One Is a Whole Number: 27 Years of Studying Single Life
Lessons from clippings I saved about single life nearly three decades ago
Posted August 24, 2019
In an advice column in a local newspaper, a woman whose husband had died eight months ago wrote to say that she dreaded the holidays. “I am alone and find it difficult to be festive,” she said. “Am I the only one who feels that way?”
The advice columnist wrote a very long answer. I underlined in red one sentence of it: “Remember that one is a whole number.” Then I cut it out, put it in a manila folder, and wrote the number “1” on the tab. The date was December 17, 1992.
I wasn’t lonely when I did that or dreading the holidays. I had never spent a holiday alone. But something about that sentiment, “one is a whole number,” touched me.
Between that day and November 29, 1998, I would slip a total of 21 clippings into my “1” folder. That was the official beginning of my study of single life. I’ve been searching for that folder for years, and I just found it a few days ago.
For the first few years, I kept my interest in single life a secret. I continued to collect materials and write notes about what I thought of single life and how I thought I was treated differently because I was single. (I still can’t find that first notebook.) I was still doing tons of research and writing and lecturing on my established area of expertise, the psychology of lying and detecting lies.
I don’t know when I first started asking other single people about their experiences, but by 1998, my folder included a few clippings that other people had sent me. I didn’t teach my first course about single people until 1999.
I published my first non-academic article on the topic in 2004 (an op-ed in the New York Times, “Sex and the Single Voter”), my first scholarly article, with Wendy Morris, in 2005 (it was a target article, published together with 10 commentaries and our response to them), and my first book, Singled Out, in 2006. I started writing this “Living Single” blog here at Psychology Today in 2008.
The contents of my “1” folder offer a glimpse of the single life as it was portrayed in the media, between 21 and 27 years ago. I want to tell you more about the contents, then share a few observations.
My 21 clippings included:
- 6 Cathy cartoons
- 4 Newsweek entries, including articles and letters from readers
- 3 Ann Landers columns
- 3 syndicated columns or articles, reprinted in my local paper
- 2 columns by local writers
- 1 article in USA Weekend magazine
- 1 New Yorker article—Daphne Merkin’s review of two books about single people (Bridget Jones’s Diary and The Improvised Woman)
- 1 New York Times article, about “body-conscious sportswear geared toward single women”
Pleasant Surprises and a Few Disappointments
I didn’t expect Ann Landers to respond generously to examples of what I would later call “singlism,” but she did—at least in the clippings that I saved. For example, in response to a reader who said she liked her single life and was getting tired of being asked when she is going to get married, Ann’s answer included: “Marriage is not for everyone, and I receive dozens of letters every day from women who would love to change places with you.”
As an exemplar of single life, I found Cathy, of the eponymous cartoon, mostly an embarrassment. The issues raised there, though, were telling, and some still resonate today.
One of the cartoons, for example, begins with a married friend telling Cathy, “I want you to be married like I am so we can do things together as couples, Cathy. There, I said it.” In another, the same friend says, “We’ll take our car because we’re the married people. Simon will drive because he’s the husband, and I’ll sit in front next to him because we’re the couple.”
The clippings suggested that I was just beginning to understand that singlism included more than just everyday slights against single people; it also encompassed discrimination written right into the laws of the land.
For example, Cathy is disappointed when her tax accountant says that she cannot deduct expenses from a romantic relationship that did not work out. “The government frowns on single people,” he explains.
A cover story in Newsweek, “Tomorrow’s Child,” included a claim about the benefits of marriage for happiness, health, and a longer life. I didn’t even underline it. I hadn’t yet read any of the original research reports and didn’t know that I would spend the next two decades debunking those claims.
Something else I didn’t know: the clippings I had collected from the two most prestigious sources were omens for what was to come. I would eventually find (and am still finding) that even people and institutions that pride themselves on being intellectual and open-minded can still be fairly snide or regressive when it comes to single people.
Ann Landers: October 23, 1993
A man who calls himself “Lonely in Texas” has been dining alone several times a week since the loss of his spouse:
“Invariably, the first thing the maître d’ says is “Alone tonight?” Then the headwaiter inquires, “Will anyone be joining you?” After that, the table server asks, “Just one?”
He asks Ann to encourage restaurant managers to train their employees to greet diners in different ways—for example, “Good evening,” or “How are you this evening?”
Ann Landers’s answer is entirely positive and ends with:
“You have taught a great many service people something today. Thank you.”
Cathy cartoon: September 28, 1995
Cathy is not dining alone in this cartoon; she is sitting across from a couple, her married friends. The waitress comes by and asks Cathy if she will be needing the chair next to her. Cathy says, “No. No one else is coming. The fourth chair is not needed.”
Then another employee comes by and says, “Is this an extra napkin?”
Cathy, exasperated, says:
“Yes. Take the napkin! Take the silverware! Take the glass! Take the bread plate! Take one-fourth of the sugar packs.”
Then she continues, and now what she says appears in bold:
“Clear out the accouterments! Eliminate the space! Remove a quarter of the oxygen if you want! I’m alone! No one is joining me!!”
Newsday article, “Working parents, childless peers clash on ‘family’ issues”: December 5, 1993
“Jill is one of two childless workers in a 10-person account group at a large New York City ad agency. Both asked for Christmas week off to visit parents who live in other regions of the country, and both were denied the time. They were told, Jill says, that 'people with families get first priority.'”
(Although the focus of the article was on employees with no kids, some of them were also single.)
Cathy cartoon: August 2, 1993
Cathy is talking to her boss and names three co-workers who are useless because they are on vacation, three more who are useless because they just got back from vacation, and another three who are similarly of no help because they are about to leave for vacation.
Then she adds, “I alone am functioning.”
The boss’s thought bubble says, “God bless the single people,” as Cathy walks off with a huge stack of papers.
The One Theme That Seemed Dated: Going Solo Is Dangerous
When I reread the 21 clippings in my collection, I thought the themes still seemed relevant. Only one seemed dated, though not completely missing in today’s discussions of single life—the idea that going solo is dangerous. For example, the first paragraph of a syndicated article on solo travel included the claim that it “can be more dangerous.”
A 1993 Newsweek article, “The art of flying solo,” quoted a psychologist who maintained that “living alone can be frightening.” Also mentioned was a mother’s fears about the safety of her daughter who lived alone. “Solos tend to take exceptional security precautions,” readers were told, and a paragraph full of examples followed.
Some of the examples of singlism from my clippings were around nearly three decades ago and are still around today. That’s exasperating. But thinking about them—as well as all the good stuff about being single—never gets old.