyful and unconflicted about being single as I do, I think they may have had a hard time making their true feelings known.

Until authors, reporters, parents, friends, and everyone else can accept "I'm single and I like it that way" as an answer, there will continue to be a disconnect between perceptions of people who are single and their actual life experiences.