Who's Afraid of Single People?

Who should be blamed for the supposed breakdown of family and community ties?

Posted Oct 06, 2014

There are people who are very afraid of single people. I'm not just talking about the stereotype of single men as scary criminals (which, by the way, is a myth and not a truth). No, there are people who believe that the growing number of single people in America is a threat to our nation. Getting pinned on us single people are "the sharp decline of social trust and the breakdown of community ties."

Those of us who count as singles activists – and in the article I'm critiquing, I'm named as one of them – come in for a disproportionate share of the blame. If we get our way, it is feared, we will "create a more alienating social environment for all."

I'm kind of used to this. In the summer of 1998, when he still had a television show, Rush Limbaugh claimed that he had found the root of our society's moral decay, and I was it. At the time, it was my research on lying that he didn't like. (I hadn't published any singles research yet.)

I wonder what it would be like to have the kind of power that gets projected onto me by the right-wing fear machine.

The latest in the scary-singles oeuvre is Stella Morabito's "Welcome to Selfie Nation" over at the Federalist. The author picks up on an argument I have been making for some time – that single people are targets of institutionalized, legalized discrimination in the form of the 1,000+ federal laws that protect and benefit only those who are legally married. She also accurately notes that my argument, and that of many other like-minded critics, has roots in the same-sex marriage movement. Those activists argued that you should not have to be a certain kind of couple (one man, one woman) in order to have access to basic benefits and protections. Singles activists make the case that you should not have to be any kind of a couple to get equal treatment under the law.

Morabito says that what I really want is "to abolish marriage without saying so." That's not quite right. I'm happy to say so. Government should get out of the marriage business. If people want to get married in their places of worship, if they want to host private celebrations, have at it! But I do not think the government should privilege one particular adult relationship over all others. Single people should not be expected to subsidize all of the rewards – many of them financial – showered upon other people simply because they got married.  

In a fairly common muddling of the issues, Morabito conflates marital status with parental status. They are not the same. There are single people who have kids and married people who don't. Marital rights are not the same as parental rights. She also drags out the tired old argument about how there should be no same-sex marriage because marriage is about children; I doubt she objects to men and women marrying who know they will not have children because of medial issues or because they are too old or because they just don't want any. "For the children" is pious bologna.

To get a sense of Morabito's demeaning and degrading attitude toward single people, consider:

  • The title of her article on the rise of singles is "Welcome to Selfie Nation"
  • If singles activists get their way, she predicts that "Some will revel in a perceived 'New World Orgy' of freedom"
  • She then cautions that "the morning after this binge of faux freedom will bring a hangover that doesn't go away"
  • She also claims that we singles activists are envious of married couples and creating a new "class war" and "definitely stoking a new divisiveness in America"

In response to my question of what was motivating her writing, Morabito told me, "I have deep concerns about the growing sense of alienation, division, and distrust in our society.  I believe a lot of it has to do with the breakdown of family bonds. And I don’t believe a bureaucratic state can fill in those blanks."

Let's take a research-based look at Morabito's claim that it is single people who are breaking down family bonds and community ties and contributing to a sense of alienation and division and distrust. For long-time readers of this Living Single blog, much of this will already be familiar, but here are some of the findings once again. (For links to the specific studies and others, and more discussion, click here.)

  • Single people are more likely to support, visit, advise and contact their parents and siblings than married people are.
  • Single people are more likely to socialize with, encourage, and help their friends and neighbors than married people are.
  • Getting married changes people in ways that make them more insular. In a study that followed people for six years, those who got married had less contact with their parents and spent less time with their friends than they had when they were single. (This cannot be explained as a kid thing. The greater insularity was true of couples with kids as well as those without; it was also true of men and women, and of Whites, African-Americans, and Hispanics.)
  • Single people are just as concerned with guiding the next generation as married people are.
  • Single people are more likely than married ones to do what it takes to keep siblings together.
  • Single people are more engaged in the life of the towns and cities where they live than married people are. For example, they participate in more civic groups and public events, they take more art and music classes, and they are more involved in informal social activities.
  • A representative national sample of 9,000 British adults found that more single people than married ones had regularly looked after someone, for at least 3 months, who was sick, disabled, or elderly.

If you want to know who is doing the most to keep our families and communities together, to create and nurture ties with neighbors and parents and siblings and friends, and to keep our cities lively and dynamic, and if you want your answer to be based on research and not ideology or polemics, well, your answer is not going to be married people.

Now let's consider the matter of "alienation, division, and distrust." Who is driving those social ills? Is it single people, who are forging and nurturing ties within their families, communities, cities, and circles of friends, and providing long-term intensive help to people who need it most? Or is it the people who get married and become more insular? Is it people such as Stella Morabito who blithely dismiss single people with their talk of "selfie nation" and orgies and hangovers? If Morabito wants to know who is "stoking a new divisiveness in America" and creating a new "class war," maybe she should reread her own writing.

Another big part of Morabito's essay is about the role of the state in our lives. This, to me, is the most convoluted part of her argument. For example, "allowing the state to regulate your relationship from the outset" is bad, but if you "release the state from its obligation to recognize, and therefore respect, your marriage," that's awful. So the government should get involved to protect and promote her preferred relationship – in fact, it should be obligated to do so, but if the government were to say that other people's most important relationships (that are not marital ones) also deserve protection, well then that's evil and dangerous "statism."

Is Stella Morabito right to be afraid of single people? As individuals, no, I don't think we're very scary at all. Collectively, though, I hope she is right. I hope some day we do have the power to expand our freedoms, so that we all get to decide for ourselves which relationships we find most valuable.

[For other relevant writings, see, for example, (1) Singlism: What It Is, Why It Matters, and How to Stop It; (2) Should marriage be a ticket to privilege? Several dozen skeptics weigh in; and (3) The myth of the isolated and self-centered single person.]