Lots of research, from my lab and labs in other countries, has shown that single people are unfairly stereotyped. Other people see single people as less happy, less secure, lonelier, more self-centered, and as having lower self-esteem than people who are married.
Single people are a diverse bunch. In the United States alone, there are more than 110 million people, 18 and older, who are not married. They differ in all sorts of ways. Perhaps one of the most important ways is that some single people choose to be single, whereas others wish they were married.
Who do you think gets stereotyped the most? Who do you think gets judged more harshly, single people who choose to live single – probably because their single lives are happy lives – or single people who are unhappily single and want to be coupled?
The intuitive answer is that the unhappy single people get more grief than the happy single people. After all, they are the ones complaining about being single, whereas the single people who are single by choice may have all kinds of positive stories to tell about their lives.
That intuitive answer, though, is dead wrong.
In two studies, one from Israel and the other from the U.S., participants were shown brief biographical sketches of people who were single and wanted to stay single and people who were single but wanted to be married or coupled. (Sketches of married or coupled people were included, too.) The single people who were single because they wanted to be single were judged more harshly than the single people who wished they were not single.
Remarkably, the single people who wanted to be single, probably because they were happy with their single lives, were judged as less happy than the single people who wanted to be coupled! They were also judged as less secure, less warm and sociable, more self-centered, and as leading less exciting lives.
In another startling finding, people expressed more anger at the single people who chose to stay single than the single people who were pining to be coupled.
Why do people go after singles who are not complaining about their single lives? Why are they angry at those single people? Why do they look at single people who are happily single, and who are leading the life they want to be leading, and proclaim that they are actually less happy, and leading less exciting lives, than the single people who want to be married?
I think the happy single people are challenging a cherished worldview. Many people – including many single people – want to believe the fairy tales about marriage. They are invested in the idea that if only you find the right person and get married, you will be happier and healthier and live longer, and all the pieces of your life will fall in place.
People who are happily single challenge all that. By choosing to live single, they are refusing to buy what the culture is selling. They are saying: “No, you are not a better person just because you are married. I’m single, I’m happy, and I want to stay single.” Lots of people really don’t want to hear that. It makes them angry. They would prefer to believe that if you are single, you are unhappy and what you want more than anything else is not to be single anymore. The single people who tow that ideological line are the ones who are going to be looked upon more kindly.
Recently at this blog, David P. Crews wrote a two-part guest post describing his single life. David is a single man of many talents and great adventures. But he too often finds that when he describes the experiences that he so enjoys, other people are dismissive. They have nothing to say, or they offer some perfunctory response and then change the subject. David wondered what that was about. I think the studies I described here offer one possible answer.
Some people just do not want to believe that a single life can be a good life – a happy, fulfilling, and exciting life. That threatens their cherished view of the world. So they’d rather talk about something else.
Morris, W. L., & Osburn, B. K. (2016). Do you take this marriage? Perceived choice over marital status affects the stereotypes of single and married people. In K. Adamczyk (Ed.), Singlehood from individual and social perspectives (pp 145–162). Krakow, Poland: Libron Publishing.
Slonim, G., Gur-Yaish, N., & Katz, R. (2015). By choice or by circumstance?: Stereotypes and feelings about single people. Studia Psychologica, 57, 35-48.