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That Spinster Stigma Study: Others Are Intrusive or They Ignore You

Singles sometimes feel invisible, other times too visible

The title of a forthcoming journal article is "I'm a loser, I'm not married, let's all just look at me: Never married women's perceptions of their social environment."

Back in March, one Living Single reader after another sent me links to stories about the study. (Thanks to Debby, Jeanine, Suzanne, and Lynn Harris of BreakupGirl.net for the heads-up! If I missed anyone, let me know.) Most media headlines were similar to this one at MSNBC: "Single women still feel ‘spinster' stigma." The journal article, authored by Elizabeth Sharp and Lawrence Ganong, was not yet in print in the Journal of Family Issues and still isn't but I got a copy of the manuscript from one of the authors.

I liked the spotlight that all the media stories shined on the stigma that is still experienced by single women. (As always, I wish single men were included, too.) The first part of the title of the article, though, seemed a bit much even to someone like me who coined the word "singlism": "I'm a loser, I'm not married, let's all just look at me."

That part of the title is a direct quote from one of the 10 single women interviewed for the study. Here's the context. The woman was describing a time when she felt that her status as a single person was accentuated in a most unwelcome way. She was at a wedding, during bouquet-toss time, getting pushed excitedly into the ritual by the people around her. She, like other single women in the study, wanted nothing to do with it. That's what she was referring to when she told the interviewer, "You feel like a reject, like ‘I'm a loser, I'm not married, let's all just look at me.'"

The single woman was not saying that she always felt like a loser and that everyone was looking at her, as the title of the article could be read as implying. Instead, one of the key themes in the article is that single women feel both visible and invisible, as I'll explain below.

About the Participants and the Nature of the Study

First, though, here's some background about the participants and the study. The researchers were looking specifically for women who may be feeling particularly vulnerable in their single status. They believe (as we've discussed previously at this blog, here and here) that the most difficult time to be single is around the 30-year-old mark. Before then, it is commonplace to be single; after that, singles seem to like their single life more and feel less conflicted. (I think the definitive study of how it feels to be single across the life span has yet to be done; so the assumptions are based on the bits and pieces of evidence that are available.)

With those considerations in mind, the authors recruited women between the ages of 28 and 34 who had always been single, did not have kids, were not cohabiting or in a serious romantic relationship, were White, and had a bachelor's degree but were not pursuing an advanced degree. Whites, the authors believe, feel more personally vulnerable to the stigma of singlehood than African-Americans. The researchers also excluded those seeking advanced degrees because they might have a longer-range timetable for marrying. I think it may also be relevant that all of the women were from a mid-size Midwestern town (probably in Missouri).

Many media reports inaccurately stated that there were 32 women in the study. There were just 10, each of whom was interviewed repeatedly. Ten is a very small number, and those women may not be representative of any larger identifiable group. The goal is to talk in great detail with people to understand the richness and nuances of their stories. I think of qualitative research like this as complementary to the other quantitative research I mention far more often. An example of the latter is the longitudinal study of more than 30,000 Germans that has been ongoing for 20 years and counting (described in detail in Chapter 2 of Singled Out). Each year, starting at age 16, participants are asked to rate their life satisfaction on a scale ranging from 0 (totally unhappy) to 10 (totally happy). (That's the study that has shown that people who get married and stay married become just a little bit happier around the time of the wedding, then go back to being as happy or as unhappy as they were when they were single. The people who marry and eventually divorce experience no such honeymoon effect.)

Visible and Vulnerable

Single women felt all too visible, and vulnerable, when they encountered what the authors called "triggers" - reminders that they were single when the culture was celebrating couples, marriage, and traditional families. The bouquet toss (and weddings in general) is one such trigger, as is the birth of a baby to a friend or sibling, and holidays such as Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Valentine's Day (three of the women called that "Singles Awareness Day").

The women also felt overly visible and vulnerable when other people asked them intrusive questions or tried to set them up on blind dates. All 10 of the women were targets of set-up attempts. The inappropriate questions are probably familiar to many single people, so I'll give just one example of a question posed to one of the single women in the study:

"You are 28, you don't have any kids, you are not married? You are so cute and you have such a great job and you got so much going for you, I can't understand why you can't find someone."

Other people's presumptuousness about what the single women actually wanted in their lives also added unwelcome visibility to their status as singles. My "favorite" example came from the woman who said that her mother prayed every night for the husband that she hoped her daughter would have. (Someone told me a similar story after one of my talks on singles.)

Invisible and Overlooked

The single women in the study felt that their actual life experiences were invisible when other people simply assumed they were married and had children. They also pointed to experiences with professionals, such as financial advisors, whose standard questions (for example, about how they would pay for their children's college costs) were irrelevant to their lives.

Some of the women mentioned the seemingly ordinary remarks that people sometimes make - for example, "when my daughter gets married." The assumption there is that everyone gets married; it erases the life experiences of all of the people who stay single.

The single women also noted that they felt increasingly invisible in their own families of origin, especially if they had younger siblings who got married and had kids. Going forward, those coupled siblings and their children became the focus of the families of origin.

Up Next

Once I read this spinster stigma study, I realized that some of the themes were similar to those developed in more detail in an academic book, The single woman: A discursive investigation, by Jill Reynolds. The author provides some important insights into the dilemmas faced by singles who are happily single but still interested in a long-term coupled relationship - a topic that a number of readers have been asking me to address. I'll get to that in future posts.

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