Single people get judged much more harshly than married people do. My colleagues and I discovered this when we created pairs of brief biographical sketches that were identical in every way, except that in one of the sketches, the person was described as single and in the other, as married. The single person and the married person in each pair had the same name, the same age, the same hometown, the same hobbies – the same everything, except for marital status.
That one difference was enough to unleash a torrent of stereotypes. The single person in the pair was typically judged to be less happy, less secure, lonelier, more self-centered, more envious, and more of every other damning trait except for independence. The participants in our studies usually viewed the single person as more independent than the married one.
Other researchers studying stereotypes of single people in other countries have documented the same kinds of biases. Single people get slammed everywhere they’ve been studied.
It is easy to generate explanations that blame the people who are putting down single people, and those explanations may well be true at least some of the time. Maybe, for instance, if they are coupled, they consider themselves superior to single people. Or maybe they are threatened by them. Or envious of them.
But there is an entirely different kind of explanation that assumes no bad motives and no bigotry. It is what sociologists call “cultural lag.” Things are changing rapidly, and our perceptions simply have not kept up.
The age when people in the U.S get married for the first time
Consider this: In 1956, the median age at which men got married for the first time was 22.5. For women, it was 20.1. That means that half of all women were under 20 years old when they got married. They were teenagers!
Now, the median age is about 27.8 for women and almost 30 for men (29.8). That means that among all the men in the U.S. who get married for the first time, half of them are older than 30!
That makes a huge difference. To be single in your 30s and beyond is a whole different experience when tons of people are getting married as teenagers, as they were in 1956, compared to when tons of people are single into their 30s, as they are now.
Research confirms that the experience of being single was different several decades ago than it is now. Single people today are a lot happier than they were in 1996. Similarly, in 1996, people without a romantic partner were lonelier than married people or people with a committed romantic partner. Now, there is not much difference. (That is particularly remarkable because studies like these are biased against single people. They toss the widowed and divorced people in with the lifelong single people, even though previously married people are typically lonelier and less happy than people who have never married.)
The harsh views of single people that are commonplace today are closer to what it was like to be single a long time ago. Single people were not as lonely or as unhappy as today’s stereotypes suggest, even then, but they were lonelier and less happy than they are now.
The number of single people has increased dramatically over the past half-century. What it means to be single has changed, too – mostly for the better. Perceptions, though, have not caught up. There’s a cultural lag. That’s why single people can get stereotyped even by people who are not bigots and hold no ill-will.