We Americans – and others, too – often read a lot into marital status. Tell us that those people over there are married and we will assume that they like it that way – they are married because they want to be. Tell us that those other people are single and we make an entirely different assumption – that they are “stuck” being single and what they really want is to become unsingle.
When I write or give talks about single people, I am sometimes asked how many single people wish they were married. When I’m asked that question, I turn it around and suggest that the parallel question also needs to be raised: How many married people wish they were single? Because of our assumptions that married people want to be married, social scientists rarely ask that question directly.
Until now. In a previous post, I told you about Professor Jeffrey Arnett‘s survey of 25-39 year-olds, and his finding that having time to themselves ranked above nine other potential sources of joy in their lives. He and his coauthor also asked married people if they wished they were single and single people if they wish they were married.
I was browsing at Pottery Barn the other day when I overheard one of the other shoppers tell a saleswoman that she was buying something for her brother because “he’s single and doesn’t have any kids and doesn’t get anything” for Christmas. It was one of those many frustrating times when I know I want to say something but don’t come up with it until hours later. (Or maybe I should be grateful I did not think more quickly and proceed to create a scene in the store.)
What bothered me about the shopper’s comment was the pity in it. Holiday seasons seem to be magnets for the pity of people who are coupled and feel sorry for those who are not, and for those who are parents and are just so very sorry for those who have no children.
Here are a few of the things I wish the shopper had realized:
In my last post here, I critiqued a study published in the Harvard Business Review on the ever-popular topic of why fewer women than men reach the positions of greatest power in the workplace. My problem was that the article only addressed the experiences of married people, especially if they were married with children.
Around the same time, Harvard Magazine published the results of a study of their faculty members. Again, “work/life balance” was the topic. (I hate that phrase. Why can’t work be part of your life?) So in the survey, the faculty members were asked how many hours they spent working and how many they spent on household duties.
The December 2014 issue of the Harvard Business Review features an article that has already made the pages of the New York Times. Titled “Rethink what you ‘know’ about high-achieving women,” the piece presents the results of a survey of more than 25,000 graduates of Harvard Business School. The authors focused mostly on the MBAs between the ages of 26 and 67. They wanted to know if they could discover anything new about the gender gap in leadership.
Why do women end up rising to less impressive positions in the workplace than their male counterparts? It is happening even among the elite graduates of Harvard Business School. What’s that about?
[Bella’s intro: I am often contacted by people who would like me to publish their writing as a guest post. Usually, I have to think about it. Is the article really something that would interest “Single at Heart” readers? Is it smart enough? Fresh enough? Not so with today’s guest post. As soon as I read Beth O’Donnell’s witty essay, I knew I wanted to share it. It begins with Rush Limbaugh’s claim, “If single women vote Democrat, then Republicans would be wise to start a dating service.” You just know it is only going to get better after that, and it does! So, enjoy. And thanks, Beth!]
The Affordable Pair Act
Guest Post by Beth O’Donnell
Now that Election Day has come and gone, and we don’t have to bother our pretty little heads about voting and all that boring stuff, it’s time to explore new solutions to the pesky single woman problem.
In case any of us seriously considered it, Rush Limbaugh wants us to know Uncle Sam is not spousal material. Thankfully, Uncle Rush has an idea that singles, especially those of us over 40, might risk heart, head and even go to the polls to support: a GOP dating service. Get us married and get us off the dole. Brilliant!
The title of an intriguing new book, How to Be Alone (reviewed here at PsychCentral) gives away its goal. The author, Sara Maitland, is out to explain to you, in a smart, insightful, culturally and historically grounded way, how you can come to appreciate solitude, even if you are starting from a place of skepticism and fear.
Maitland is a true believer. Substantial stretches of the book are devoted to the rewards of solitude. She lives in part of Scotland where there is no cell phone service and neighbors are few and far between. If that’s all I knew about her, I would have guessed that she is someone who craved time to herself her entire life. But she isn’t. She’s a solitude convert, having come to the experience after growing up in a big family and then marrying and having kids of her own. She stepped into her post-divorce life with trepidation, but now relishes her time alone.
So I wonder: Can anyone come to love solitude? Should they try to, even if their initial reaction to the mere thought of spending time alone is repulsion?
This past October, as I watched the clusters of little Halloweeners wandering the streets of Santa Barbara, I was pleasantly surprised to see that not even one of the girls was dressed as a Princess or a bride. It is no longer news that plenty of moms are wary of seeing their little girls aspire to be princesses, but I wonder if girls themselves are no longer so drawn to that fantasy or if my observations were just a fluke.
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.