Saturday, July 3, 2004

One is not the loneliest number

Tired of the constant pressure to find a mate and the
discrimination they say dogs them at work, single
people have launched a counterattack.

She can handle sitting at the "singles" table at weddings. She has even become inured to her Jewish family's astonishment that she's over 30 and still isn't married. But when it comes to work, Torontonian Lisa gets her back up.

"It's the 30-per-cent single discount for employers." she complains. "It's always acceptable to stay home with your sick, or even just upset kid, but it's not, say, acceptable to take time off work to take your cat to the vet -- unless his leg got ripped off." In fact, being single has actually cost her a promotion, says Lisa, speaking on condition she not be identified. The nod went instead to a co-worker who is the same age -- but married. "I'm smart and talented, but she's considered more mature, so she got the job."

Lisa says she also has observed other singles picking up the slack for colleagues with family responsibilities and yet being docked pay for taking time off themselves to, say, mourn a breakup.

When her cat went missing, she didn't dare to leave and go looking for it. "I have a good boss, and maybe I could have," she says. "But you feel like that isn't acceptable, like they'd think, 'Oh, she's just drunk from partying the night before.'

"Of course, kids are more important than cats. But not in my world."

According to Statistics Canada, the 2001 census found 7,947,745 adult Canadians who have never married (compared with 23,799,050 who have), and Lisa is hardly the only one among them who feels hard done by.

Most any single can rattle off a litany of complaints: travel packages that give couples a break, two-for-one discount coupons, family reductions for insurance and health clubs. Just last week election talk in Canada was preoccupied with the "soccer mom" demographic; it rarely focuses on the wants and needs of the singleton.

Yes, single people have long grumbled about being second-class citizens -- and pop culture from Sex and the City to Bridget Jones's Diary has mined the same vein -- but the grumbling is fast becoming a roar. And it's getting political. Now that gay marriage has made such inroads so quickly, single people are taking the clamour up a notch as they begin to look like the last "minority."

South of the border, this new activism -- the singles lobby -- has kicked up enough dust to attract academic attention.

An organization called Unmarried America (UA) and its umbrella group, the American Association of Single People (AASP), are campaigning for a thorough examination of just how much equity exists in everything from spousal benefits at work and discrimination against singles who are hunting for a home to tax credits for married people and social benefits that singles help to pay for but rarely get to enjoy.

To express their viewpoint, those flying solo have such venues as the UA's Web site ( and publications including Singles magazine (also on-line at But the Web log is perhaps the brashest outlet for ordinary singles, who often hesitate to share their beefs with bosses and married friends for fear of being branded whiners.

Some blog writers aren't afraid to drop the gloves with the family-values set. Responding to a married man who'd questioned his rant about how society subsidizes families, Michael Williams ( writes: "But your responsibilities as a father are incidental to the workplace, and irrelevant to your co-workers. Why should they bear any burden because of your choice in lifestyle? You should bear the entire cost of that yourself."

Rather than complain, many singles decide just to tough it out. "They think, 'I'll put up with it for a while, and then I'll get married and get the benefits,' " AAASP executive director Thomas Coleman told The Wall Street Journal last week.

Anne, a Toronto interior designer, agrees that being married can be helpful in the workplace. "I have more to talk about with clients. . ." she says, adding: "It shows a maturity. And when you're developing business, you need things to relate to. Marriage and kids. Even though I don't have any, they know one day I will. It's a level playing field. It's all about having things in common. I had no idea this was the case when I was single."

Bella DePaulo, a visiting professor of psychology at the University of California, Santa Barbara, who is writing a book tentatively titled Singled Out, calls such pro-marriage discrimination "singlism." It's time, she says, for the unmarried to stand up and be counted, and she bristles at the notion that singles are immature, selfish and somehow lesser beings, noting their tendency to work late and take on travel assignments so married co-workers can enjoy family time.

In an op-ed piece published in The New York Times two weeks ago, Dr. DePaulo chastises U.S. political leaders for neglecting the single demographic, citing a comment MSNBC personality Chris Matthews made to Ralph Nader about U.S. President George Bush: "He's raised two daughters; he's had a happy marriage. You've never been married. Isn't he more mature in his lifestyle than you are?"

She also tells the story of a woman in Victoria, B.C., who joined a couples hiking club with her husband. When he died, she was expected to complete the year and then bow out. "What's 'couple-y' about hiking?" asks Dr. DePaulo. She blames all this on what she calls "the cult of the couple," explaining that "we've made a myth out of the fantasy . . . It's not normal. It's not what the couple has been in society throughout history."

According to Dr. DePaulo, back in the 1600s, the family was primarily an economic unit and important for functions as education, religion and care of the needy. But with the rise of such things as public education, health care and industrialization, the model changed. By the 1920s, emotional closeness and sexual intimacy had become central to the meaning of marriage, which as a result came to be overvalued while other profound relationships such as friendship and sibling relationships began to fade.

"So, we created this idea that we get our deepest meaning and fulfilment from one person," she says. "We invest all of our emotional stock in one person and then hope it's not Enron. We know that one out of every two investments is a junk bond."

Meanwhile, marriage age is going up, the divorce rate is high and divorced women are less likely to remarry. Now people, women especially, will spend more of their lives single than married.

So, toughing it out until marriage may not be such a great strategy. "We think of singlehood as that transition to the true stable life," Dr. DePaulo says. "It's not. Marriage is the transition between stages of singlehood."

But tell that to the smug married people out there. When Torontonian Kate last broke up with a boyfriend, she noticed that dinner invitations dried up. "I asked a couple of these friends what the problem was, and basically it was that they are used to even numbers around a table and my singledom presented a problem to them."

Anne says that she can see clearly how she was treated as a single only now that she's married. "I wasn't invited to most of my married friends' dinner parties, and now I am -- I definitely know that. Now, I tend to invite couples over. You worry that, if you invite singles, they'll be the odd one out."

Jennifer Febbraro, a Toronto writer with roots in Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., turned her experience as a single woman in an Italian-Canadian family into Apologia for Singledom, a humorous essay in a new collection by Maria Coletta McLean entitled Mamma Mia! Good Italian Girls Talk Back (ECW Press).

Being single in an Italian family, she writes, is like wearing a bright red nose to the opera. "The unmarried inevitably endure a social cramp under the vice-grip that is compulsory couplehood. However, the plight of the single girl is significantly more tragic if she is a member of an Italian family.

"It really wasn't until I went home to the Soo, where my father's family immigrated in 1950, that I became hyper-aware of my oddity. There I was, a lone unicorn walking the plank while all the other animals boarded the ark two by two. I was greeted by a host of cloying endearments: 'You will meet someone soon.' 'Your time has not yet come.' 'Everything will work out as it should.' 'We will keep you in our prayers.' "

Although it too is lighthearted, a new Toronto-based magazine further enshrines the ark motif. It's called 2: The Magazine for Couples. Amid advertising for such couple-friendly folks as Caban, The Bay, Nissan SUVs and china companies, a piece called Instructions for Living: How to Break Up With a Single Friend confirms what many singles already suspect.

"Each time the singleton calls to plan a night of bar cruising and frivolity, tell him or her that you have plans with a partner (something absolutely cancel-able, like watching the umpteenth showing of The Prince of Tides on the Movie Network). And whenever you are the planner of a soirée, go ahead and invite the single pal: Just make sure to subtly point out that the rest of the guest list comprises couples. . . If all else fails, try to push the singleton into a cohabitation agreement of his or her own. Nothing says 'for God's sake get hooked up, already' like frequent set-ups and blind-date offers."

Despite all the pro-couple bias, some singles are finding ways to fight back. For example, one long-term bachelor has learned how to beat the table-by-the-toilet curse that besets many single restaurant diners. While in France, he made a reservation at a Paul Bocuse restaurant for two. When he showed up solo, the maitre d' said, "Mais monsieur, le réservation est pour deux," to which he replied, "Oui, madame est mal à la tête," and enjoyed his fine dinner at a fine table.

In fact, says Bella DePaulo, contrary to popular belief, singles who never marry are actually happier and healthier than those who do -- and a 1992 Canadian study of more than 11,000 people found that never-married women were the healthiest of all.

But changing the prevailing attitude is going to take much time and effort, as Dr. DePaulo discovered when she presented a draft of her book to some potential publishers. "I would get responses like, 'Wow, it changed the way I think about the world. It was provocative, it was interesting.'

"But then they'd say: 'But we don't want to buy it because we think most singles only want to read about how to find a mate.'"