When I first started studying single life several decades ago, there were no terms for the prejudice and discrimination faced by people who are not married. In fact, one of the most daunting challenges was trying to persuade others that people who are single are targets of stereotyping, stigmatizing, marginalization, and discrimination — or that any such instances were of any consequence.
Among the people who were resistant were scholars who had made their careers studying other forms of discrimination, so it was especially disappointing when they were dismissive of the unfairness in the lives of single people.
Naming a phenomenon can be an important first step to understanding it and ultimately addressing it. Once there is a term for the ways in which single people are treated as “lesser than,” sensitivity to relevant instances is heightened, more such instances are appropriately recognized and labeled, and the importance of redressing injustices becomes more apparent.
Here is my definitive guide to terms for the unfair treatment of single people and preferential treatment of people who are married. It includes the definitions of the key terms, their history, how they made it into the mainstream, and how these prejudices have now been shown to be even more consequential than I ever dared to suggest.
Singlism and Matrimania
In 2005, in an academic article, Wendy Morris and I introduced the term “singlism” to refer to the stereotyping, stigmatizing, and discrimination against people who are single. In 2006, in Singled Out, I added the term “matrimania” to describe the over-the-top hyping of marriage, weddings, and couples.
For the first few years, references to singlism and matrimania appeared mostly in academic publications and in the blog posts I was writing for Psychology Today and Huffington Post. Then, in 2008, Gail Collins used the term singlism in the op-ed column she writes for the New York Times, and mentions of singlism in the media multiplied.
It didn’t hurt that the instance she was describing was so ripe for sharing. President Barack Obama had just nominated a lifelong single woman, Janet Napolitano, to be the Secretary of Homeland Security. Upon hearing of the nomination, Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell weighed in, in all seriousness, with the remark, “Janet’s perfect for the job. Because for that job, you have to have no life. Janet has no family. Perfect. She can devote, literally, 19, 20 hours a day to it.”
By the time I published Singlism: What It Is, Why It Matters, and How to Stop It in 2011, the term singlism had made it into publications such as the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, the Associated Press, The Week, and the Sydney Morning Herald. On television, it has been mentioned on The Tyra Banks Show, ABC News, and other programs.
By now, both words have been mainstreamed, as I will illustrate below with some of my favorite examples. But first, I want to mention two other related terms, then provide more details on the early uses of singlism and matrimania. For singlism, it is important to specify what it is not (since people sometimes get it wrong) as well as what it is, so I will do that, too.
Marital Status Discrimination
Marital status discrimination, which means just what it says — discrimination based on marital status — has been around for a while and even gets mentioned in some laws.
The term does not refer solely to bias against unmarried people, as singlism does. In fact, when marital status discrimination is mentioned in policies, the goal is often to protect married people from unfair practices. For example, as Joan DelFattore and I pointed out:
The reason federal regulations discourage questions about marital status in job interviews is that married women might be rejected because of their (presumed) focus on family obligations.
Going beyond the narrow meaning of the term “marital privilege” in legal contexts, Rachel Buddeberg and I defined it as “the unearned advantages that benefit those who are married.” We discussed marital privileges at length in our Truthout article, “Do you, married person, take these unearned privileges for better or for better?” With Lisa Arnold and Christina Campbell, we also created a checklist version.
The National Review and a few other places pulled out their pouty playbook about the PC police. Otherwise, though, “marital privilege” has not yet gotten much ink.
Coining the Term “Singlism”
The first time I used the word singlism in a published paper was in an article I wrote with Wendy Morris, "Singles in society and in science," in 2005 for the journal Psychological Inquiry. Here's what we said on p. 60:
"One of the most important implications of the Ideology of Marriage and Family is that adults who are single in contemporary American society are a stigmatized group. As such, they are targets of negative stereotyping, interpersonal rejection, economic disadvantage, and discrimination (Crocker, Major, & Steele, 1998). We refer to this antisingles sentiment as singlism."
In my book Singled Out: How Singles Are Stereotyped, Stigmatized, and Ignored, and Still Live Happily Ever After, first published in hardcover in 2006, I said this on page 2:
"People who do not have a serious coupled relationship (my definition, for now, of single people) are stereotyped, discriminated against, and treated dismissively. This stigmatization of people who are single - whether divorced, widowed, or ever single - is the twenty-first-century problem that has no name. I'll call it singlism."
In 2006, Current Directions in Psychological Science invited me and Wendy Morris to write a brief article on singlism. Here's what we said in the first paragraph of our paper (p. 251):
"For years, we have been studying what we call singlism, the stigmatizing of adults who are single. We have found evidence of singlism in the negative stereotypes and discrimination faced by singles (DePaulo, 2006; DePaulo & Morris, 2005a; DePaulo & Morris, 2005b). Although singlism is a nonviolent, softer form of bigotry than what is often faced by other stigmatized groups such as African Americans or gay men and lesbians, the impact of singlism is far ranging. Unlike more familiar isms such as racism, sexism, or heterosexism, singlism is not often recognized, and when it is pointed out, it is often regarded as legitimate." [Clarification in case this is confusing: It means that people think that it is okay to practice singlism -- they think it it legitimate to stereotype and stigmatize and discriminate against single people, even when it is pointed out that that's what they are doing.]
What Singlism Is Not
Singlism does NOT mean being single.
Here are three instances of incorrect usages:
- Wrong Use Example #1: "Please don't say that new housing is ‘needed' because of increased singlism and life-expectancy."
- Wrong Use Example #2: "Thank you Jesus for the wonderful gift of singlism."
- Wrong Use Example #3: "Whatever state of singlism you are in, February gives you the opportunity to expand your horizons."
Coining the Term “Matrimania”
The first time I mentioned the term matrimania was in Singled Out:
“The term singlism points directly at single people and the ways in which they are marginalized and stigmatized. That’s only half the racket, though. The other half is the glorifying of marriage and coupling, especially the “You’re My Everything” variety. I’ll call that matrimania.”
Singlism and Matrimania Today: The Terms Have Made It into the Mainstream
Today, the terms singlism and matrimania show up in textbooks, academic publications, various online dictionaries, and countless websites, blogs, magazines, newspapers, and books.
In June of 2012, for example, Readers’ Digest chose singlism and matrimania as their words of the month. The magazine got the idea from the Atlantic magazine, in which both terms were mentioned in Kate Bolick’s wildly popular article, “All the single ladies.” The esteemed TED Ideas blog also spotlighted singlism and matrimania in Jessica Gross’s post, “The price of being single.”
In her travel column for the New York Times, Stephanie Rosenbloom discussed singlism in the travel industry. Matrimania has merited several mentions in Lisa Bonos’s “Solo-ish” blog in the Washington Post. For example, one of her posts was reprinted under the awesome title, “Holy Matrimania! New Terms to Love.”
We Now Know That Singlism Can Be Lethal, But People Still Deny It Exists
For example, Joan DelFattore made the case that stereotypes of single people can result in devastating undertreatment of cancer patients. Satia A. Marotta and Keren Ladin documented biases against divorced people in judgments about who is worthy of a life-saving transplant. That research became the impetus for a forum in The American Journal of Bioethics on the proper grounds for transplant decisions, with a target article by Ladin and two of her colleagues, an editorial, and 11 commentaries.
Despite these significant advances, some people continue to deny that singlism exists. They even get mad at people who point it out, for reasons I’ve tried to explain elsewhere. We still have a long way to go.