Have Divorced and Single People Switched Places in How Harshly They Are Judged?
I am old enough to remember a time when people would speak in hushed voices about people who were divorced. They’d say, in disapproving tones, “She’s a divorcee.”
It’s different now. Divorce is commonplace. A nontrivial number of people have been divorced multiple times. Repeatedly-divorced people in the U.S. can get elected President. It just isn’t a big deal.
You know who is still regarded with suspicion? People who have been single all their lives, especially past a certain age. I think they have switched places with divorced people in the hierarchy of condemnation. The way others seem to think about divorced people is that, well, at least someone once loved them. Someone once chose them. In contrast, when they think about lifelong single people, they wonder about them – what must be wrong with them that no one ever wanted to marry them?
That’s just my guess. I don’t know of any research directly comparing judgments of divorced and single people at different points in time. There are, though, several programs of research from my lab and others documenting more negative judgments of single people than married or coupled people. My colleagues and I, for example, found that single people are viewed more negatively than married people. In our studies, we create brief biographical sketches of people that are identical in all ways except that half the time, the people in the sketches are described as single and the other half, as married. Participants think that single people with the exact same background, interests, age, sex, and hometown as married people are less well-adjusted (e.g., less happy, less secure), less socially mature (e.g., more immature, lonelier), and more self-centered and envious. (Those perceptions, by the way, are wrong.) On the more positive side, participants see single people as more independent and career-oriented than married people.
When we specified that the single and married people were either 25 years-old or 40, the single people were judged more harshly at both ages, but especially so at 40. People seem to think that singles have a harder time when they are 40 than when they are 25, but probably the reverse is true.
My colleagues Wendy Morris and Jeanine Hertel and I did some similar research on what other people think of adults who have no romantic relationship experience. We created pairs of brief biographical sketches of male and female twenty-something year-olds. For each pair, everything about the person in the sketches was identical, except that in one version, they were described as having been in at least one romantic relationship in the past, and in the other, they were described as having had no experiences in romantic relationships.
We found that in some ways, the romantic relationship virgins were evaluated harshly. For example, they were viewed as less happy, less well-adjusted, and lonelier than adults of the same age who did have romantic relationship experience. Not all the perceptions are more negative, though. For example, adults who have never been in a romantic relationship are not seen as any more self-centered or envious than those who do have experience in romantic relationships.
Personally, I have a very positive view of some of these people – the ones who have no romantic relationship experience because they just aren’t interested. Maybe they are asexual, maybe not. Maybe they are somewhat interested in romantic relationships, but lots of other life pursuits interest them even more. The name of this blog, “single at heart,” refers to people who live their most meaningful and authentic lives as single people. Some people who are single-at-heart do have romantic relationship experience, but not all of them do. I really admire people who, in a matrimaniacal society, can set aside the very strong cultural expectations and pressures to couple up, and live the lives that are best for them.
The Census Bureau just released figures showing that the number of unmarried Americans has reached an all-time high of 110.6 million. Of those, 63.5% have been single all their lives and 23.1% are divorced. (Another 13.4% are widowed.) As the number of unmarried Americans continues to grow – especially the number who have always been single – perhaps our skeptical and unkind inferences about single people will begin to subside, paralleling what happened with divorced people when divorce became more commonplace.
DePaulo, B. (2017). Have Divorced and Single People Switched Places in How Harshly They Are Judged?. Psych Central. Retrieved on March 20, 2018, from https://blogs.psychcentral.com/single-at-heart/2017/08/have-divorced-and-single-people-switched-places-in-how-harshly-they-are-judged/