“I’ve lived in both worlds,” said a married mother, referring to the fact that she had been single before she got married. She and I and Professor Paul Dolan were guests on a Canadian radio show. We were discussing Dolan’s claims that single women with no kids are the happiest. (I considered whether that is true in a previous post here.) We also talked about singlism and matrimania.
Singlism is the stereotyping, stigmatizing, and marginalizing of single people and the discrimination against them; matrimania is the over-the-top celebrating of marriage, weddings, and couples. I coined both terms and have been researching and discussing them for many years. The married mother disagreed with me that singlism or matrimania even existed. She thought married mothers like her were the disadvantaged ones.
I’ve already responded to her arguments and tried to clear up one of her misunderstandings: singlism and matrimania are about marital status, not parental status. Discrimination against single people, for example, is part of singlism; discrimination against mothers is not, unless they are single mothers.
Here I want to discuss the kind of argument she made repeatedly – that she has spent time being single as well as being married. She did not feel stigmatized as a single woman with no children, and now, as a married woman with kids, she does. Again, her comparison is not the right one for addressing singlism. For that, the question is whether single women without kids are more stigmatized than married women without kids; or whether single mothers experience more stigma than married mothers.
Over the course of the show, she had six opportunities to talk (beyond introductions and good-byes), and she mentioned that she had experience in both worlds (single and married) in three of them. I think this was an important point to her. Maybe it was especially important since I said that I have been single my whole life. I wondered whether she was implying that her opinions should have more credibility than mine, because she had experienced marriage and I had not.
I guess I could have replied that she never experienced what it is like to be 65 and single your entire life – and to have chosen that. Her single life, which lasted a much shorter time and was something she wanted to escape (she got married), was a different experience than mine.
The more important point, though, is this: My statements about singlism and matrimania were not just about my personal experiences or about anecdotes I had collected over the course of two decades of studying and writing about single life. They were based on systematic research. Hundreds of people – and in one instance, hundreds of thousands of people – participated in those studies. Even if the guest on the show really had experienced more stigma as a married person than she had when she was single, her experience, as one person, would not undermine the findings from hundreds of thousands of people.
That’s not to say that individual life experiences are not important or valid. Of course they are. The findings from all scientific studies are based on averages; that means that there are many exceptions. Her experiences could have been among them. Also, individual life experiences sometimes point to factors that were not taken into account in the available studies. That means more research is needed.
For example, it annoys me that when researchers compare currently married people to single people, they almost never ask the single people if they want to be single. The currently married people had a choice – they got married and they are still married, when they could have divorced if they were unhappy in their marriage. Why not compare them to the single people who are choosing to be single?
The issue of personal experience is currently a fraught one. When people from one group try to speak for the members of another group, they are sometimes met with great resistance. The white sociologist, Alice Goffman, learned that lesson when her book about young black men, On the Run, was first met with great praise and then withering criticism. As the Chronicle of Higher Education put it, “Should privileged, white outsiders tell the stories of poor, minority communities?”
It is more complicated with issues of marital status because people such as the woman on the radio show can have personal experience with different marital statuses. Sometimes I really appreciate hearing from people who have been married – especially if their marriage is behind them and they are currently single. How do they experience single life now? I’m interested in individual answers – but I also want to know how generalizable each of those experiences really is. And if I want to know about lifelong singlehood, I want to hear from people who have stayed single their whole lives.