Singled out: how singles are stereotyped, stigmatized, and ignored and still live happily ever after

Stefan Moskowitz
Gonzalez
GSS 101
October 29, 2016

Singled out: how singles are stereotyped, stigmatized, and ignored and still live happily ever after

Until rather recently, the purpose of marriage was to reinforce or elevate one’s social status, to seek political power, to acquire property, to have the family name be carried on from generation to generation or any combination of these. Around the turn of the nineteenth to the twentieth century, Marriage started becoming more associated with love and emotional attachment, which helped establish the notion that a successful marriage was the most important relationship that one could have in their lifetime. Until then, relatives and friends often played a larger role in shaping the well-being and happiness of someone than their spouse, and very few were self-conscious of this (DePaulo, 22 & 23). As the purpose of marriage shifted, those who chose to participate in the institution obtained certain privileges that were unavailable to those who did not, a practice referred to as singlism. Because being single is not perceived as an inherent quality such as race or sexuality, single people are marginalized through productive power much more so than through repressive power, the ism much less frowned upon than others such as racism or sexism and because of this, many feel that it is acceptable to practice singlism explicitly and publicly.

The book Singled Out: how singles are stereotyped, stigmatized, and ignored and still live happily ever after by Bella DePaulo attempts to deconstruct singlism and to make it clear that it is completely unacceptable, especially in the 21st century when many other isms are very much frowned upon and when an increasingly larger portion of the US population is delaying marriage or is choosing not to marry at all. She makes a clear distinction between singlism from government that enables married people to pay fewer taxes and receive each other’s social security benefits, and singlism in “everyday life” where “marriage and coupling are indistinguishable” (DePaulo, 26). To do this she uses methods such as reanalyzing and debunking statistics that support the notion that marriage helps increase happiness and well-being through the identification of logical fallacies such as pointing out the distinction between correlation and causation, as well as recapping interviews of famous people where singlism is clearly present.

At the time the book was published, Bella DePaulo was a psychology professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara, where she is now a project scientist. Her past and current professional activities that are most relevant to the studies of single people and singlism include being the Chair of the Academic Advisory Board of the American Association for Single People, a fellow for the Council on Contemporary Families, a member of the Advisory Board for an organization titled Single-Woman.tv, a member of the Board of Advisors, Single Edition, and a Single Workers Topic Page Editor for the Sloan Work and Family Network. She also received the Excellence in Research award from the American Association of Single People in 2003 (DePaulo, 1 & 3). Some of her later publications on singlism address the psychology of modern discrimination, why some people view singlism as a legitimate prejudice, and the differences between how singles are perceived “compared to those who are in romantic relationships” (DePaulo). This last publication shows that DePaulo wants to actively broaden our understanding of singlism, to also include the discrimination of those who are not in a romantic relationship in addition to those who are not legally married.

To debunk the myth that marriage leads to greater happiness, DePaulo uses the analogy of a fictitious drug study that is flawed on many fronts. The four groups that the study examines include a set of individuals called the drug group that take the drug for the entire experiment, a no-drug group (who never take the drug), a group that begins taking the drug but voluntarily stops taking it who are given the title of no drug – intolerable, and one that begins taking the drug but have it taken away from them at a certain point who are labeled as no drug – withdrawn. The categories of people that DePaulo is representing are people who get married and stay married, people who do not marry , people who get married but then divorce and those who get married but later become widowed, respectively. At the end of the experiment, people from all groups answer the question “Taking all things together, how happy would you say you are these days?” “People who say they are “very happy” get a happiness score of 4; those who are “pretty happy” get a score of 3; people who are “not too happy” are assigned a 2; and people who say they are “not at all happy” are scored as 1. The average scores are 3.3 for the drug group, 3.2 for the no drug group, 2.9 for the no drug – intolerable group, and 2.9 for the no drug – withdrawn group.” It shows that taking the drug does not necessarily make people happier, as those in the no drug – intolerable group and those in the no drug – withdrawn group scored lower than those who never took the drug because either the drug was making them less happy or because they felt deprived from not taking it. The difference between the drug and the no drug group was one-tenth of a point, making it difficult to claim that the drug would make a significant difference in their happiness. Perhaps the people in the drug group were already happier before taking the drug than those in the no drug group, which would mean that the drug made no difference whatsoever (DePaulo, 30 – 33). It is also possible that the people in the drug group were convinced that the drug would make them happier and thus they became happier as a result, known as the placebo effect (medicinenet.com).

DePaulo also refers to the imposition of the mentality that singles only care about themselves by referring to when Chris Wallace interviewed Ralph Nader during the 2000 presidential race, asking him if Bush had a “more mature lifestyle” than Nader because he was married and had raised two daughters (DePaulo, 127). Even after Nader had replied that “he had contributed to the health and safety of children nationwide” through advocating for cleaner water, more nutritious food, safer cars, etc. as well as citing Bush’s own words by stating that “Until he was forty, he was young and irresponsible,” Matthews kept insinuating that because Bush was married and Nader was not, he was more mature (DePaulo, 127 & 128). The more implicit message behind this example, is that singlism distracted the focus of the interview, which should have instead been centered on the differences between the platforms, experience, and voting records of the candidates, all of which are directly relevant to the presidency.

Although DePaulo briefly mentions the differences in how single people with different social identities are treated (DePaulo, 5), there is a lack of examination of the intersectionality between these social identities such as with being single and being a person of color, being female, having a lower income and/or education level, etc. While I completely acknowledge that no ism is better than any other, I believe that only people of a more advantaged positionality have the privilege to believe that singlism is the cause of their oppression. The intersectionality between race, gender, and marital status is especially pervasive amongst black women. The controlling image of a single black woman as either being a dominating matriarch or being a welfare mom regardless of whether she chooses to have children who has a different combination of race and gender (Collins, 270). Although DePaulo did mention that Ronald Reagan aggravated the American public’s image of the Welfare Queen as president (DePaulo, 169), she misinterpreted it is as something discriminatory of single mothers, when in fact it was mainly targeted at single black women. She also neglected to address that one reason for why many black women are single is because black men have one of the highest incarceration rates out of any other group in the US. Leaving race aside, there is no discussion of how language shapes our perceptions of positionality. For example, there is no married variant to the male prefix “Mr.” but the distinction is present when it comes to female prefixes. Another distinction in how single women and single men are treated that the book does not consider is that society often perceives single women as much more lonely and needy than single men, in part because few women attended college or entered the labor force until the 1960’s.

Some of the texts that DePaulo references speak about singlism mainly as a symptom of sexism against women, particularly from the idea that single women attempt to disrupt the patriarchial model that women should help make men complete (Glick and Fiske 109), whereas Singled Out attempts to universalize the prejudice to also include men and single people regardless of their gender. Her lack of regard for gender in many chapters helps establish the notion that singlism should be dealt with in isolation to other forms of discrimination. Another text that DePaulo references addresses the questions of whether stigma awareness and analysis of past experiences that are specific to singlism help boost one’s self-esteem, particularly among women, ultimately concluding that the former has a slight positive effect on self-esteem but that the ladder does not (Morris). Several of Singled Out’s chapter titles are directed toward people of different social identities within the spectrum of single people. DePaulo thereby implies disagreement with these conclusions, as she uses stigma awareness to prove that single people can be just as successful and happy as those who are married or who are in a committed relationship. Jill Reynolds and Margaret Wetherell discuss the idea of compulsory heterosexuality, which cause many women to view being in a romantic relationship with a man as necessary (Reynolds and Wetherell, 490). While they frame this as something that mainly targets women, DePaulo expands this to include everyone by showing a study that concluded that 55 percent of unmarried people were not in a committed relationship nor did they want to be in one (DePaulo, 84).

While I completely agree that prejudice against single people should not be tolerated from any standpoint, I have a fundamental problem with DePaulo’s framing of the issue as an ism. Apart from some financial drawbacks, DePaulo was unable to prove that there are significant material effects to being single. Furthermore, there was no mention of subconscious implicit biases that are universally rooted in our society when it comes to the discrimination of single people, unlike those that cause many to favor some races and genders over others. Part of the reason for why this may be the case is because it is impossible to know whether someone is single just by looking at them in isolation. Some demographics that Singled Out would appeal to include anyone who has not ever been in a relationship and who feels self-conscious about it, anyone who is in a relationship but is not married and who is over a certain age, say 35, as well as anyone who is in a cohabiting relationship but who is not legally married. The book was published in the year 2006, at a time when people were marrying, having children, and entering the workforce at a later median age, which suggests that the stigma against single people was already on the decline. Today, this is even more so the case as rising living costs have made it harder for millennials to purchase housing near where they work (if in fact they do have a stable source of income), thus incentivizing them to live with their parents or with several roommates. Rising college attendance rates, increasing student debt, and more advanced degrees per capita have all helped exacerbate this trend.

References

DePaulo, Bella M. Singled Out: How Singles Are Stereotyped, Stigmatized, and Ignored and Still Live Happily Ever after. New York: St. Martin’s, 2006. Print.

DePaulo, Bella M. “DePaulo VITA May 2015.” belladepaulo.com N.p., n.d. Web. Jan. 2015. 27 Oct. 2016.http://www.belladepaulo.com/about-bella-depaulo/social-scientist-phd-harvard/

DePaulo, Bella M. “Scholarly Papers.” belladepaulo.com. N.p., n.d. Web. 28 Oct. 2016. http://www.belladepaulo.com/singles-research-writing/scholarly-papers/

“Definition of Placebo Effect.” medicinenet.com. N.p., 13 May 2016. Web. 29 Oct. 2016. http://www.medicinenet.com/script/main/art.asp?articlekey=31481

Collins, Patricia Hill. “Controlling Images of Black Women’s Oppression.” N.p., n.d. 29 Oct. 2016.

Glick, Peter, and Susan T. Fiske. “An Ambivalent Alliance: Hostile and Belevolent Sexism as Complementary Justifications for Gender Inequality.” www.sanchezlab.com. N.p., Feb. 2001. Web. 29 Oct. 2016. http://www.sanchezlab.com/pdfs/GlickFiske1.pdf

Reynolds, Jill, and Margaret Wetherell. “Discursive Climate of Singleness: The Consequences of Women’s Negotiation of a Single Identity.” http://fap.sagepub.com. N.p., 11 Sept. 2003. Web. 29 Oct. 2016. http://fap.sagepub.com/content/13/4/489.full.pdf+html

Morris, Wendy Lynn. “Effects of Stigma Awareness on the Self-Esteem of Singles.” http://libraprod.lib.virginia.edu. University of Virginia Library, 2005. Web. 29 Oct. 2016. http://libraprod.lib.virginia.edu/catalog/libra-oa:5282