It can be a pretty discouraging task – trying to take on the stereotyping, stigmatizing, and discrimination against single people that I call singlism. Plenty of people think it doesn’t even exist, despite the copious evidence and the fact that discrimination against people who are not married is written right into our laws. Just in the federal statutes, there are more than 1,000 instances. Even when people can be persuaded that singlism exists, too many of them dismiss it as insignificant. Who cares if single people do not have the same rights, protections, or benefits as married people, they ask. Let them get married!
On the November 23, 2014 episode of Madame Secretary (“Collateral Damage”), a CBS primetime television show, singlism got taken seriously. A woman who had been a Foreign Service officer her entire life was assigned to Angola. She wanted a post in Europe. She brought her complaint to the Chief of Staff, who at first told her, essentially, to suck it up. She said that the officer was the only person with the relevant skills and experiences to work in Angola. The officer was having none of it – she said she knew why she was given the assignment no one else wanted: because she was a 50-something year old who was single and had no kids.
In the U.S., one of the myths used to try to scare single people into marrying is the threat that they will die alone. In Japan, too, the dramatic increase in the number of single people, and people living alone, has caused a panic. There, anxieties gather not just around the theme of aging alone but also what happens after death – who mourns you? Who tends to your grave? And even more fundamentally, what place will there be for your remains?
Because I have been researching and writing about single life and solo living for so long, I am sometimes interviewed by trend-spotters and marketing firms about what single people want or how best to appeal to them. I respond not because I want to help them sell their products, but because I want to persuade them not to use singlism in their ads but to present positive images of single people instead, and also because I want to encourage practices that are fair to single people.
I admit it – I’m a lapsed Catholic. When I was a child, I was very serious about my Catholicism for a while. I tried to get an aunt who hadn’t been to Mass for a very long time to return to the fold and I used to have a May altar every year, with a statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary and fresh flowers. I can hardly believe I’m admitting this.
My adulthood has been very different. I’ve had very little interest in religion, and I mostly pay attention only when single people get in touch to tell me their stories of feeling excluded or stigmatized by their own religions and places of worship. (Here’s an example.)
So I was surprised when the current Pope, Pope Francis, seemed so different from many of his predecessors. I like his humility, his greater openness toward gays and lesbians, and his relatively enlightened views on evolution. (The “relatively” qualifier is important; Francis is progressive and enlightened only in comparison to his predecessors and many other leaders in the Catholic church.)
Just when you thought that there could never be another big new idea about sex, there is one, and it is way different from just about everything else out there. For years, it has been possible to find all sorts of advice and information about how to have more sex or better sex or different kinds of sex or better positions during sex. The new idea is this: It is okay not to be interested in sex, for a while, or even for the long haul. Once you realize that, you can enjoy a new sort of freedom and understanding. You can still have all the sex you want if that’s what interests you, but you can also feel a whole lot better about those times when you are just not into it.
The show debuted in 1966 and it was an inspiration. The lead actress received “bags and bags of fan mail that came in from women around the country.” I’m talking about That Girl, with Marlo Thomas starring as the single woman who moves to New York City to try to make it as an actress.
It is nearly a half-century later, and people are still marveling at what it achieved. Marlo Thomas recently discussed the show with Gloria Steinem. Here are some highlights.
There is probably no better representation of the diversity of people where you live than the people who get called for jury duty. In the past (at least in my experience), it was easier to wrangle your way out of this obligation, because someone from the courts called you, and all you had to do was come up with some great excuse for why you couldn’t show up. Now the process of getting out of it is more challenging, and you don’t even get out of it if you succeed – you just get deferred.
Happiness and related experiences such as optimism and positive thinking get tons of good press. Americans, especially, seem to find it hard to imagine that anything but good feelings should rule the day. I’m guilty myself. I jump right into that fray whenever someone claims that getting married makes people happier – I critique their claim by examining the original research (and not just the press releases) and showing that there is no solid evidence that getting married makes people lastingly happier. (Links to my many articles and discussions of the topic are here.)
Single women are not evenhanded when it comes to their political preferences. They vote overwhelmingly for Democrats. Republicans have noticed, and in an attempt to attract more of them to the GOP, they created a series of ads. I wonder if they thought long and hard about what kind of message would appeal to single women voters. What they came up with was pure, unadulterated matrimania.
Brittany, a single woman trying on wedding dresses, is the star of the ad. The different dresses are described with the names of different candidates. Brittany loves “The Rick Scott” (Republican candidate) but her mom, the goat of the ad, urges her daughter to go for “The Charlie Crist” (the Democratic candidate) because she knows best. In the end, Brittany and her friends are popping champagne corks in celebration. It all worked out, we learn, because Brittany said yes to Rick Scott. (Different variations of the exact same ads are used in other races, simply substituting the names of the relevant candidates.)
Some of the prevailing beliefs about single people seem so intuitive that it is hard to take seriously the possibility that they are just stereotypes. One of those is that single people are lonely, and that getting married takes care of that. After all, isn’t it obvious that married people “have someone” whereas single people do not?
Over the past decade, studies have been piling up suggesting something quite different. Representative national surveys have shown that single people are more likely to visit, support, contact, and advise their parents and siblings than are married people. Singles are also more likely to encourage, socialize with, and help their friends and neighbors.
The results of studies comparing people of different marital statuses at one point in time are just suggestive. We can’t know from such “cross-sectional” research whether any differences in social ties are really about marital status or about something else connected to marital status (such as age or education or personality or, really, just about anything). Better studies follow the same people over time as, for example, they get married or get unmarried. Do their social connections change?