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Why People Cling to Mythologies about Marriage and Coupling: Consider This

People are invested in their belief in marriage mythologies

When I first started studying singles, I was dumbfounded by the hostility that is sometimes expressed toward people who are happily single. In Singled Out , I devoted a chapter to it, "To be or not to be single: Why does anyone care?" There, I described some of the nasty letters submitted to Time magazine after the publication of a cover story declaring that some women are saying no to marriage and are happy with their single lives. One man, for instance, said that "as long as women bounce around kidding themselves that life is full when alone, they are putting their hedonistic, selfish desires ahead of what's best for children and society."

That's not news to those of you who are long-time readers of Living Single, including the comments sections. Every so often, a hostile voice will appear in our discussions, telling me and other happily single readers that we are just fooling ourselves, or that we are bitter (or some other predictable stereotypical jab), or that " deep down inside ," everyone really wants to be coupled.

There is so much that is odd about this. First, the venom is elicited not just by descriptions of stereotyping and discrimination against singles, but even by statements that are utterly uncomplaining—expressions of the joy and fulfillment that singles experience in their lives. If singles are happy and saying so, why is that upsetting? Plus, the people posting derisive comments presumably do not even know the single people they are disparaging—the issues are not personal in the usual sense of the word, but the flamers are angry anyway.

And here's something else: There is an intensity behind the objections to happy single people that is baffling. You might disagree with me that social psychology is the most exciting subfield of the entire discipline of psychology, but you probably would not insult me for my belief or post one snide criticism after another of the field of social psychology. So what is so upsetting about people who are happily single or who do not believe that "deep down inside," everyone wants to be coupled or who do not believe that married people are superior to single people?

The insistence that married people are better than single people, and that single people can't really be truly happy, seems defensive. It seems to come from the experience of feeling threatened. But if so, what's the threat?

My sense has been that there is something big involved here. Some way of thinking about the world that we are invested in. A set of beliefs that offer us meaningfulness and maybe even a clear guide through a potentially confusing set of life options. If we can all just agree that getting married (or seriously coupled) makes you a happier, healthier, and maybe even morally superior person, then we all know how to construct our lives and win the approval and respect of others. The mythology (or ideology) creates order out of chaos. Instead of wondering whether to pursue this interest or that, this job or that, this set of friends or that, there is one simple answer: Just get married. Nail that down, and everything else will follow.

When I wrote about this topic in Singled Out and here at Living Single, I was just doing my best to figure it out. There was no directly relevant research (except for this recent conference paper ). In my next post, I'll tell you about an amazing set of 7 studies, drawing from data from 30 nations, reported in a paper that has just been accepted for publication in the flagship empirical journal in my field, the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology . It is not yet available online (I'll let you know when it is), but the authors shared the paper with me and agreed to let me write about it before it appears in print. The full reference is below.

The authors point to the importance of the notions of legitimacy and fairness . To say that it is better to get married, that to get married is to become happier and healthier and more responsible, is to say that it is fine to derogate and discriminate against singles because they deserve it. They really aren't as worthy as married people.

No one wants to think that their harsh judgments of others are unwarranted. No one wants to think that they are practitioners of discrimination, that they treat certain groups of people unfairly. But singles are treated unfairly. Married people are advantaged, in the marketplace, the legal system, the political system, the health care system, the workplace, the housing market , and in the interactions of everyday life. There is a whole system that benefits married people at the expense of people who are single. How can that be justified?

This new research on why people cling to the mythology about marriage and coupled relationships is the latest direction in the study of what's called system justification . Most previous investigations have focused on beliefs about political and economic arrangements. An example of a question that has motivated much research is: Why is it that people often vote against their self-interests? Why, for example, in a country such as the U.S. with far more poor people than rich people, are policies and politicians favoring the rich viewed approvingly even by the poor?

System justification theory is based on the premise that "there is a psychological motive to defend and justify the status quo" (from Jost and Hunyady, Current Directions in Psychological Science , 2005). People want to believe in the legitimacy of the way things are. The sense that the prevailing system, however flawed, is a good and fair one, lends predictability to our lives. It allows us to carry on with our daily lives with a measure of confidence and hopefulness. If our current system is fine the way it is, then we don't need to think about what we need to do to improve it. No one will take to the streets in protest.

Of course, not everyone is equally enamored of the status quo, and different kinds of situations threaten or protect our belief in the way things are. So what happens when we are invested in a particular way of thinking (a mythology, or an ideology) and something shakes or threatens that way of thinking?

Suppose, for example, that we truly believe that America is a meritocracy, and it is important to us to believe that. Then suppose we are faced with a blatant instance in which the best person does not get the job or the award or the promotion or the acceptance letter?

System justification theorists believe that we maintain a whole system of beliefs that support the status quo. If one of those beliefs is threatened, then we can try to maintain our sense of predictability, control, and legitimacy by clinging even more strongly to another aspect of the status quo. So, if I have a strongly-held belief that America is a just and fair nation, and something happens to threaten that belief, I may just want to embrace even more tenaciously some other set of beliefs about the status quo—for example, that just about everyone wants to marry, that getting married makes you happier and healthier, and that married people are better than single people because they are married.

The research I'll describe in the next post addresses several questions:

  • Why do people cling to mythologies about marriage, and stereotype single people, even when they do not know the particular single people they are derogating?
  • Why is there so much singlism and matrimania at this point in time? There are more and more single people, and more opportunities to live a full and meaningful life as a single person, than there have been in the past. Why hasn't that resulted in less stereotyping of singles, and less belief in the mythologies about marriage?
  • When belief in one aspect of the status quo is threatened (for example, that our society is a fair one that does not practice discrimination), who is more likely to react by clinging even more tenaciously to the mythology of marriage and coupling, men or women? Or is there no difference?

In my next posts, I'll tell you what the authors have found. [ Part 2 is here , and Part 3 is here .]

Reference :

Day, M. V., Kay, A. C., Holmes, J. C., & Napier, J. L. (in press). System justification and the defense of committed relationship ideology. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology .