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Alone, Unattached and Other Wrong Terms for Single People

We are using stereotypes as definitions of single people and no one has noticed.

Sometimes stereotypes are subtle. Sometimes they reside mostly in our minds. We don’t put into words the demeaning and inaccurate ways that certain groups are portrayed, either because we’re never even tempted, or we know better than to say something like that.

When it comes to single people, though, the stereotypes are embedded right in the language we use to refer to them. What’s more, no one ever questions it. No one seems to realize what is happening and why it is wrong.

Here are a few examples:

“She’s alone.”

“He’s unattached.”

“She doesn’t have anyone.”

That’s how people in the U.S. refer to people who are single, as if those expressions were synonyms or definitions, instead of misleading and demeaning stereotypes.

Many single people enjoy spending time alone, especially if they are single at heart, but that’s a whole different thing than being alone in the sense of not having anyone. In fact, dozens of studies show that single people are, in many important ways, more connected to other people. They have more friends and they do more to support and stay in touch with the people in their lives. Those who marry, in contrast, typically become more insular, at least in the Western nations where that research has been conducted. In my TEDx talk, I suggested that sure, coupled people have The One, but single people have the ones.

It is also untrue that single people are unattached. Single people have attachments to the important people in their lives, including close friends and family members. I don’t just mean that colloquially. Attachment scholars have described the criteria that must be met for a relationship to qualify as a genuine attachment relationship. Single people often have relationships that meet every criterion for a full-blown, secure attachment.

The deeply misleading ways we talk about single people is part of something even bigger and at least as disturbing—a deficit narrative about single lives, a story that describes single people as lesser than. It is so pervasive, so powerful, and so rarely questioned that I think it qualifies as something more than just a belief system or a mythology. It is an ideology. The assumption that single people just aren’t as good as those married people, or as people with serious romantic partners, is the conventional wisdom. It is accepted as just the way things are.

Wendy Morris and I first described the Ideology of Marriage and Family in our article, “Singles in Society and in Science.” From our North American perspective, we identified what we saw as three key tenets:

  • First, just about everyone wants to marry, and just about everyone does.
  • Second, adults who marry are better people than people who don’t. They are worthier and more valuable. They are happier, more mature, and less lonely. Their lives are more meaningful and more complete.
  • Third, married people are better people because they have that one peer relationship that is more important than any other.

If single people don’t have the one peer relationship that really counts, then it follows that they are alone and unattached and they don’t have anyone. The ideology, which is wrong, insists on it.

Here are two more examples:

Why are you single?

“Why are you still single?”

Those are questions you would ask if you just assumed, as the ideology maintains, that just about everyone wants to marry. We don’t ask married people why they are married, or why they are still married.

Here’s another example:

“He’s in a relationship.”

The word “relationship,” in its true meaning, is a big, inclusive word that throws its arms around all the people who matter to us. But it has been ideologically co-opted to refer mostly only to romantic relationships. That happens even in scholarly journals dedicated to the study of relationships. They use the word “relationship” as a shorthand for romantic relationships. It is similar to when the word “he” was used to refer to both men and women. That’s not allowed in scholarly journals anymore, and the misuse of the word “relationships” should not be allowed anymore either—in scholarly publications or in the conversations of our everyday lives.

One last example, the one that galls me more than any other:

“She deserves to be happy.”

That expression, in the U.S., is used to mean that a person deserves to be married or in a committed romantic relationship. Happiness is equated with being coupled! No one ever says, “She deserves to be happy—she should stay single.” We need to challenge that.

This Isn’t Just About Hurt Feelings

To have happiness defined as something only people who are not single enjoy, to be asked to defend your single status, to have the word relationship used in ways that exclude all the people who matter to you, and to be referred to as alone and unattached and as not having anyone regardless of how many important people are in your life—all of that is of course hurtful. But I think the ideology does more than encourage ways of talking that demean those of us who are single and hurt our feelings.

It also deprives us and the people who matter to us of significant benefits and protections. In the U.S., when laws protect adults other than the people directly targeted by them, those adults are typically spouses, or occasionally domestic partners. Under the Family and Medical Leave Act, for example, anyone in an eligible workplace can take time off to care for a parent or child. If you are married, you are also covered to care for your spouse. But if you are single, you can't take time off to care for a comparable person, such as a niece or uncle or cousin or close friend or anyone else who really matters to you—and none of those kinds of people can take time off to care for you.

As I’ve discussed in more detail before, the important people in the lives of single people are also shortchanged in workplaces and in living arrangements, as, for instance, when zoning regulations make it difficult for singles to live with the people who count as family to us. In ways that are not formally ensconced in-laws, too, the people who matter to solo single people are often marginalized and excluded. It should be embarrassing that so much socializing in American society is still couples-based.

A Singles Studies Online Conference

On October 10, 2020, a global, interdisciplinary conference on singles studies will take place. It was organized by Dr. Ketaki Chowkhani and Dr. Craig Wynne. The speakers are from Australia, India, Ireland, Israel, Japan, Poland, Romania, and the United States. I will be giving the keynote address, “Changing Thinking, Changing Language, Changing Lives: The Power and Promise of Singles Studies.” This blog post was adapted from the part of my talk on changing language. It is an academic conference, but everyone is welcome to zoom in, and I purposefully avoided any academic jargon in my talk.

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