Singlism: The Twenty-First-Century Problem That Has No Name
I think married people should be treated fairly. They should not be stereotyped, stigmatized, discriminated against, or ignored. They deserve every bit as much respect as single people do.
I can imagine a world in which married people were not treated appropriately, and if that world ever materialized, I would protest. Here are a few examples of what I would find offensive:
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."
When you browse the bookstores, you see shelves bursting with titles such as If I'm So Wonderful, Why Am I Still Married and How to Ditch Your Husband After Age 35 Using What I Learned at Harvard Business School.
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 coworkers die, they can leave their Social Security benefits to the person who is most important to them; you arenot 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 persuade people to stay single, or to get divorced if they already made the mistake of marrying.
Moreover, no one thinks there is anything wrong with any of this.
Married people do not have any of these experiences, of course, but single people do. People who do not have a serious coupled relationship (my definition, for now, of single people) are stereotyped, discriminated against, and treated dismissively. This stigmatizing of people who are single--whether divorced, widowed, or ever single--is the twenty-first-century problem that has no name. I'll call it singlism.
To be stereotyped is to be prejudged. Tell new acquaintances that you are single and often they think they already know quite a lot about you. They understand your emotions: You are miserable and lonely and envious of couples. They know what motivates you: More than anything else in the world, you want to become coupled. If you are a single person of a certain age, they also know why you are not coupled: You are commitment-phobic, or too picky, or have baggage. Or maybe they figure you are gay and they think that's a problem, too.
They also believe they know something about your psychological development and your psyche: You are just not as mature as the other people your age who are coupled. And at heart, you are basically selfish.
From knowing nothing more about you than your status as a single person, other people sometimes think they already know all about your family: You don't have one. They also know about the important person or persons in your life: You don't have anyone. In fact, they know all about your life: You don't have a life.
Because you don't have anyone and you don't have a life, you can be asked to stay late at work or do all the traveling over the holidays. When you are a guest in other people's homes, they will know where you can sleep: on the couch in the living room rather than in a bedroom with a door that shuts.
They know how your life will unfold: You will grow old alone. Then you will die alone.
Are you a single person who does not recognize yourself in many of these descriptions? So am I. I am happy, I have a life, and there is no way I will grow old alone (a matter that has little to do with having a serious coupled relationship or even living by yourself). ). That's just for starters. But it is also exactly the point: The conventional wisdom about people who are single is a mythology, a gloss. It is not an accurate description of the textured and varied lives of real people who are single.
I would like to clarify what I mean by "single," but I cannot do so without first explaining what it means to have a serious partner. That, too, is part of the problem: Single people are defined negatively, in terms of what they do not have--a serious partner. They are labeled as "unmarried." But it is singlehood that comes first and then is undone--if it is undone--by marriage. So why aren't married people called "unsingle"?
Back to the serious coupled relationship. Marriage is the gold standard. If you are married, you have your serious partner. It does not matter if you are happy or miserable, faithful or philandering, whether you live in the same home as your partner or on different continents. If you have the certificate, and you are not in the process of tearing it up, you are official.
Official marriage matters. Only the legal version of marriage comes with the guaranteed treasure trove of perks, privileges, rewards, and responsibilities. Access to another adult's Social Security benefits, health-care plan, hospital room, and decisions about a life-sustaining feeding tube can all turn on whether you are legally married. When the Census Bureau counts married people, it is counting the official kind. Legally single people, then, are adults who are not officially married. They include people who are divorced and widowed as well as people who have always been single.
More important to the texture of your everyday life is whether or not you are socially single or socially coupled. Once again, if you are married, you automatically count as coupled. Beyond that, the criteria are more slippery. People try to discern your coupled status from a hodgepodge of clues. Do you seem to be in a romantic relationship with another person? How long have you been with that person? Do you seem to expect to stay together? Are you living together? One question that does not matter muchto the social-coupling criterion is whether your pair consists of one man and one woman. Straights, gays, bisexuals, and transsexuals all count as socially coupled if they are in a certain kind of relationship with another person.
Sex is the component that conventionally distinguishes the coupled relationship from every other close relationship, even if that component has not yet been realized or if its practice is a vague and distant memory. (Of course, sex alone is not sufficient. A one-night stand is not a coupled relationship--it is just a fling.)
In trying to discern who really is socially coupled, we are less likely to wonder about the couple's practice of sex than about their approximation to an image, a romantic ideal. The image is two people looking lovingly into each other's eyes, no one else in the picture, the background gauzy and ethereal. In song, the notion is captured by the titles that all sound so similar, such as Nat "King" Cole's "You're My Everything," Elvis Presley's "There Goes My Everything," or Andy Gibb's "I Just Want to Be Your Everything." In lyrics, the romantic ideal is LeAnn Rimes asking "How do I live without you? ... You're my world, my heart, my soul."
Serious partners, in our current cultural fantasy, are the twosomes who look to each other for companionship, intimacy, caring, friendship, advice, the sharing of the tasks and finances of household and family, and just about everything else. They are the repositories for each other's hopes and dreams. They are each other's soulmates and sole mates. They are Sex and Everything Else Partners.
Now I can explain what single means: You don't have a serious partner. The simple distinction--you either have a serious partner or you don't--maps onto the golden rule of singlism, the way of thinking that has become the conventional wisdom of our time: You have a serious partner, or you lose. If you are single, then you lose by definition. No matter what you can point to on your own behalf--spectacular accomplishments, a lifelong and caring convoy of relatives and friends, extraordinary altruism--none of it redeems you if you have no soulmate. Others will forever be scratching their heads and wondering what's wrong with you and comparing notes (he's always been a bit strange; she's so neurotic; I think he's gay). It is like having a gymnastics routine lacking a key element to qualify for a perfect score; no matter how skillfully and gracefully you perform your routine, it will always be judged as deficient.
Serious partner or no serious partner must sound awfully simplistic. Surely the many significant distinctions must matter somehow. Among those without a serious partner, for example, there are single men and single women (always a distinction worth pondering); people who have always been single and those who are divorced or separated or widowed; young singles and old singles; rich singles and poor singles; singles who have children and singles who do not; singles who live in the city and singles who live in the suburbs or the countryside; coastal singles and Midwestern singles; singles living alone and singles living with others; smug singles and singles pining for partners; and singles of different races, ethnicities, and religions, to name just a few. These kinds of distinctions do matter. Some singles are stigmatized more relentlessly and unforgivingly than others.
The many varieties of singlehood, rather than creating hopeless complexity, can actually be sorted out with two simple rules. First, all the existing prejudices remain in place. For example, since men still typically trump women, feminism notwithstanding, single men will have an easier time of it than will single women. Similarly, rich singles will sail more smoothly through singlehood than will poor singles. Second, everyone else curries favor to the degree that they honor soulmate values. Did you ever have a serious partner? If so, then you are better than all those people who never had one. (So, divorced and widowed singles are better than people who have always been single.) Is your soulmate no longer with you through no fault of your own? If so, then you get some credit, too. (So, widows are in some ways better than divorced people.) If you don't have a serious partner, are you at least trying to find one? That's good, too.
When I say that some singles are better than others, I mean better in the public eye. Better mythologically. The lives of the "better" singles seem to make more sense and seem worthy of greater respect than the lives of the "lesser" singles. With regard to how different kinds of singles are actually doing, though--now, that's a whole different story.
Singlism is not something that only coupled people practice. If you are single, you have a role in sustaining the lofty place of couples. You support couples emotionally--cheering them on as they announce the first engagement and wedding, and then the next, and then the one after that--and, of course, financially, with all the gifts. You support them with your time andyour flexibility as you take the off-hour assignments and the travel that no one else wants. You support their sense of entitlement as they choose the conditions, the time, and the nature of any get-togethers. You support their presumptuousness as they ask when you are going to settle down, while you politely refrain from asking when they last had sex. You subsidize couples when they pay less per person for vacation packages and memberships in clubs, while you pay full price.
Some components of singlism are built right into American laws and institutions, which means that neither coupled nor single people have any say about sustaining them. Take Social Security, for example. If you are a married person covered by Social Security and you die, your spouse can receive your benefits. But if you are a single person who worked side by side with that married person at the same job for the same number of years and you die, no other adult can receive your benefits. Your money goes back into the system.
Our cherished American notions about all people being created equal and deserving of the same basic civil rights and dignities--they apply mostly to married people. If you are single, even your dead body is deemed less valuable. The eligible spouse of a married person receives a small amount of money from Social Security to cover funeral expenses. No such allowance is available for single people. I suppose the reasoning is that since single people don't have anyone, their dead bodies can simply be tossed into a ditch by the first stranger who discovers them probably in an empty apartment where they are rotting away or being nibbled at by their starving cats).
The lesser value of single people is institutionalized in other ways, too. For example, the mission of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights is to ensure equal protection under the law regardless of "race, color, religion, sex, age, disability, or national origin." The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission is tasked with the same kinds of protections in the workplace. Where's marital status?
When I first became interested in the beliefs and practices I would later construe as singlism, I knew nothing about the big issues, such as the differences in Social Security benefits between me and my married colleagues. I was also oblivious to the demographic revolution that was changing the face of the nation.
When I first accepted an assistant professorship at a university, I would have sworn that just about everyone there and everywhere else was married, or on the cusp of marrying. I did not see it coming that by the year 2003 there would be nearly 52 million Americans, ages eighteen on up, who had been single their entire lives. Nearly 22 million more would be divorced, and 14 million more widowed. So even without counting the nearly 5 million Americans who were separated in 2003, there were more than 87 million adults who were some sort of official single person comprising more than 40 percent of all the adults in the country, (Even subtracting the 11 million who were cohabiting left an impressive 76 million.)
I also did not realize that the household consisting of a married couple and their young children would be in the minority by the turn of the twenty-first century, eclipsed in numbers (though surely not in sentimentality) by households composed of a single person living alone. (And most single people don't live alone.) I still find it remarkable that Americans today will, on the average, spend more years of their adult life single than married.
At first, I didn't think about the potential economic, social, or political power of people who are single. In the opening years of the twenty-first century, single people made up about 40 percent of the workforce, purchased more than 40 percent of all homes, and contributed about $1.6 trillion to the economy. If they had shown up in full force at the polls in the presidential election of 2000 or 2004, they could have knocked soccer moms, security moms, NASCAR dads, or just about any other voting bloc du jour right off the menu.
It wasn't the demographics or the economics or the politics that first tapped me on the shoulder and told me to listen up. For me, the growing awareness that there was something wrong with the place of singles in contemporary society started with the little things, the personal experiences that seemed hardly worth mentioning at the time. The experiences piled up most noticeably when I moved from graduate school, where most of my friends were single, to my first university position at the age of twenty-six.
Here's an example. During one of my first weekends on the job, I had been invited to an out-of-town event with some of my friends from home. I decided not to go. I did not want to miss any opportunities to get to know my new colleagues, who were among the people I expected to be my friends. One of them, a married man, did indeed plan a social event that weekend. He and his wife invited the other person who was hired the sametime I was, together with his partners, to go out to dinner. I, however, was not invited.
I wasn't always excluded by the couples, though. For example, one woman I'll call Joanna was single when I first met her, and we became friends. Later, when she found her soulmate, the two of them did include me occasionally. Here is my memory of one such event.
On Wednesday the three of us began to discuss where to go.
Rococo's was an Italian restaurant and I was happy to have some pasta, so I said fine. When we got there, though, I learned that Joanna and Pat had a different plan.
It was not what I had in mind, but Rococo's did have some interesting toppings, so I agreed. I was ready with my suggestions. The waitress arrived before we had discussed our preferences, but no matter: Pat was ready, too, and recited the four choices that had apparently been agreed upon beforehand with Joanna. The waitress scrawled them down, pivoted, and left. Moments later, though, she returned, saying that regrettably two of the toppings were not available that evening. Finally, I had my chance. My mouth was open, but before I could get the words out, Pat had already announced "our" substitutions.
There were some memorable moments in the workplace as well. Once, I was asked to teach in the evening because "it is harder for the men who have a wife at home to come back in at night." The friend of a colleague,whom I was meeting for the first time, had a suggestion for me upon learning that I was single: She thought I should volunteer to be the leader of her daughter's Girl Scout troop. Then there was the annual department picnic, organized in different ways over the years. My favorites were the ones in which each faculty member contributed the same amount, then each of us could bring everyone in our family. So on the same dime, I went by myself, and my senior colleague brought his wife and four kids.
I am cringing as I describe these instances. Why did I even notice them, much less remember them decades later? That's one of the secrets to the persistence of singlism. It often manifests itself in the minutiae of everyday life. Am I really going to write a book about not getting pepperoni on my pizza? (No. I wanted anchovies.)
Another reason that singlism persists, usually unacknowledged, is that it is so hard to tie the bad behaviors directly and unambiguously to a person's marital status. Perhaps my colleagues excluded me from their weekend plans when I first arrived in town not because I was single but because they found me annoying and wanted to spend as little time with me as possible. Perhaps Joanna and Pat made all the decisions not because they are a couple and I am single but because they are bossy, self-centered, and obnoxious. Or maybe they are smart, as in wise enough not to let anyone speak up who might suggest anchovies. Maybe the person I just met asked me to serve as leader of her daughter's Girl Scout troop not because she thought that as a single person I had lots of free time but because she sensed my inherent leadership qualities in that first instant of our acquaintance.
I was also deterred from acknowledging the prejudices and exclusions by my fantasy of societal redemption. I nurtured the delusion that one day I would wake up and find a whole new world. I would walk into the department and a colleague would say, "Wow, was that ever dim-witted of us to organize the picnic in a way that made the single people subsidize their coworkers who were married with children. We won't do that again!" I would open my New Yorker and find that the column of restaurant reviews was no longer titled "Tables for Two." I would turn on the TV and hear a candidate boasting that because she was single and had no children, she would devote more time and energy to the concerns of her constituents than would any of her competitors.
I'm still waiting.
There was another deterrent, too. This set of myths and misbehaviors toward singles had no name. There was nothing to tie them together and show how weighty and meaningful and interconnected the whole collection had become. Motorists who are pulled over for driving while black seethe not just because of the inconvenience or the one-time insult but because the indignity suggests an entire constellation of prejudices, stereotypes, and acts of discrimination that is widely recognized as racism. Single people, in contrast, often interpret their experiences of discrimination or stereotyping or exclusion as personal and individual, with no bigger implications for the place of singles as a group in contemporary American society.
It is in the spirit of consciousness-raising that I have coined the term singlism, Over the course of this book, I collect the myths about single people, tie them all together, and then throw them out with the rest of the trash.
The term singlism points directly at single people and the ways in which they are marginalized and stigmatized. That's only half the racket, though. The other half is the glorifying of marriage and coupling, especially the "You're My Everything" variety. I'll call that matrimania.
Whenever I mention singlism in the same context as racism or sexism or heterosexism or any of the other noxious isms, a slew of protests are hurled my way. I deserve them. In many important ways, singles are simply not in the same category as the most brutally stigmatized groups. As far as I know, no persons have ever been dragged to their death at the back of a pickup truck simply because they were single. There are no "marrieds only" drinking fountains, 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.
There is another objection I hear a lot. My timing is all wrong. How can I claim that singles are in a difficult position when in fact contemporary singles have newfound freedoms of staggering significance? That's an important point, too.
Financial freedom--women's, in particular--is high on the list of social changes that have empowered many single people. Although women are still paid less than men for comparable work and far too many women and men live in poverty, there are currently sizable numbers of women who earnenough money on their own to support themselves, and maybe even some kids. They are no longer tethered to husbands for economic life support. Neither men nor women need a spouse to have sex without stigma or shame. Children born to single mothers now have the same legal rights as those born to married mothers. With the advent of birth control and legalized abortion, and with progress in medical reproductive technology, women can have sex without having children, and children without having sex.
When sex, parenting, and economic viability were all wound up together in the tight knot that was marriage, the difference between single life and married life was profound. Consider, for example, the Americans who were newly wedded in 1956. No Americans on record married at a younger age than they did, before or since. Half the 1956 grooms had not yet reached the age of 22.5, and half the brides were 20 or younger. The young couples were setting up a household for the first time and saving to buy their first home. In so many deeply significant ways, marriage really was a transition to adulthood. It was a big bold bright line keeping singles on one side and married people on the other.
Now, about half a century later, the institution of marriage remains ensconced in our laws, our politics, our religions, and our cultural imagination. But it is of little true significance as a meaningful life transition. Today a twenty-seven-year-old man is just about as likely to be single as married, and men and women have often cycled through multiple schools and jobs and residences and relationships before they ever marry--if they ever do.
As all the components of marriage that were once tied together have come undone, the number of possible life paths has multiplied. The promise offered by this brave new world is a nearly limitless array of imaginable life stories. Individual Americans can design individualized lives.
But the promise is also the threat. Opportunities can be exciting, but they can also be frightening. Sometimes familiarity, predictability, and simplicity are far more appealing. I know this from my experiences with technology. Just as I am becoming comfortable with the latest e-mail program, it is knocked off my desktop by the next best version, complete with its dazzling scroll of ever more options that I don't understand and don't want. I want my familiarity, predictability, and simplicity. I liked my old e-mail program. I knew how to use it and think about it. I want technological progress to stop.
That's how a lot of people feel about the changes that have shaken theworld of marriage and family. That's also why I can claim that singles are in a difficult position when in so many ways they have never been in a better place. The freedom to be single, to create a path through life that does not look like everyone else's, can be unsettling to people who feel more secure with fewer choices.
The technology analogy is not entirely apt. My clinging to my old and familiar e-mail program says little about my deepest values, my moral center, or the meaning of my life. My resistance to the latest upgrades does not double as a judgment of other people who embrace the new innovations. Decisions about how to lead a life, though, are fraught with significance.
In our minds, there was a golden American era, the 1950s, when marriage was at the center of our lives, its place sacred and uncontested. It suffused life with meaning and predictability. As we imagine it, that time was safe, warm, comforting, and morally unambiguous (even if the realities were not nearly so serene). The more complicated, unsettled, and contentious our current American lives and American values seem to be, and the more these complexities seem threatening rather than freeing, the more we yearn for the way we believe things used to be.
I think that many people would like to restore the place that marriage once had in our lives. They would like to be able to predict the broad outlines of a life well lived: Stay at home with Mom, Dad, and sibs through late adolescence or early adulthood; perhaps work or go to school for a while, or just proceed directly to marriage; continue working if you are a man; buy a home, have kids, stay married, have grandkids. Live happily ever after, with the esteem and respect and moral approbation of your community and your nation. No arguments about the components of a good and worthy life in the culture at large or in our own individual families.
What could Americans do if they wanted to bring back marriage as they once knew it (or thought they did)? How could they persuade single people to continue to yearn for marriage when so much of what marriage used to bring is now available outside of it? The legal, medical, and societal transformations that stripped marriage bare of what had made it so special are not likely to be reversed. Birth control is not about to be outlawed, and abortions would not disappear even if they were recriminalized. The forward march of reproductive science will not be stopped in its tracks. Women will not ever be legislated out of the workplace. Children born to single parents will not have "illegitimate" stamped on their birth certificatesever again. How, then, can that big bold line be restored when it has already been all but erased?
There is a way. It is the most powerful way of them all. It can leap over legislation, step on science, and turn its back on the most sparkling opportunities in public and professional life. It is called mental blanketing. It is like mind control, only without the conspiratorial undertones.
At a time when marriage is so inessential, mental blanketing aims to instill in an entire populace the unshakable belief that marriage is exactly what it is not: utterly and uniquely transformational. Marriage, according to the mythology generated by mental blanketing, transforms the immature single person into a mature spouse. It creates a sense of commitment, sacrifice, and selflessness where there was none before. It is the one true place where intimacy and loyalty can be nurtured and sustained. It transforms a serious sexual partnership from a tryout to the real thing. Before, you hoped you were each other's everything; now you really are. Marriage delivers as its ultimate reward the most sought-after American prize: happiness. Not just garden-variety happiness, but deep and meaningful well-being. A sense of fulfillment that a single person cannot even fathom. Marry, the mythology promises, and you will never be lonely again.
The mythology is fueled by fear and yearning. Yearning for the riches that await you on the other side of the marital divide; fear of what will become of you if you never get there. Fear and yearning, singlism and matrimania, singles and marrieds. There are always two sides, a push and a pull. That's what makes the mythology so powerful.
The mythology faces a daunting challenge, though: It is pure poppycock. Every inch of it is either grossly exaggerated or just plain wrong. The science is wrong, the public policy is wrong, our beliefs are woefully wrong. Mental blanketing needs to work relentlessly to keep such inconvenient truths under wraps. Both sides of the scam need constant attention. On the side of singlism, every sliver of the single life that might prove validating or rewarding must be diminished or dismissed. On the side of matrimania, marriage must be unstintingly extolled so that it maintains its mythical place as a magical and transforming experience.
Mental blanketing trivializes the lives of singles by providing ready-made rebuttals for any claims that singles might make for the value of their lives. Do singles have close friends who are deeply important to them? They are "just" friends. Do they have a sex life? Then they are sluts or horndogs. But what about the singles who obviously are not promiscuous? Tsk, tsk. What a shame that they aren't getting any. Are singles devoted to their jobs? They are just compensating for not having a spouse, the only object of devotion that is meaningful and real. Do singles have lots of interests? Actually, they don't. All they are interested in is just one thing. As soon as they snag their soulmate, they will quit the ski club. Are singles happy? They just think they are. Without a soulmate, they could never know true happiness.
Still not convinced? Fine. Singles can have their so-called happiness and friends and relationships and career and passions and peace and solitude, and maybe they can even be selfless and loyal and mature. They will still die alone.
Singlism is absolutist, contradictory, and utterly unforgiving. By blanketing the entirety of a person's life until everything is snuffed out, singlism is worse than some of the other isms. Take sexism, for example. Some women really do believe that a woman's place is in the home and that her highest calling is to her husband and children. For those women and all the other men and women who hold such a worldview, women can earn full faith and credit for their lives. They can be attentive and devoted wives, loving and giving mothers, selfless keepers of the hearth and home. They can feel complete, fulfilled, and worthy, and they can be recognized as such by all who believe as they do.
Singlism holds out no such place for people who are single. Short of becoming the pope or one of his minions, there is no way to be a good or worthy single person--and there will not be until all of the pernicious myths are busted. In the meantime, to be valued, you have to be married.
The other side of mental blanketing--the buffing and puffing up of marriage to keep it seeming shiny and magical--is up against a formidable fact. Statistically speaking, the act of marrying is banal. Even though many Americans wait longer than ever to marry, and often do not stay long in the marriages they do enter, most Americans--close to 90 percent--still do marry at some point in their lives. Some try it over and over again. Marrying, then, does not make people special; it makes them conventional.
How can something so ordinary be made to appear extraordinary? Turn on the television and watch show after show just pile it on. Start with the obvious--the reality programs such as The Bachelor, The Bachelorette, Joe Millionaire, Average Joe, and all the increasingly smarmy sequels. With castles and hot tubs, champagne and limousines, they put lipstick on thepig of public humiliation. What's a little groveling when the prize is a shot at marriage?
In other genres such as dramas and comedies, characters and plot lines twist and turn through one season after another until they all finally come together, in the denouement, at the altar. It is as if the creative community can imagine no more thrilling way to end a series than with a wedding.
Some shows seem to promise an absorbing alternative to matrimania, but ultimately they, too, give it up for marriage. In Friends, the show that was supposed to be about, well, friends, all but one of the stars had landed a soulmate by the finale. Even Sex and the City, the blockbuster hit that began with four smart, sassy singles taking the city of New York (and much of the rest of the country) by storm, ended with four cooing couples.
The funny pages, at their best, should be able to stand back and mock all this fetishizing of marriage and coupling with wry humor. But instead, they have leapt aboard. Cathy, the decades-long singleton, has married dorky, clueless Irving, the pathetic punch line of years of bad jokes. Now, though, creator Cathy Guisewite paints the couple as hopelessly in love, the pride of all their parents and pets. Asked by Newsweek why she married off her protagonist, Guisewite paid tribute to her own soulmate: "I've been married for six years, and I can't write about dating without feeling like I'm cheating on my husband."
Book publishers, too, are waving the white veil. One reporter who looked into the contemporary publishing scene concluded that "dating advice books just keep coming to the shelves. [They] do not have to be written by experts, they don't have to contain any new information--and the advice doesn't have to work!"
In the advertising world, blushing brides have been used to sell cereal and soft drinks; ice cream, chocolate, and cheese; dentistry, headache medication, eye drops, and body lotion; cars, clothes, shoes, credit cards, and lottery tickets; beer, cigarettes, and wine coolers; hotels, real estate, life insurance, and financial institutions. These were not celebrity brides, but the ordinary variety. All brides, it seems, are magical, and a sprinkle of their fairy dust is sufficient to seal the good fate of just about any product.
The possibilities of the single life have opened up for men and women over the past decades, but they have widened more for women. It is women whohave marched into the workplace in swelling numbers, it is women who are more liberated by birth control and legalized abortion, and it is women whose parental possibilities are more likely to be multiplied by progress in reproductive science. That is one reason why mental blanketing is directed so overwhelmingly at them. If marriage is to be restored to an undisputed place of honor and privilege, then women especially need to be convinced that it is marriage, above all else, that they should wish for, work for, and yearn for.
Sure, women are warned, they can pursue their fancy jobs, but those jobs will not love them back. They might think they can put off childbearing, but if they wait too long, even the best medicine in the world may not be able to revive their dried-up eggs.
To keep this drumroll of fear and yearning beating, beating, beating--and beating especially loudly in the hearts of women--popular culture must do its part. And so it does. True, there are reality shows in which the prize is a bachelorette, but they are greatly outnumbered by the ones in which hordes of women compete for the affections of just one man. Magazine racks are brimming with Modern Bride, but Modern Groom is nowhere to be found. Little girls sink their fantasies in Wedding Barbie, but little boys do not dream of dressing their favorite Rescue Hero in a coordinating tux.
It is not that single men get a free ride. All singles need to be nudged toward marriage. So men are cautioned that without the civilizing hand of a woman, they will run amok with slovenliness, horniness, and criminality. (And if they do not seem at all sloppy or out of control, well then, they are fastidious, frivolous, and gay.) Still, compared with women, men get a break. They can turn on Monday Night Football in full confidence that the game will not end with a wedding.
In the television show Judging Amy, Amy is a divorced woman living with her widowed mom and raising her young daughter. At work, she is a brilliant, witty, and wise judge in the juvenile justice system. As the 2003 season was drawing to a close, another attorney named Stu proposes to Amy. On the CBS website, viewers were invited to weigh in with their advice to Amy. In response to the question "Should Amy accept Stu's marriage proposal?" they could vote for one of three alternatives: (1) Yes! They're a perfect match; (2) No! I don't think Stu is the one for Amy; or (3) Not sure.
Superficially, the CBS poll fetishizes marriage in much the same way as all the other television shows that climax with a wedding, all the mate-bait books that provide how-to tips on reeling in the perfect catch, and all the advertisements that light up their products with the glow of a lustrous bride. But there is another more subtle, and perhaps more insidious, element to the chirpy quiz. It is difficult to see it, because it is nowhere on the screen. It is the universe of answers that no one gets to choose.
No one gets to say that Amy's life seems fine just the way it is, that her love for her mom and her daughter and her passion for her work fill her soul, or that adult humans need not come in matched sets. No one gets to say that Amy tried marriage once, which was quite enough, thank you very much.
The moral of the CBS poll is that you have only these options: Marry Bachelor Number 1, marry some other bachelor, or think about it some more and then pick your bachelor. If CBS and the rest of society can slip that one by us, then singles are toast.
It already worked once, in one of the most infamous and frenzied bouts of matrimania ever to hit the mainstream press. In 1986 a reporter looking to pen the annual Valentine's Day story for her local newspaper put in a call to the Yale sociology department. She learned about some preliminary findings from a Harvard-Yale study suggesting that women who put education and career ahead of marriage could face vanishingly small chances of ever becoming a Mrs. The news leapt from the front page of the town newspaper to the Associated Press wires to the talk-show circuit to the cover of Newsweek. An off-the-cuff quip soon morphed into the sound bite heard round the world--that a forty-year-old college-educated woman who had always been single had a greater chance of getting hit by a terrorist than of ever getting married.
The scare story was not true, but that's not my point. The story could never have become scary, or even very interesting, unless a much more fundamental and pernicious myth were in place: that life without marriage is hardly worth living.
When scare stories are shouted from the headlines, they serve themselves up for scrutiny. We can address them head-on, contesting the statistics and the methods, the motives and the agendas. More often, though, the favoringof marriage and coupling settles so softly and quietly into the habits of our everyday lives that we barely even notice its presence or its power.
Here are a few of the snippets I have collected over the past several years:
In Time magazine I notice a story about a new website offering advice on preparing a will. The basic package, I learn, "can cost anywhere from $300 to $500 per couple."
Here in Southern California, where housing prices rise at record-setting speeds, a home is raffled off every year. In the local paper I read that I can buy a raffle ticket "for the price of a dinner-date at Citronelle."
My Magellan's catalog tries to tempt me to buy a colorful luggage strap with the promise of solving that pesky problem, "Which bag is ours?" A travel writer for a newspaper e-mailed me to describe her most recent assignment. Come up with half a dozen day trips, she was told; half should appeal to couples and the other half to families.
The Bon Appetit section of Westways magazine features restaurant reviews. Each review is prefaced by a description of the location, service, best dishes, and the price of a dinner for two.
A colleague who is single asks a salesman at Lowe's home-improvement center a question about two different approaches to a repair. He responds with his own question: "Is your husband good with tools?"
Vanguard would like me to sink my retirement funds into its coffers. It mails me a promotional brochure describing a new way to build retirement assets. On the cover is a picture of an elderly man and woman holding hands on the beach, with the waves kissing their bare feet. When I look for a sympathy card, I often have few choices left after I have skipped over all the ones that express "our" condolences.
The television news program Nightline broadcasts a show about seriously wounded soldiers "who may not be able to do any of the things they did before. And that means that the lives of their spouses are changed forever too."
Robert Putnam, author of Bowling Alone, wants to encourage more community participation. He suggests to a hypothetical Bob and Rosemary that they try starting a Parent-Teacher Association at their child's school. Even if the turnout is disappointing, he notes, "at the veryleast, Bob and Rosemary will have [met] another couple or two with whom they can catch a movie on Friday nights."
Each of these examples is based on the presumption of coupling. Each assumes that adults come packaged in sexual partnerships or that adults who come in such conventional pairings are the only ones who truly count. Only they are worthy of luggage tags or dinner on the town or the sympathy and concern of the Nightline staff.
What grabs me about so many of these examples is that the privileging of couples actually undermines the whole point. Singles make up a huge chunk of the target audiences. Magellan's, for example, wants to sell luggage tags; why talk past all the solo flyers and the groups of vacationing friends and the business travelers and even the couples who have enough confidence in their relationship to pack separate suitcases? Nightline prides itself on the seriousness and accuracy of its reporting; how did it miss the fact that at least half of all service members are single? Putnam would like to see Americans renew and strengthen their ties with one another, and he knows that close to one in three children live in single-parent households. So why does he address his suggestion only to couples? Why does he envision those couples as reaching out only to other couples? Surely he would never have said that "at the very least, Bob and Rosemary will meet some other white people with whom they can catch a movie on Friday nights."
The practices are akin to the unthinking sexism that prevailed before the dawn of women's consciousness-raising in the 1960s. Back then, he could be used to refer to all of humankind, medical textbooks could show mostly male bodies, and millions of dollars in federal funding could be allotted for studies of heart disease that included only men as participants. That's just the way it was.
Even if you accept everything I've said so far about singlism and matrimania, you may still come to the conclusion: So what? Can't single people just roll their eyes and continue to live their lives joyfully, productively, and undeterred?
They can and they do. Some, such as lifelong singles Condoleezza Rice and Ralph Nader, reach great heights or do spectacular things. Many divorcedpeople, such as Barbara V7alters, do the same. But they are still on the wrong side of the marital line, and that makes them fair game.
"She has no personal life," journalist Bob Woodward flatly declared. He was talking about Condoleezza Rice on CNN's Larry King Live. Over at MSNBC, political talk-show host Chris Matthews was badgering guest Ralph Nader, insisting that Nader just had to be less responsible and less mature than George W. Bush, because Bush was married and Nader was not. On ABC, Nightline's venerable anchor, Ted Koppel, hosted a show celebrating the great career of colleague Barbara Walters. "Do you ever sometimes lie in bed at night and say, 'You know, maybe if I'd given up the job and focused on the family, that would have been worth it'?" he asked. Congratulations, Barbara!
A few years ago I showed an earlier version of this chapter to a single woman I'll call Jennifer. She was not impressed. "I had a lot of trouble reading your draft," she said, "because I believe, as I think 99.9 percent of the people on the planet do, that it is human nature to find another person. There is an emotional and physical intimacy that one will never find as a single person."
I think Jennifer was describing two deeply significant beliefs: (1) Physical and emotional intimacy has always and everywhere been the foundation for marriage, and (2) people who do not find such intimacy in marriage do not find it anywhere. These are powerful statements--and, among those who internalize them, quite damning of single people. Jennifer seemed to regard the sentiments as universal and timeless truths--facts of human nature. I think many other people do, too. That makes the set of beliefs even more formidable.
But are our contemporary ideas about relationships and intimacy really so timeless? Let's start by looking at love.
"For most of Western history until the eighteenth-century," the authors of Love and Sex attest, "love was not expected to end well." Instead, "passion was assumed to end in shame, humiliation, dishonor, suicide, and ruin in almost every early society." Added social historian Stephanie Coontz, in Marriage, a History, "Certainly, people fell in love during those thousands of years, sometimes even with their own spouses. But marriage was not fundamentally about love." If you wanted to build something that would last,like a marriage, you would know better than to try to base it on romantic love.
Here, again from Coontz, are a few of the considerations that served as grounds for marriage throughout the ages, when love was not the answer:
In the Stone Age, "marriage spoke to the needs of the larger group. It converted strangers into relatives and extended cooperative relations beyond the immediate family or small band by creating far-flung networks of in-laws."
In civilizations that had become more stratified, "propertied families consolidated wealth, merged resources, forged political alliances, and concluded peace treaties by strategically marrying off their sons and daughters."
"The concerns of commoners were more immediate: 'Can I marry someone whose fields are next to mine?'; 'Will my prospective mate meet the approval of the neighbors and relatives on whom I depend?'; 'Would these particular in-laws be a help to our family or a hindrance?'"
Once a couple came together on the basis of considerations that were important to people of their time and place and social standing, it was still unlikely that they waxed quite so rhapsodically about sex as we often do today. The eminent social historian Lawrence Stone, in describing the Early Modern period, explained why he thought sexual experiences were far less plentiful and pleasurable back then. Personal hygiene was one likely deterrent: "Most people, even in the highest social stratum, hardly ever washed anything, except their faces, necks, hands, and feet." Disease was rampant, and adults "often suffered from disorders which made sex painful to them or unpleasant to their partners." Many poor people were malnourished and utterly exhausted by their work in the fields. Adults who did summon the stamina for sex then faced "the ever-present risk of venereal disease." For women who became pregnant, the specter of a painful and dangerous childbirth loomed ominously before them.
Gradually, advances in medicine and hygiene washed away some of the barriers to bountiful sex. Even so, for a long time, taking great pleasure in sex was regarded as unseemly or worse. Up to the sixteenth century, Catholicism deemed sex for any purpose other than baby-making to be a mortal sin and grounds for rotting in hell. I don't think Saint Jeromewanted even procreative sex to be any fun. Said the saint, "He who too ardently loves his own wife is an adulterer."
The Protestants who left Europe to form the colonies in America were a bit less rigid. Though spouses might regard sex as a duty they owed each other for the purpose of producing children, they were not discouraged from actually enjoying it.
By the late eighteenth century, our pet theory about marriage--that it should be based on love--was beginning to take hold. At first the practice of marrying for love seemed radical, and too unbridled an interest in sex seemed tawdry. But by the time Freud made his mark on the American psyche in the 1900s, it seemed more shameful to have sexual inhibitions than to not have them.
Still, any zest for sex among couples marrying for love was initially tempered by some unnerving practical considerations. Most notably, it was a long time until birth control was widely available, highly reliable, and stigma-free. In fact, the Food and Drug Administration did not approve the pill as a safe form of birth control until 1960.
To Americans today, it seems self-evident that sex is at the heart of marriage, that it brings fulfillment to the marriage and to life, and that it opens the door to a kind of intimacy that, as Jennifer said, "one will never find as a single person." These bedrock beliefs, though, far from having grown out of the stuff of human nature, are in fact rather contemporary points of view.
None of this means that Westerners for centuries led emotionally empty lives. Humans have probably always nurtured close ties with other humans. What has changed over the course of history is the place of the spouse as the object of an adult's intense and exclusive affections.
In medieval through early modern times, to describe the love for a spouse as the greatest love of all would have been sacrilegious. The most special place in anyone's heart was supposed to be reserved for God. Over the years many kinds of people and entities have been deemed deserving of love and affection. They have included spiritual figures and ancestors, immediate and extended family, friends and community.
Even when the love for a spouse was compared only with feelings for other mere mortals, it did not always come out ahead of all the rest. As Coontz notes, during the 1800s Westerners believed that "love developed slowly out of admiration, respect, and appreciation"; therefore, "the loveone felt for a sweetheart was not seen as qualitatively different from the feeling one might have for a sister, a friend, or even an idea."
Intense feelings did develop sometimes--often between two men. I'm talking about American men here, including men with wives. Until the turn of the twentieth century, many men spent vast amounts of time in men's clubs and fraternal organizations, and married men often shared closer bonds with their best friends than with their wives. Men with wives and children typically spent more time during weekends with their male friends than with family, and they even vacationed with other men. None of this was stigmatized.
Women did the same. They traveled and vacationed with other women. The feelings of married women for their sisters and friends, and for their children, were often deeper than their affection for their husbands.
This all-too-brief romp through bits and pieces of the past few centuries in Europe and America suggests that people can get their needs for emotional intimacy met outside of marriage and coupling. For most of history they probably have.
By the 1920s big changes were afoot. This period spirited in the initial rumblings of the tyranny of twos. Not just any twos, but one particular variety--the heterosexual couple. This was the era when young men and women began for the first time to get together without any chaperones and without necessarily intending to marry. Dating, they called it. It was enabled by the appearance on the scene of the automobile, which carried courtship out of the parlor, and out from under the family gaze, and into the commercialized playspaces of movie theaters and amusement parks. Familiar and comfortable customs began to change in ways that glorified the couple and demeaned and dismissed everyone else. Take dancing, for example. Before, it often took the form of a group activity; now it was more often a union of one man and one woman. Valentine's Day was once a community celebration of wide-ranging bonds of affection; now it was shrunk to the fetishizing of just one slender stalk of romantic love.
To the new kind of married couple that emerged in the twentieth century, no other feelings seemed as shiny or bright as the love they felt for each other. The fondness married people once nurtured for all sorts of other people who were important to them--well, that now seemed a bit dull in comparison, and maybe not really worth the effort.
Friendships got a demotion. Women still maintained ties with other women, but now they were more likely to enjoy those friendships than to cherish them. The screws were turned even more tightly on the close friendships between men. Those relationships were not just downgraded in importance, they were stigmatized as homosexual and pathological. Bonds with siblings lost some of their luster, too.
Aging parents were thrown out the door of the family home and into institutions. The older generation had once been welcomed into a couple's home. Now experts warned wives that opening their hearths to needy parents was old-fashioned and might even be a sign of insufficient devotion to their husbands.
Even motherhood took a hit. In Love in America, Francesca Cancian notes that less than a century before the married couple and their feelings for each other had become so glorified, "intimacy and sexual relations between spouses were not central and both spouses had important ties with relatives and friends of their own sex. The key relation was an intense, emotional tie between mothers and children." But as the decades of the twentieth century ticked by, that was no longer so. For the first time, there was room in the culture for "popular advice books [that] suggested that having children might weaken a family." Children were still important, and the home that wrapped its arms around Mom, Dad, and the kids continued to be sentimentalized. That bond between husband and wife, though--nothing else compared.
Today, the exalted place of the insular couple continues to be encouraged and trumpeted. Once you "find another person" (in Jennifer's words), that person becomes the center of your life. Everyone and everything else becomes secondary.
Consider, for example, the advice doled out by sociologist Pepper Schwartz. She is the author of a stack of books and was coauthor for many years of the "Sex and Health" column for Glamour magazine. In her book Peer Marriage, Schwartz describes what she believes to be the ideal form of contemporary coupling. Partners in a peer marriage, she notes, "give priority to their relationship over their work and over all other relationships ... . Their interdependence becomes so deep ... they have to be careful not to make their own children feel excluded."
Schwartz proudly describes Jerry and Donna, an exemplary peer couple. Says Jerry, "I don't like to do things with other people. We just like beingtogether. We do Siskel and Ebert when we're at the movies. We do the Frugal Gourmet when we cook. We are just our own show." The "only danger" Schwartz sees to this intense togetherness is that "the couple's isolation inhibits their ability to get good advice about their relationship." Therefore, they should socialize occasionally with"other like-minded couples."
Sociologist Linda Waite and columnist Maggie Gallagher put it this way: "A wife should spend weekends with the family, not friends." Also: "A man or a woman should put his [sic] spouse first before the demands of parents, friends, or other family members."
Some experts tell soulmate seekers that they do not need to wait until they are actually married to dispose of the other people in their life. Another good time to do so is when you are still single but have finally decided to get with the Program. Rachel Greenwald's program, to be exact, as described in her mate-seeking manual: Find a Husband After 35 Using What I Learned at Harvard Business School. If you are serious about finding a husband, cautions Greenwald, there is something important you must do: "Stop interacting with people who are not supportive of your quest for a mate, people who facilitate your single status."
There is much more to the story of the glorification of the couple, of course. I hope I have conveyed enough to make the point that the way coupling is envisioned in contemporary American society is not universal, it is not timeless, and it is not human nature. Instead, the reigning American worldview may well represent one of the narrowest construals of intimacy ever imagined. Where once the tendrils of love and affection reached out to family, friends, and community, reached back to ancestors, and reached up to the heavens, now they surround and squeeze just one other person--sometimes to the point of asphyxiation.
My ideas can be misconstrued and mischaracterized in many ways. So I want to end this chapter by anticipating and clarifying some of the most likely confusions.
First, I'm not against coupling. Some of my best friends are coupled. Coupling itself--in contrast to the fetishized way we practice it now--is in fact timeless. Before the advent of reproductive technology (which inevolutionary time is very recent indeed), coupling really was the only direct route to the continuation of the species. The kind of interest that people have in coupling--interest in getting coupled, in knowing who else is coupled and to whom--cannot be manufactured from whole cloth the way a sudden intense desire for a Cabbage Patch doll can be. It is based on something real. So, my problem is not with our current interest in coupling or our valuing it, but in our overvaluing it and our undervaluing so many other important relationships and life pursuits. We seem to have lost all perspective on the many ways to lead a good and meaningful life.
Many people who practice marriage and coupling have sensed their special status and gotten greedy. Couples expect their love to be the only love that matters, and their goals and values to be the standards against which all other lives are measured. I don't see why we can't value coupling in a mature way, as one possible component of a life worth living rather than as a mandatory requirement imposed on all.
Second, parenting is a separate issue from coupling. That little ditty about love coming first, then marriage, then the baby carriage--it's history. Over the past few decades more and more single people have been having children, and more and more married couples have not been. When I talk about the ways in which a single person does or does not differ from a married person, I am usually talking about instances in which both have children or neither do. Whether marriage will transform you is a whole different question from whether parenting will. Single people who have children are their own special category of singles, different in important ways from singles who do not, and I give them their own chapter.
Third, am I talking about marriage or coupling? In the practice of singlism and matrimania, marriage always matters. Marriage is the epitome of privilege. There are no special rewards enjoyed by people who are coupled (but not officially married) that are not also bestowed upon people who are married. When government gets involved--especially the federal government--only official marriage matters. Coupled unmarried people do not have access to each other's Social Security benefits: no exceptions. Most often in everyday life, though, marriage and serious coupling are indistinguishable. Whether you get the singles treatment depends much more on whether you are intensely coupled than on whether you are officially married.
Fourth, I do not think that everyone buys into the mythology of marriageand singlehood. Not everyone believes that marriage transforms miserable and immature single people into paragons of maturity and bliss. Not all couples want their partners to be their everything. Plenty of them continue to value deeply other people and other life pursuits. Not all single people have taken seriously the silly things they have heard about themselves. All these exceptional people can feel smug as they read through this book, having known all along what it took me a lifetime to figure out.
Finally, this is not a book about the "plight" of singles as victims but about their resilience. Obviously, I'm going to moan about the many ways that singles are viewed and treated unfairly. I've already started. But I will not end with the predictable "woe is us." Instead, I will express pride at how well so many singles do despite all the singlism and the matrimania. Singles, by definition, do not have that one special Sex and Everything Else Partner who is supposed to fill up all their empty spaces with happiness, maturity, and meaning. Yet, as we shall see, the singles who actually are miserable and immature and who believe their lives have no meaning are the exceptions. How can this be? And if married people so obviously have so much going for them, why do they need swarms of scientists, pundits, politicians, experts, authors, reporters, and entertainers making their case for them?
SINGLED OUT. Copyright 2006 by Bella DePaulo. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address St. Martin's Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.