A Darker Side of Singlism: Discrimination in the Legal Code

Common singles-empowerment rhetoric won’t fix singlism that’s written into law.

Posted May 31, 2020

I recently had the bizarre experience of having someone complain to me that stories about happy single people are not fair. He thinks that every one of them should all acknowledge that not all single people are happily single and that those reluctant singles are having a hard time. I found it astonishing that someone would feel oppressed by a happy singlehood narrative, when I have spent the last two decades of my life trying to correct what I see as the exact opposite problemthe misleading, annoying, and irrepressible deficit narrative of single life. In another way, though, it is a victory. The word has gotten out that plenty of single people are happily single.

Christina Diane Campbell thinks that is not enough. She made her case in a brilliant blog post at Onely. I asked her if she would write a version of her argument for “Living Single” readers, and I am grateful that she agreed.

A Darker Side of Singlism: Discrimination in the Legal Code

By Christina Diane Campbell

Over dinner at Chipotle, my friend Renata told a story that warmed her heart: A friend of hers was sent by the U.S. Army to Japan, but he missed his civilian girlfriend back in the States. So when he got leave, he went home and proposed. They were married, and then the Army sent both of them together to Japan. I protested to Renata: “The Army spent taxpayer dollars on an international airplane ticket for this woman, just because she signed a piece of paper? Why can’t a soldier bring over a sibling, or a friend?” Renata shook her head. “It’s a romantic story,” she sighed, obviously disappointed with my attitude. I felt unheard, voiceless, frustrated. Renata and I were both single. How could she not see this obvious example of discrimination against unmarried troops?

Relatively few people pay attention to this kind of discrimination, which I’ll refer to as institutionalized singlism. That’s a problem. That needs to change. Now. Yes, there are memes and media pieces touting singleness as a valid--or even preferable—lifestyle, but that rhetoric only challenges socio-cultural singlism. I want more discussion about how marital status discrimination is written into laws (institutionalized). All the rah-rah-singledom rhetoric in the world isn’t going to help a single mother who is paying more taxes than her married coworker, or a disabled person who can’t use their close friend’s health insurance because the two of them aren’t having regular government-sanctioned sex.

Maybe I need to take a breath, back up, and give some definitions: By socio-cultural singlism, I mean relationship status discrimination (RSD) that is informal. An example is not being offered a plus-one to a wedding if you’re not married or dating someone seriously. Another example is the wedding shower: there is no equivalent gift-grab for people who don’t get married. By institutionalized singlism, I mean RSD that is formally codified in our federal and state laws, which largely means marital status discrimination (MSD). MSD filters into other large commercial and financial institutions. Problematic examples include: retirement account laws, estate tax laws, income tax laws, health insurance policies, and social security policies. (See here for examples from Onely via The Atlantic and from Dr. Bella DePaulo via the nonprofit advocacy site Unmarried Equality.)

When people become involved in advocacy against RSD/MSD/singlism, they usually progress through various levels of awareness, like leveling-up to different belts in Tae Kwon Do. I myself was in my 30s before I even recognized singlism was a thing. It happened after a particularly mind-bending breakup. At the time, I didn’t even have my white belt in singles’ advocacy and was feeling sorry for my single self. Then my soon-to-be-co-blogger and master rhetoric scholar Lisa asked me,

Have you noticed that all articles about being single and happy say ‘you need to be happy with yourself before you find a partner’? Well, why can’t we just be happy with ourselves without the ultimate goal being a relationship?

My brain went boom, and Onely was born. That was over 10 years ago. Nowadays it’s a lot easier to find cultural think pieces, films, and books with the message “you don’t need a partner to be complete.” However, much of that media stops at white-belt or yellow-belt level advocacy. To say, “I love being single, because I appreciate the privilege of living alone and not needing to clean up the cat hair unless I start choking on it” is yellow-belt-level. It’s fine, and certainly we’ve made our share of such comments on Onely, but that rhetoric doesn’t really rise to a force that bruises the System’s shins. For that, we need black-belt singles’ advocacy—this means we need talk that challenges the laws and corporate policies that privilege married people over singles. This discussion becomes complex, as it’s tied to the worlds of commerce, law, and finance, which have specialized rules and vocabulary, where the average advocate may struggle to articulate the problems and offer solutions.

I can easily count on one hand the singles’ rights advocates who have written at brown-to-black-belt level about institutionalized singlism and called out the U.S. government (or others) for blatant discrimination based on marital status.

Thumb:

Of course there’s Bella DePaulo, whose groundbreaking work Singled Out brought relationship status discrimination to the attention of me and Lisa (and many other people), thereby raising our awareness from yellow to green belt.

Index Finger:

Lily Kahng wrote “The Single Taxpayer in a Joint Return World” where she noted that a single person always pays more on the same income than a married couple filing jointly. This astonishing lesson did not go viral, except for DePaulo’s efforts to spread it. According to DePaulo, quoting Kahng: “The U.S. is one of the few developed countries to retain the joint income tax return, available to heterosexual married couples only” (now for gay couples too-but again, they must be married).

Third Finger:

Vicki Larson, co-author of The New I Do: Reshaping Marriage for Skeptics, Realists and Rebels, wrote in Aeon about how marriage should not come with social privileges.

Fourth Finger:

Psychology Today blogger Elyakim Kislev’s highly readable Happy Singlehood is “a call to action. It calls for researchers and policymakers, who are not used to thinking of singles as a disadvantaged minority, to focus more on their growing numbers and the numerous obstacles they tackle.” Kislev’s book includes thoughtful and hard-core statistical analysis on the lives of single people, tackling both socio-cultural and institutionalized singlism.

If readers know of other people who have explicitly and extensively called out institutionalized marital status discrimination (IMSD), please let me know. I’m sure I must be missing some, but my ultimate point remains: there are not many black-belt singles’ advocates out there doing the logistically challenging legal/financial analysis. With your help, I plan to make a page on Onely with links to important discussions about IMSD. (And if anyone has better acronyms for any of these terms, please please let me know that too.)

Meanwhile, on the Pinkie Finger:

I’ll put me and Lisa, for our 2013 Atlantic article about marital status discrimination in the U.S. federal government. In the article, we calculated that a single person in the U.S. could easily pay at least one million more dollars more over their lifetime compared to their married peer, based on discriminatory policies in the federal government. (The Atlantic pull quote says “up to” a million dollars, but that was a typo; it’s *at least* a million dollars.) The article was a Herculean effort for two non-math, non-law, non-social-science majors, but we struggled through the interminable Skype sessions because we hoped that our article would eventually encourage other progressive (and less math-phobic) singles’ rights people to crunch more numbers to expose more discrimination. Seven years later, no one has. Seven years later, Lisa and I and the advocates listed above are still just one small fist of writers, shaking itself at the last remaining legal “Ism” in the U.S.

Our hope is that yellow-belt singles’ rights advocates will use their indignation about socio-cultural microaggressions (for example, “Why are you still single?” or “Don’t worry, you’ll find someone one day”) to fuel new efforts to educate themselves and others about the arguably grittier and more insidious issues of tax inequality, retirement, and health inequality. You don’t need to look at institutionalized RSD from a macro perspective, either, like the people I linked to above. For example, Joan DelFattore focuses mainly on singlism in the healthcare industry, from both a socio-cultural and institutional perspective. If you have an area of expertise (law, banking, sales, macramé), ask yourself if you can identify if/how that world formally discriminates against singles. If so, do you have any solutions, or a platform to protest on? Please consider posting your ideas on the Facebook group Fairness for Single People. This group raises issues of relationship status discrimination everywhere from cruise ships to the federal code, and goes a long way towards bridging the gigantic chasm I mentioned up top, between socio-cultural singlism and institutionalized singlism.

On the night of Chipotle and the ill-received army narrative, Renata and I stood in the parking lot saying our goodbyes. She looked at me intently. “You know, I’m afraid if you stay single, as you get older you’ll become bitter and alone.”

“I’m not bitter,” I said. “I just don’t think the Army should privilege married people like that.”

Renata shook her head and sighed, just as she had earlier. “I’m just saying,” she said, “When you say stuff like that, people notice and remember.”

If only.

About the Author

Christina Diane Campbell is co-founder of the singles advocacy blog Onely.org. Her essays have appeared in Atlantic.com, PsychologyToday.com, Narratively.com, and elsewhere. Her book And Sarah His Wife, a braided essay about mental health, misogyny, and colonial America, won the Michigan Writers Chapbook Contest in 2017. She lives in Northern Virginia with her infrared sauna and three cats.

For an argument similar to Christina Diane Campbell’s, check out Kinneret Lahad’s reservations about our personal stories about single life. And for a guide to the various terminology around singlism, marital status discrimination, marital privilege, and matrimania, click here.