Singled out: Why unmarried people are stigmatized in our society

September 13, 2018

Are people who remain single likely to be unappealing loners, who are arrogant, antagonistic, or inflexible?  At one time or another, every person who is unattached has felt the stigma or heard the whispers.

Alternatively, those with close relationships or life partners are apt to say that stereotyping of—and discrimination against —singles in our society does not even exist. A different version of the objection concedes that there are ways in which single people are viewed and treated more negatively than married people, but insists that those instances are so inconsequential that they should simply be ignored.

After all, there are other “isms” that are far more serious than “singlism”—the label given to this form of bigotry by social psychologist, Bella DePaulo, Ph.D., who is the author of  the book Singled Out (published by St. Martin’s Press).

She points out, “In many important ways, singles are simply not in the same category as the most brutally stigmatized groups. So far as I know, no persons have ever been dragged to their death at the back of a pick-up truck simply because they were single. There are no “marrieds only” drinkingfountains and there never were. The pity that singles put up with is just not in the same league as the outright hatred conveyed to blacks by shameless racists or the unbridled disgust heaped upon gay men or lesbians by homophobes.”

And singles are by no means a minority: More than 40% of the nation’s adults—over 87 million people—are divorced, widowed, or have always been single.  There are more households of single people living alone than of married parents and their children

And yet, singlism can be quite serious, Dr. De Paulo says in the an article posted on September 9 on the site of Psychology Today.. It can be dangerous, and even deadly.

In part because of laws, policies, and practices that favor married people and couples over single people, the costs of living single can be staggering, she points out. For example, married people, with all their opportunities to draw from their spouse’s benefits, can get far more out of Social Security than single people do. Housing costs, healthcare costs, and taxes are higher for single people. According to one estimate, just those four categories alone can cost single women, over the course of their working lives, over a $1 million more than what married women pay.

In many other ways, too, the price of single life is high. Married men, for example, get paid more than single men. In a study of identical twins, the married twin got paid an average of 26% more. That will cost the single man with a $50,000 salary more than $500,000  over the course of his working life.

In everyday life, single people are penalized financially at every turn. They often pay more per person than married people do for products and services such as car insurance, home insurance, memberships, transportation, travel packages, and even wills.

But even when single people have great health insurance, and access to the finest doctors, they still do not always get the finest care. A single woman told Dr. DePaulo, “When I was 25, I was suffering from severe menstrual problems … to the point where I asked for a hysterectomy. I was refused because I was single and ‘might want to have kids someday.’ So I suffered … for 20 more years.”

Do men respect single women’s bodies and their dignity less than those of married women? In the workplace, the author claims, both single and married women experience sexual harassment—but single women experience it more. In a 2017 Suffolk University survey, 42% of women who had always been single said that a co-worker had made unwanted sexual advances, compared to 30% of married women.

In some businesses, single people are expected to stay later, or cover weekends, holidays, vacation times, or travel assignments that no one else wants, on the assumption that they don’t have anyone and they don’t have a life. When it comes to relocating employees or laying them off, employers sometimes look first to single people—not recognizing that many have roots where they are and do not have a spouse’s income to fall back on if they lose theirs.

“Elsewhere, I … have documented singlism in religionbusiness, advertisingresearch and teachingtherapy, the military, and popular culture,” DePaulo says, adding, “Single parents and their childrenare also a great big target of singlism that is sometimes mean-spirited as well as ill-informed.”

If you still think that singlism just doesn’t matter, and no one should take it seriously, let’s imagine that the tables were turned. Let’s say that all the ways in which single people are stereotyped, stigmatized, marginalized, and discriminated against happened to married people instead. Do you think married people would just shrug it off?

On the first page of her book, Dr. DePaulo imagines a world in which married people get the singles treatment:

  • When you tell people you are married, they tilt their heads and say things like “Aaaawww” or “Don’t worry honey, your turn to divorce will come.”
  • Every time you get married, you feel obligated to give expensive presents to single people.
  • When you travel with your spouse, you each have to pay more than when you travel alone.
  • At work, the single people just assume that you can cover the holidays and all the other inconvenient assignments; they figure that as a married person, you don’t have anything better to do.
  • Single employees can add another adult to their health care plan; you can’t.
  • When your single co-workers die, they can leave their Social Security benefits to the person who is most important to them; you are not allowed to leave yours to anyone—they just go back into the system.
  • Candidates for public office boast about how much they value single people. Some even propose spending more than a billion dollars in federal funding to convince people to stay single, or to get divorced if they already made the mistake of marrying.

If that world existed, it would not last long.

All serious forms of prejudice and discrimination go through a similar process of going unrecognized, then getting dismissed and belittled once people start pointing them out, and in the best cases, eventually getting taken seriously, she points out in her article in Psychology Today.

Dr, DePaulo concludes, “One of the problems is that these matters are not just about the facts and all the ways that racism and sexism and singlism and all the other ‘isms’can be documented with data. They are also about emotions and ideologies and people’s beliefs about the place they think they deserve in the world. I think there will be progress in getting singlism taken seriously, but it may be slow and unsteady, with setbacks as well as advances.”

Research contact: @belladepaulo

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