When I first became attuned to the ways that married and single people were treated differently, I was mostly noticing what I now consider the small stuff. Things like: other people thinking they should feel sorry for single people, or thinking that single people can cover for everyone else at work because they supposedly don’t have a life, or couples going out with their coupled friends for dinners and movies on the weekends, and relegating their single friends to weekday lunches or children’s birthday parties.
Emotionally and interpersonally, those kinds of things are really not so small. But they are perhaps small relative to the many other ways single people are discriminated against in laws that benefit and protect only people who are legally married. Those laws cost single people vast amounts of money, and they leave them and the most important people in their lives vulnerable when they are most in need of help.
And yet, two decades into my study of place of single people in society, I’m still struck, on a day-to-day basis, by not just the small stuff but the very small stuff of singlism (the stereotyping, stigmatizing, and discrimination against single people) and matrimania (the over-the-top hyping of marriage and weddings and coupling). If you were to consider any one instance of this very small stuff, you might just shrug. Even I might just shrug. But the thing is, these tiny reminders that married people are valued more than single people, that they are celebrated and single people are not, are pervasive. They are everywhere, every day. And I think that means that they add up. There is a way of talking about this accumulation of small stuff that has been used in other domains, such as sexism. It is described as getting crushed by a ton of feathers.
Here are a few examples:
I was looking for a recipe to make good use of some wonderful summer tomatoes. My search returned this, from Rachel Ray: “You won’t be single for long vodka cream pasta.” (Rachel Ray, by the way, is also the author of a cookbook called 2, 4, 6, 8: Great meals for couples or crowds. It was published around the same time as my book, Singled Out. When I gave a talk about Singled Out at a Seattle bookstore, the person who introduced me pointed that out.)
I wanted to buy some nice kitchen utensils for a young adult moving into a place of his own. I thought I found the ones I wanted until I noticed the name of them: “Mr. and Mrs. Kitchen Cooking Utensils.”
A person who writes a column about my charming little town of Summerland, California sometimes ends with “one good thing.” Here’s an example: “Linden Avenue on warm weekend evenings – couples and families, bikes and strollers, dogs and kids on skateboards, one big happy mix.” (I added the bolding.) Notice how everyone and every entity, even dogs, count as good things – except for single people. (I don’t think the writer was purposefully trying to dis single people. People don’t even realize what they are doing when they say things like this. It is one of the most important ways that singlism differs from other isms such as racism or sexism – there is very little awareness of it.)
At a Santa Barbara seafood restaurant, I was handed a card that said: “Please fill out this card and help The Endless Summer Bar-café Crew serve you better.” Among the questions on the card was, “When is your anniversary?” (With that question, they don’t want to serve me better – they want to serve married people better.)
Last year, fiverr.com created a competition for a $25,000 prize. The prize money was for a dream wedding.
This year, Real Simple hosted a contest for a wedding package. Many gift items were included in the package, including $2,500 to spend at Bed, Bath, & Beyond and another $1,000 just for stationery. (For #5 and #6, why not offer the money to fund things such as college tuition or a job training program or a down payment on a home or payment of a year’s rent?)
A few years ago, a Japanese railway set aside special seats for couples. Bench seats in the corner of each rail car were designated as “special priority seats for couples.” Another bench seat that sits two people was decorated with romantic images. (Why not instead set aside seats for people who are helping other people, such as the young adult helping his grandmother, who would have trouble riding the rails on her own, or the friend helping her friend who is not feeling well?)
In the media, tragedies are described as particularly tragic if the person who was hurt or killed was married. There are endless examples of this. For example, a headline in a UK paper proclaimed, “British woman who fell to her death from balcony had recently got married.” And another: “As hero died protecting teens in Portland, his wedding ring and backpack were stolen.” (Where are the headlines about the tragic deaths of people who just finished their education after years of study? Where are the stories of the dead hero whose flash drive, containing the only copy of his just-finished book manuscript, was stolen?)
Yes, I know, they all count as very small stuff. But they are all reminders that every day, in so many ways, if you are single, you just don’t matter as much as married people do. And they are all totally gratuitous. Rachel Ray could easily come up with a better name for her vodka cream pasta.