November 21, 2004
By Bella De Paulo, Ph.D.
In a country that has lived through decades of
struggles over civil rights and has an organization for almost any cause,
there remains a group of 86 million Americans who are practically
invisible. They are in cities and towns coast to coast, adults of all
sizes, shapes and ages. Yet except as nubile mate-seekers in TV shows like
"Sex and the City" or "The Bachelor," they are hardly ever noticed in the
news, in popular culture or in policy debates. They are people who are
"Nightline" keeps these Americans out of sight in its broadcast about
seriously wounded soldiers whose lives have changed forever: "That means
that the lives of their spouses are changed forever too." The New Yorker
is not thinking about them when it calls its column of restaurant reviews
"Tables for Two." A political ad proclaiming how "troubling" it is that
John Kerry has opposed tax relief for married couples, assumes no equal
right for citizens who are divorced, widowed or have always been single.
When singles' friends marry and then socialize mostly with other couples,
the slight is mindlessly condoned. An MSNBC web feature called The Knot,
for example, offers this pearl: "Most married couples gravitate toward
other married couples. It makes for a nice, even number."
The pressure to be paired is so relentless that single people sometimes
will hide themselves, as when they bring a boor to a holiday party so as
not to appear (horror!) single. Or they just stay home.
This shunning of singles, and its flip side - the fetishizing of
couplehood - seems to be getting worse. Consider:
Why do so many television series end with a wedding? That's not how "MASH"
Why did all four stars of "Sex and the City" end up coupled? Mary Tyler
Cathy has graced the comic pages as a singleton for nearly a quarter of a
century. Why is she now biting the marital dust?
In reality shows of decades past, such as "Queen for a Day," the lucky
contestant might win a washing machine. Now she gets a bachelor.
All of this is happening at a time when married life takes up a smaller
portion of our adult lives than ever. The age at which people first marry
(if they marry) has grown steadily since the late 1950s, and the divorce
rate is far higher now than it was then. Single-person households are more
numerous than households of mom, dad and the kids. People who are not
married represent more than 40 percent of the adult population.
Some will object out that of the 86 million official single people, 11
million are co-habiting, which is really the same as being married. But
then, how many people listed as officially married are living as if they
were, or wish they were, single? We don't know, but it's got to be a
One certainty is that marriage has less significance in our lives than it
did decades ago. Sex outside of marriage is commonplace. Many women who
want to live independently and even have children outside of marriage can
pick up the check at work and the sperm at the bank.
That, I think, is a big part of the reason why matromania is at a fever
pitch. For many who, years ago, chose the expected life path of marrying
very young, having children and staying married, the new normal is
unfamiliar and unnerving. Each new television show and movie plot that
fetishizes marriage is a quiet but desperate plea for a return to a time
that, at least in our minds, was safer and more certain.
To keep people grasping at the diamond ring at a time when marriage is
increasingly inessential requires the two-pronged approach of aggrandizing
marriage and demeaning singlehood. Stereotypes of singles suggest that
single people are miserable, lonely, immature, irresponsible, promiscuous
The fact that most singles are nothing of the sort rarely troubles those
who would perpetuate the stereotypes. Here, for example is an observation
by psychologist E. Mavis Hetherington, who devoted her career to the study
of people who divorce. Women who stayed single after their marriages
ended, she noted, "accompanied one another to important medical
appointments, did volunteer work for charity organizations, devoted time
to their children and parents."
Was Hetherington then forced to conclude that these single women were
selfless? On the contrary. "Helping others gave women a way to feel good
If singles can be kept on the defensive about their single status, then
discrimination against them can proceed unchallenged. Workplace
discrimination, for example, is rampant. The assumption that singles don't
have a life and therefore can cover for couples is just the beginning.
Because married workers can add their spouse to some benefit plans at
discounted rates, their total compensation package can be substantially
greater than that of single colleagues in the same job. Married men are
often paid more than single men, even when benefits are not included and
credentials are comparable.
There is even legalized discrimination at the time of death. Social
Security benefits earned by a married worker can be paid to a spouse; the
same benefits earned by a single worker go back into the system.
Singles underwrite the lives of couples in other ways too. When couples
enjoy discounted rates for club memberships, travel packages and car
insurance, they are subsidized by singles who pay full price.
Securing equality for singles will require changes at many levels. The
U.S. Civil Rights Commission and Equal Opportunity Commission, for
example, are charged with safeguarding against discrimination based on
race, religion, sex, age, national origin or disability. To get marital
status into the mix will take collective action, as is being spearheaded
by groups such as the American Association for Single People. In the
workplace, benefits could be distributed cafeteria style, such that all
employees have access to the same dollar value and can choose the benefits
that are most relevant to their lives.
In everyday life, singles can stand up for themselves by living their
lives fully and openly, showing up at the polls so that government will
take them seriously, and resisting any implication that all they care
about is finding a mate.
My position is not anti-family or anti-child. I am against giving tax
breaks or other rewards to two fully-grown, competent, able-bodied adults
just because they are coupled. At the same time, I am happy to subsidize
those who provide care to people who really cannot care for themselves. I
include in the latter category not just children but the disabled,
seriously ill and elderly who need help.
Those who believe the stereotypes fear that the growing number of singles
puts society at risk for rampant individualism. I think it holds the
promise for quite the opposite.
Whereas married people invest most of their emotional and interpersonal
capital in just one other adult (and hope that the person does not turn
out to be Enron), single people are more likely to maintain a diversified
relationship portfolio. To many single people, friends are not "just"
friends; relatives, neighbors and colleagues have important places in
their lives. If a singles rights organization wrote the Family and Medical
Leave Act, people other than just spouses, children and parents would be
deemed worthy of care.
Full equality for singles is an idea that meets with with considerable
resistance. It asks that we set aside our faith that there is just one
road to a meaningful life: Find your soulmate and you will be fulfilled
and complete and live happily ever after.
This is a difficult myth to resist, posing as it does as the ultimate
embodiment of the American dream. People who choose to stay single -
especially those living full and happy lives - are a threat to the myth.
They need to be concealed and caricatured and denigrated so our fantasy
can live on.
M. DePaulo (pictured above) is writing "Singled Out," to be published by
St. Martin's Press. She is a visiting professor of psychology at the
University of California, Santa Barbara.