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How Single People Get Patronized and Excluded

What’s bothering single people is not the lack of a romantic partner.

Key points

  • Compared to coupled people, single people more often feel patronized, excluded, threatened, and unsupported, according to recent research.
  • Feeling patronized and unsupported due to unfair treatment may lead single people to feel less satisfied with life, the research shows.
  • Other studies suggests that single people are typically happy and healthy. They are thriving despite getting patronized and excluded.
Spectral-Design/Shutterstock
Source: Spectral-Design/Shutterstock

If you are single, have you ever had anyone insist that they know what’s best for you? Maybe they think you should hurry up and find someone, even if you are single at heart, meaning you love being single. Or if you do want to find someone, maybe they think they know, better than you ever could, exactly why that’s not happening. And then they tell you, whether you are interested or not.

If you have had those kinds of experiences, do you think you might feel a little less satisfied with your life than you would if people were a tad less patronizing?

Here’s another one: Are you ever excluded because you are single? Maybe, for example, a bunch of your friends who are coupled plan to get together to do something fun but do not include you. Sure, you’re a friend, but you’re single. How does that make you feel?

Yuthika U. Girme of Simon Fraser University and four colleagues conducted two investigations of the ways in which single people feel stigmatized and unsupported, and showed how those kinds of singlist experiences can in fact undermine single people’s feelings of satisfaction. Their report, “Unsupported and stigmatized? The association between relationship status and well-being is mediated by social support and social discrimination,” was just published in Social Psychological and Personality Science.

The participants in the first study were 4,024 adults from a nationally representative sample of New Zealanders. They ranged in age from 18 to 94, with an average of about 50. Proportionately, they were mostly New Zealand European (42.5%), Asian (27%), or Indian (12%). They were surveyed twice, about a year apart. Only people who were single both times (as defined below) or with the same romantic partner both times were included.

In the second study, 808 participants from the U.S. and Canada kept daily diaries for about two weeks of their experiences of getting patronized or left out, and how they were feeling about their lives. They ranged in age from 17 to 68, but most of them were young—the average age was 24. Proportionately, they were most often White (50%), Asian (27%), or Black (22%).

What Counted as Getting Patronized or Excluded?

Feeling patronized and excluded are examples of what I have called “singlism,” the stereotyping, stigmatizing, and marginalizing of single people, and the discrimination against them. Girme and her colleagues also wanted to know whether single people felt supported and whether that mattered.

Below are examples of the questions the researchers asked to assess their participants’ experiences of singlism, as well as their satisfaction with their lives and their romantic relationship status.

Getting patronized: “In your day-to-day life, how often do people insist that they know what is best for you?”

Getting excluded: “How often do people happily interact with you in formal situations but not social ones?”

Experiencing other kinds of negative treatment: “How often do people do things that threaten you?” How often are they (not) “friendly and willing to help you?”

Feeling unsupported: “There is no one I can turn to for guidance in times of stress.”

Feeling satisfied with life: “I am satisfied with my life.”

In the diary studies, participants answered the questions every day. When they were asked about feeling patronized, excluded, threatened, or treated in a less friendly way, they were asked whether they were treated that way because of their romantic relationship status. They also reported, each day, on the extent to which they felt pitied, harassed, or treated unfairly, or felt out of place.

Who Counted as Single?

The researchers counted as single everyone who was currently single, divorced, separated, or widowed. (At the end, I’ll explain the issues with including previously married people in with people who have always been single.) The participants categorized as coupled, or currently in a romantic relationship, were married, in a civil union, living together, dating, or engaged.

Getting Patronized, Excluded, and Unsupported

In both studies, single people, compared to coupled people, more often felt patronized, excluded, threatened, and unsupported. Other people also seemed less friendly to the single people and less willing to help.

All that singlism undermined single people’s satisfaction. Because of feeling patronized and unsupported, single people felt less satisfied.

There was also evidence that single people felt unsupported because they were being treated unfairly. The authors suggest that single people may want to turn to people such as their parents and friends for support. But if their parents are pressuring them to find a romantic partner and their friends who are coupled are excluding them from social events, they are not going to feel very supported or very satisfied.

Everyday Singlism and Singlism Built into Laws, Policies, and Practices

These studies show that everyday singlism matters. Single people more often feel patronized, pitied, excluded, unsupported, and treated in less friendly ways, and that undermines how satisfied they feel overall, and on a daily basis. In fact, it may be harder for single people to feel supported when the people they’d like to turn to are the ones patronizing them and excluding them.

Singlism isn’t just personal and interpersonal. It is also structural and institutional. Wendy Morris and Stacey Sinclair and I found evidence for housing discrimination against single people by rental agents who would prefer to rent to couples. In the U. S., there are more than 1,000 federal laws that benefit and protect only people who are legally married. In many workplaces, employees can take time off to care for a spouse but not for a close friend or a sibling. Discrimination built into laws and policies can massively disadvantage single people economically. In medical settings, the biases single people face can be life-threatening.

In the studies I’ve been describing, only the personal and interpersonal slights and biases of everyday life were assessed, and those alone undermined single people’s satisfaction with their lives. We still don’t know how much worse structural and institutional discrimination can make things for single people.

The Resilience of Single People

In this research, the authors counted as single people who had always been single as well as people who were divorced, separated or widowed. They averaged across all those uncoupled people. That makes sense in a study in which the question is whether people without romantic partners are treated less fairly, and if that singlism and lack of support undermine their well-being.

But the authors also premise their research on the assumption that single people are inferior to couples in their satisfaction with their lives. When people who were previously married are tossed in with the other single people, then that group as a whole does often feel less satisfied, as they did in these studies. People who have always been single, though, are often happier and more satisfied with their lives than people who were once married.

Even when there is a difference favoring people who are currently coupled, it tends to be small. Also, in every study I have ever seen, single people’s happiness and satisfaction are squarely on the happy/satisfied end of the rating scales. None of these studies find that single people, on average, are sad and dissatisfied with their lives, and that typically goes for the previously married people, too.

Another point is important, too. If the single people were less happy because they were single, then getting married should take care of that. But as of 2012, there were already at least 18 longitudinal studies showing that when people marry, they do not become lastingly happier or more satisfied with their lives than they were when they were single. More and more studies published since then have shown the same thing.

The point the authors are trying to make is that single people are less satisfied because they are patronized and unsupported by other people. That’s a lot better than the usual deficit narrative that says that single people aren’t as happy as coupled people because they don’t have a romantic partner.

But if people who stay single often differ very little, if at all, from coupled people (and in some ways, in some studies, do even better), and if getting married does not magically transform supposedly sad single people into couples who live happily ever after, then we do not need to be telling deficit stories about single people. The way I think about it is this: Single people are doing quite well. They are typically happy and healthy. They are thriving despite getting patronized, excluded, massively disadvantaged financially, denied benefits and protections given to married people, and getting treated unfairly in the workplace, the housing market, in medical practices, and many other domains.

That’s not a story of single people’s deficits and inferiority. It is a story of strength and resilience.

Facebook image: Spectral-Design/Shutterstock

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