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Pandemic Talk: Everyone Is Worried about Couples and Families

Because Psych Central blogs will be discontinued once Healthline takes over, I have updated this post and published it here.

On CNN recently, the anchors chose to tell the stories of three people in the U.S. who have died of COVID-19. They wanted to spotlight ordinary people, not the celebrities or other well-known people whose deaths are routinely acknowledged.

All three people they chose were married.

Maybe that didn’t mean anything. Maybe if I watched all the time and kept track of all the people whose lives CNN celebrated, single people would be represented in roughly equal numbers.

Family Talk

A few weeks before, a chyron at CNN announced, “Jewel holding concert to help families in need.” So all those single people with no kids – are they not included in Jewel’s largesse?

At the Atlantic magazine, home of many myth-busting articles (including one of my own, challenging conventional wisdom about the loneliness of single people and people living alone), I was crestfallen to find this:

“A global pandemic is a planet-size pause button for public life. The right stimulus ought to press a similarly large pause button to freeze in place the financial well-being of U.S. families and businesses.”

So only the financial well-being of families and businesses matter? All those solo single people, with no spouse to provide a back-up income if theirs disappears – they should just suck it up?

One of my local papers published a story about an area food bank and its efforts to help those in need during the coronavirus outbreak. The caption of the picture published alongside the story explained where “families in need” could find information on receiving free groceries.

Political leaders and candidates are among the worst when it comes to family talk, as I have discussed in detail previously. John Larson, a regular participant in discussions at Unmarried Equality, has a sharp eye for these matters. He shared several examples, including this message he received from his Congressional representative:

I know this is a difficult time for many Minnesota families. As our brave healthcare and public health professionals continue to do heroic work battling this crisis, we in Congress need to make sure we are getting families the resources they need to get by in this crisis. As your representative in Congress, I continue to be laser-focused on this work. [emphasis added]

The federal Coronavirus Response Act, created to expand sick leave when needed for reasons related to COVID-19, is called “Families First.” Is that a way of telling me, right in the title, that as a solo single, I’m a second-class citizen?

Not Just Talk

Talk matters. Conversations, announcements, and policies that use the language of family marginalize solo single people.

Not so very long ago, the pronoun “he” was used routinely to refer to all people, including women. No serious publication does that anymore. The same practice should be adopted with regard to family talk; it should no longer be permissible to talk only about families if you mean to include solo single people, too.

What matters more than language is action. I doubt that my local food bank is turning away solo single people who would otherwise go hungry, despite their message of concern about “families in need.”

When Joan DelFattore looked closely at the Coronavirus Response Act, she found something remarkable:

“Despite its unpromising title, the bill takes a giant step toward inclusiveness by providing paid sick leave not only for employees confined by COVID-19 but also for those “caring for an individual who is subject to governmental or self-quarantine.”

“The word “individual” is groundbreaking because this is the first federal legislation that provides time off to care for people who are not close relatives.”

Each instance of family talk needs to be scrutinized. Sometimes “family” really does mean family in the exclusionary sense.

When I asked other single people for examples, several mentioned the “family meals” currently offered for take-out by many restaurants. That’s happening in my town, too. For example, one restaurant is offering a meal kit for 4 people, with several entrees and several salads, for $60. It is a restaurant I love. Although I am not technically barred from buying a meal kit, it is not exactly suitable for one person living alone, on lockdown. There are no comparable kits for one.

In another example that got mocked on social media, the New York City mayor announced in March that “all Uber, Via and Lyft pool rides in NYC will be banned except for riders who are a “real couple.”” Two single people who are close friends? Roommates? You’re out of luck.

More consequential are the new COVID-19 policies and practices that really do disadvantage single people in big ways, regardless of the language used to name or describe them. Consider, for example, this news item from late March:

“Federal officials have imposed a nationwide halt to foreclosures and evictions for more than 30 million Americans with home mortgages…

“But the federal moratoriums don’t cover more than 40 million renters…”

Married people are more likely to be homeowners who get those protections. Single people are more likely to be renters; if they can’t pay their rent, this regulation won’t help them.

It’s Not that Single People Have No Family

I’m not arguing that solo single people have no family. We all have parents or guardians, and sometimes siblings and cousins and other relatives, too (though for some, all those people are deceased or have no place in their lives). Many of us also have our “families of choice,” the people we regard as family, even if they don’t meet the typical definition.

The important point is that sometimes our families don’t qualify. As another single person who lives alone quipped, it is not as if she can get the discounted “family plan” phone rates.

Just Ignore It?

As is true of just about every example of singlism I’ve ever discussed, there are those who dismiss my concerns. “What’s the big deal about family talk?” they ask. “Just mentally translate ‘family’ into ‘people’ or ‘household,’” they tell me. And they are right. I could do that. But I shouldn’t have to. Just like women no longer have to mentally translate “men” to mean “men and women.”

Pandemic Talk: Everyone Is Worried about Couples and Families

Bella DePaulo, Ph.D

Bella DePaulo (Ph.D., Harvard; Academic Affiliate, Psychological and Brain Sciences, UC Santa Barbara), an expert on single life, is the author of several books, including "Singled Out: How Singles Are Stereotyped, Stigmatized, and Ignored, and Still Live Happily Ever After" and "How We Live Now: Redefining Home and Family in the 21st Century." Her TEDx talk is "What no one ever told you about people who are single." Dr. DePaulo has discussed singles and single life on radio and television, including NPR and CNN, and her work has been described in newspapers such as the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, and USA Today, and magazines such as Time, Atlantic, the Week, More, the Nation, Business Week, AARP Magazine, and Newsweek. Dr. DePaulo is in her sixties. She has always been single and always will be. She is "single at heart" -- single is how she lives her best and most meaningful life. Visit her website at

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APA Reference
DePaulo, B. (2020). Pandemic Talk: Everyone Is Worried about Couples and Families. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 24, 2020, from


Last updated: 18 Sep 2020
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