There are so many ways in which single people are treated like they are not as important as married or coupled people. I coined the term “singlism” to refer to the stereotyping, stigmatizing, marginalizing, and discrimination against people who are not married.
Singlism seems to be contagious. It affects not just single people, but the important people in their lives, especially if those people are not romantic partners.
Here are some of the ways and domains in which the people in the lives of single people are treated as “lesser than.” (Let me know if you think of others.)
In Everyday Life, the Important People in the Lives of Unmarried Americans Are Often Excluded
If you are married, invitations to social events routinely include your spouse. If you are unmarried, you might be invited to bring a plus-one if you are in a romantic relationship that other people consider to be serious. Beyond that, it’s iffy. You can’t count on being welcome to bring a friend or relative or anyone else you might like to invite.
Everyday conversations reflect the same values. If you are single and you dated someone for two weeks five months ago, you might be asked if you are still seeing that person. If the answer is no, then you might be asked if there is any other romantic partner in the picture. If you are instead hoping to be asked about your lifelong friends or the other people in your life you care about the most, well, good luck with that.
The Language Used to Describe Single People Erases All the People They Care About
Single people are routinely described as “alone” and “unattached,” even by people who are otherwise open-minded. Those words are practically synonyms for “single.” It is also commonplace to say of single people that they “don’t have anyone.”
Empirically, these assumptions are wrong. Single people have more friends than married people do and they are more connected to their friends, siblings, parents, neighbors, and coworkers. They can be just as deeply attached to the important people in their lives as married people are to their spouse.
Such descriptions of single people are not just wrong, they are rude. They render invisible all the people who matter to people who are single.
Researchers Mostly Ignore the Most Important People in Our Lives, Even When Their Area of Expertise is Relationships
Contemporary social science includes a robust field of relationship studies. Scholars hail from a diverse array of empirical disciplines. There are several academic journals dedicated entirely to research on relationships. That word, “relationships,” is supposed to be a broad one, that extends well beyond marital and other romantic relationships. Yet a systematic study of all articles published in the most relevant journals showed that researchers studying adult relationships overwhelmingly focused on couple relationships.
That seems especially inappropriate at a time when there are more unmarried Americans 16 and older than married ones, when Americans spend more years of their adult lives unmarried than married, when more people have siblings than spouses, and when many friendships last longer than many marriages. Our “social convoys” who sail along beside us throughout our lives often include people such as friends and relatives and maybe some neighbors and mentors and coworkers, but in academic research, all of those kinds of relationships get short shrift compared to romantic and conjugal ties.
The enormous field of attachment research has almost entirely neglected adult attachment relationships other than romantic ones
For decades, psychologists have been studying secure and insecure attachments. The field is now quite sophisticated. Early research focused on children’s attachments to their mothers, then later their fathers. When researchers turned to adult attachment relationships, they were preoccupied with attachments to spouses and other romantic partners. That’s still true. But the few studies that have included other kinds of relationships, such as ties to friends and siblings, have shown that single people often have relationships that qualify in every way as true attachments.
Laws and Policies and Practices: The People We Care About Are Excluded and Unprotected
We cannot always live with the people we care about the most
In a previous column, I discussed the zoning regulations that make it difficult for unmarried Americans to live with the people they care about the most, if those people do not fit the prevailing definition of family. A group of lifelong friends who wanted to live together in Hartford have been trust into a protracted legal battle because, as I noted before:
The definition of family in the Hartford zoning regulations allowed for two or more people “living together and interrelated by consanguinity, marriage, civil union, or legal adoption.” But if the residents are unrelated, only two adults were allowed – unless they were domestic servants. Households could have any number of those.
Even when the laws allow us to live with whomever we want, wherever we want, we still face bias and discrimination
In research Wendy Morris and Stacy Sinclair and I conducted to investigate possible bias in the housing market, we found that rental agents vastly prefer to rent to married couples over pairs of friends. That was so even though we made sure that the friends and the couples were similar in their ages and interests and jobs, and they were all equally positive in what they said about why they were interested in the property.
We do not have equal opportunities to take time off from work to care for the people who are important to us, and they, in turn, do not have equal opportunities to care for us
Research has repeatedly shown that when other people are in need of caregiving, single people are more likely to provide that help than married people are. But sometimes, when we do so, we do not have the same opportunities and protections that married people have. 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.
In Workplaces, Spouses Get Special Treatment. Sometimes Unmarried Romantic Partners Are Valued, Too, But Forget Everyone Else
When workplaces offer health insurance to their employees, sometimes a spouse can be added to the plan at a discounted rate. Unmarried employees are rarely offered anything comparable for the important people in their lives.
Some workplaces go to extraordinary lengths to accommodate the spouse of the person they want to hire. Some universities, for example, make special efforts to find jobs for a candidate’s spouse, even when that might mean that a more qualified candidate is rejected. No such efforts are extended to the non-romantic relationship partners who might be equally important to unmarried candidates.
When a company wants to relocate some of its employees, the assumption is often made that unmarried workers are freer to leave than married people are, since they supposedly have no roots. In fact, though, research has repeatedly shown that single people are more connected to friends and neighbors than married people are. If they were to be relocated, they would probably be leaving more people behind. And, have you ever heard of a company that offered to help with the moving expenses of a close friend, the way they help with the expenses of a spouse?
More informally, many employers seem more willing to accommodate the needs and wishes of their married employees than their unmarried ones, when it comes to matters such as vacation schedules, holiday schedules, work travel, and requests to take time off or leave work early. If a married employee wants to spend Thanksgiving with their spouse, that’s considered a no-brainer, but if an unmarried employee wants to spend the same holiday with close family and friends, that request may or may not be taken as seriously.
We need to push back against all forms of singlism, not just for the sake of single people, but also for all the important people in their lives. After all, who made up the rule that only those people we are (supposedly) having sex with are the only people in our lives who really count?
- I originally wrote a version of this article as a column for Unmarried Equality. Thanks to that organization for the permission to cross-post it here. The opinions are mine and not those of Unmarried Equality.
- Of the many articles in the media about the talk I gave at the American Psychological Association, “What no one ever told you about people who are single,” I think my favorite is this one from New York magazine: “The new science of single people.”