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How Claims about Supposed Shortcomings of Single Life Can Result in Real Harm

As a 66-year-old who has lived single my entire life, and as a scholar who has studied single people for decades, I feel like I am constantly trying to defend myself, and other single people, against claims that we are all basically deficient. And that science shows that, so we have to just suck it up.

I have written dozens of articles and blog posts debunking the latest study supposedly demonstrating still another way in which we single people are inferior, and implying that if only we would get married, we could finally be as good as those coupled people. I’ve devoted chapters, and entire books, to taking apart the entire enterprise.

I am tired of it. Every couple of months, I promise myself that I am never going to kick at that door ever again. But recently, I got riled up by some new research premised on the same old deficit narrative of single life. That got me thinking about the ways in which presumptions of deficiency, especially when perpetrated under the banner of science, can cause real harm to single people.

I wrote about that for Unmarried Equality, and the organization gave me permission to share this version of my article at this “Single at Heart” blog. Below are the key points I made. The views are my own, and not the official positions of Unmarried Equality.

The deficit narrative can cost single people their rights.

Research findings can be used to justify legal discrimination against particular groups. Consider, for example, the early sordid history of research on homosexuality. Under the banner of science, psychologists maintained that homosexuality was a sickness. They said that homosexuals just weren’t as mature as “normals.” They said homosexual acts were unnatural and uncommon. Homosexuality was included as a diagnosable mental illness in the official Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). It wasn’t removed until 1973.

By 1975, the American Psychological Association (APA) took back the sickness narrative that had been perpetuated by many of its members. In a statement, the organization said: “Homosexuality, per se, implies no impairment in judgment, stability, reliability, or general social or vocational capabilities.”

That was important. It was a big step forward. But lots of damage had already been done.

As Phillip Hammack and Eric Windell explained in “Psychology and the politics of same-sex desire in the United States”:

“the majority of psychological research prior to 1975 had supported (and in fact, helped to construct) a master narrative of abnormality with regard to homosexual behavior and identity, thus upholding the rationale of the sodomy statutes.” Those laws “explicitly criminalized same-sex behavior.”

The 1975 APA statement was a hard pivot in the direction of supporting, rather than undermining, the dignity and the rights of gay men and lesbians. The organization went on to provide scientific support for the proponents of marriage equality.

For example, in the 2010 ruling overturning Proposition 8, Judge Vaughn Walker declared that same-sex couples could no longer be banned from marrying in California. In making his case, he repeated those familiar misleading claims about the supposed superiority of married people over single people:

“Married people “are physically healthier. They tend to live longer. They engage in fewer risky behaviors. [They are] less likely to have psychological distress” than people who are not married.”

That was good for opening the doors of marriage to more people. But it kept the door shut to equality for unmarried Americans. And it did so based on claims that are at best misleading, and at worst, just plain wrong.

The deficit narrative is used as fodder for pro-marriage campaigns that hurt single people and their families.

The disparaging of single-parent families also has a long and shameful history, and political leaders from both ends of the spectrum have had a part in it. One of the most notorious examples was the 1965 Moynihan Report, in which terms such as “tangle of pathology” were used to characterize single-parent black families.

Today’s champions of stigmatizing single-parent families, and any individuals or families other than the married-with-children variety, are the marriage fundamentalists. In a ground-breaking report, the Family Story think tank documented the extensive, organized, and generously funded efforts of at least 14 institutions to reward and celebrate just that one kind of family, and stigmatize and maybe even punish every other variety.

Previously, I’ve discussed the costs of the marriage fundamentalist agenda to some of the most disadvantaged single people and their children. Here is one example:

“A chilling “success” racked up by the marriage fundamentalists involved taking economic support from poor children and channeling it into marriage promotion and marriage education programs marketed to adults. As the report notes, marriage fundamentalism “drove the repeal of Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) – a social-security program that provided an income floor for eligible low-income children – and established marriage promotion as an explicit federal program.” Since then, marriage promotion programs have been the proud recipients of more than 2 billion dollars in funding. The results of those programs have been underwhelming.”

The marriage fundamentalists draw extensively from the deficit narrative of single life, especially the research they characterize as showing that the children of single people are basically doomed. (They aren’t.)

The deficit narrative can cost single people their lives.

Recent research on judgments of who is most deserving of live-saving organ transplants produced results that were devastating for people who are not married. In three studies in which married and unmarried patients were equally qualified for a transplant, medically, the married patients were more likely to be recommended.

I fear that the deficit narratives about the lives of people who are single feed into judgments like these, judgments that can cost single people their lives. After all, if single people really are sad and lonely (they’re not), then why not prioritize the lives of those blissfully happy married people, with their better quality of life?

In another disturbing series of deeply researched articles (such as this one in the New England Journal of Medicine), Professor Joan DelFattore has described the bias among oncologists of offering less aggressive treatment to their single patients. They often do so based on deficit narratives – for example, that people without a spouse will not have the support they will need, or that single people just don’t have that fighting spirit that married people do. Again, their presumptions are defied by the actual lives of many people who are single (who may have whole networks of support) and even some who are married (who may have only a spouse who is unable or unwilling to help, and no one else). And again, their embrace of popular deficit narratives, that are bandied about so blithely, can cost single people their lives.

History tells us that these deficit narratives do not end well

Single people are not the only group unfairly portrayed as deficient by research labeled as scientific. Early social science writings on people of color as well as gay men and lesbians, for instance, also peddled deficit narratives. I doubt that anyone looks back on that work with pride.

How Claims about Supposed Shortcomings of Single Life Can Result in Real Harm


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," https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lyZysfafOAs. 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 www.BellaDePaulo.com.


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APA Reference
DePaulo, B. (2020). How Claims about Supposed Shortcomings of Single Life Can Result in Real Harm. Psych Central. Retrieved on July 8, 2020, from https://blogs.psychcentral.com/single-at-heart/2020/05/how-claims-about-supposed-shortcomings-of-single-life-can-result-in-real-harm/

 

Last updated: 6 May 2020
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