I’ve been writing, researching, advocating, and speaking about single life for two decades. It is my passion. A question I get asked often is, how did you get interested in this?
When I identify other people who are passionate about single life, especially as change-agents, I ask them if they will answer a series of questions about how they came to care about the issue, what is especially important to them, and so forth. (Here are the interviews I have conducted so far.)
When Kate Bolick interviewed me for her wildly popular Atlantic cover story, All the single ladies, she asked if I would answer the same questions I had asked the others. Then a week or so later, a friend from graduate school read Singlism, and she also wondered whether I would answer those questions. So I typed out my answers for them. I thought some “Single at Heart” readers might be interested, so I’ve updated a few things where appropriate, and I’m sharing my answers with you now. (If you have suggestions for other people who should be part of my “single-minded change agents” series, let me know.)
- Question: Let’s start with the personal. Is there something that happened in your life, or in someone else’s, that really brought home to you the need for change? I’m talking about change on any level – the way we think about people who are single in everyday life; the place of singles in the workplace, in the law or in public policy; or anything else that seems relevant. Do you have a story you can tell about this?
For years, I kept a secret file folder of observations of what I would later call singlism. Some of them were stories in the media. Others were my personal experiences. The thing about my personal experiences, though, is that I really didn’t know if they had anything to do with the fact that I was single, or whether there was some other explanation entirely.
For example, when I first started at a new job, my colleagues invited me to lunch during the week, but over the weekends, the couples would socialize only with other couples. Were they excluding me because I was single or because they didn’t want to spend time with me (and felt obligated to include me during the week when they left from work to go out to lunch)? When job candidates came to visit and my married colleagues asked me to cover the times with the candidates that no one else wanted, were they doing that because I was single and they figured that I didn’t have a life like they did? In any one instance involving just one person, there is no way to ever know for sure.
After a while, I started asking other single people – very tentatively at first – whether they had any experiences like mine. The first time I did this was at a social event, and I approached just one other single person. She could totally relate. Then someone else joined the conversation, and she had her own stories. Then another person, then some more people stepped into the growing circle. We talked for as long as the event lasted. The next morning, I turned on my email and found messages that said, “Oh, and another thing!”
At the next social event, I tried the same thing – asking just one single person if she had any experiences like mine. The same thing happened. Another person heard what we were discussing, then another joined in, then some others. (They weren’t all women.)
I had a trip coming up and so I tried the same thing in an entirely new place. Same experience. That’s when I realized that this was not just some quirky thing about me. It was something that resonated with lots of other singles, who seemed very eager to discuss it. I knew then that it was time to write a book about this.
- Question: Is there one particular issue or goal that is especially important to you as you try to create social change?
Creating the kinds of changes that would improve the lives of singles in concrete, measurable ways would be great. For example, it would be wonderful if singles had the same access to Social Security benefits, tax breaks, and affordable health insurance as married couples do. In my heart of hearts, though, what I really want most to achieve is old-fashioned consciousness-raising. I’d love it if all single people – and coupled people, for that matter – just took it for granted that living single is a perfectly acceptable life option. It is not something that begs for an explanation, any more than living married does.
We’re not there yet. Think about what happens now when someone – especially someone in the spotlight – commits an act of racism or sexism. They are immediately pounced upon. Their arm is twisted and turned until they finally yell “uncle.” They just have to apologize or the pain never ends.
Acts of singlism occur routinely, in just about every domain of public and private life, and yet hardly anyone is called on for practicing that unfair stereotyping and discrimination against singles. There was one wisp of an exception a few years ago when Janet Napolitano was first being considered by President Obama to be the Secretary of Homeland Security. Former Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell chimed in with this: “Janet’s perfect for the job,” he said. “Because for that job, you have to have no life. Janet has no family. Perfect. She can devote, literally, 19, 20 hours a day to it.” Now that got attention! Gail Collins wrote a great op-ed about it in the New York Times. It was discussed in the MSM and all over the web. Even so, plenty of people thought it was a dopey issue and some refused to engage at all. I think I remember Mika Brzezinski on Morning Joe dismissively waving it away, the way she would never blow off a high-profile instance of sexism.
- Question: In your experience of trying to persuade skeptics of the importance of fair treatment for singles, or accurate perceptions of them, is there any particular example or line of reasoning that seems to be especially effective?
I’ve thought about this a lot. I couldn’t help thinking about it when some people who have made it their life’s work to study other varieties of discrimination acted like it was just ridiculous to take singlism seriously.
In my experience so far, what seems to work best is the strategy of turning the tables. In fact, I came to like it so much that I used it in the opening paragraphs of my book, Singled Out.
- Question: One difficulty I’ve often encountered is the misperception that if you have a positive message about singles or single life, that necessarily means that you are putting down marriage or traditional family life. Have you run into that, and if so, how have you dealt with it?
Happily, my readers include couples as well as singles, and they give me a hard time if they think I am bashing couples or married people. So every so often I address that issue directly. The post, “Even more than single life, this is about authenticity and choice,” is one example.
- Question: So much of the cultural and political discussion around marital status is about people who are officially married compared to couples who are unmarried – whether same-sex or not. I know that many uncoupled singles feel left out of that conversation, and they find that inappropriate. Is that a tension you’ve faced? What are your thoughts on creating change on behalf of all legally single people, regardless of whether or not they are socially coupled?
I tend to get the opposite complaint. Because I focus so much on people who are socially single (uncoupled) and not just legally single, sometimes unmarried couples think I don’t pay enough attention to them.
- Question: Can you describe an especially positive or memorable experience you’ve had in your role as a single-minded change agent? It doesn’t have to be a big thing – it could be something small but especially meaningful or poignant.
The most touching experiences are all the personal notes of thanks I get from readers. What they express most, in addition to gratitude, is relief. Some tell me that for years or even decades, they have worried that there is something wrong with them because they are not married. They tell me that after reading my work (or hearing me talk), they realize for the first time that single is who they really are, it is what they want to be, and that’s just fine.
These notes have come to me in all sorts of ways. There are the handwritten letters sent by snail mail – and those do not come just from older singles. There are the emails, of course, and the comments contributed to blog posts. Then there are the people who stop me in the hallway after I’ve given a talk about singles, and look at me and say “thank you” in a way I have never experienced in my decades of giving talks about my other area of expertise, the psychology of deceiving and detecting deceit.
I was also very honored to have been invited to give a TEDx talk. (You can find “What no one ever told you about people who are single” here.)
- Question: Over time, hundreds (maybe even thousands) of people will read this interview, and many of them care deeply about the topic of living single. I want to offer you the opportunity now to say whatever you’d like to them. It could be a story, an observation, a piece of advice, or anything else at all.
Live your single life fully, joyfully, and unapologetically.