Bella DePaulo is responsible for getting the term ‘singlism’ into the dictionary. She explains the ways singlism – the unfair treatment of single people – and structural singlism exists in our everyday lives using examples from her base in the US.
In everyday life, single people are often stereotyped and stigmatised in the conversations they have with other people. The kinds of things other people say to us and about us, sometimes reveal that they think single life is something people are stuck with and not something anyone would actually choose or even enjoy.
The kinds of questions they ask suggest, that to them, there is nothing more interesting or more important than single people’s attempts to unsingle themselves. Hence all the interest in whether we are “seeing anyone” and the disappointing lack of interest in all the people and things we really do care about. These everyday slights are among, what I call, the microaggressions of single life. You can think of it as the small stuff, except that it adds up and is not really small in its pernicious effects.
When I mention singlism to a group of people, there is almost always someone who insists that they have never experienced it.
When it comes to the ways in which single people are pitied or subtly put down in everyday interactions, it is, of course, possible that some single people just don’t experience it. I wish it were true that no single person ever experienced singlism. Sadly, I think we are a long way from that ideal state, though I do think we are making progress.
Singlism, though, includes big, systematic, structural, and institutional ways in which single people are unfairly disadvantaged, and coupled people are advantaged. It’s the kind of singlism that is built right into laws, policies, practices, and customs.
It is not the kind of singlism you can shrug off, claiming it’s something you have never experienced. If you are a single person living in a place such as the U.S., in which many laws only benefit people who are legally married, those laws turn you into a second-class citizen, and short of getting the laws changed, you are part of a disadvantaged class.
In the next section, I will describe just a few examples of structural singlism that disadvantages single people in a variety of domains. In each instance, the singlism is baked into the system. It is not something you can avoid by having particularly wonderful friends or relatives, or coworkers. Every single person experiences structural singlism.
Examples of structural singlism
Singlism in the law
When laws benefit and protect only people who are married, as is true of more than 1,000 federal laws in the U.S.
Singlism in the marketplace
When couples get discounts on insurance, memberships, rental cars, travel packages, entertainment, or anything else, and single people pay full price, single people are subsidising couples.
Singlism in the workplace
In the US, married workers can take time off under the Family and Medical Leave Act to care for their spouse, but single workers cannot take time off to care for someone like a close friend or sibling; that’s an example of singlism in the workplace.
When employers allow married workers to take time off to grieve the death of a spouse but do not let single workers take time off to grieve the people who are most important to them.
When married workers can add their spouse to their health insurance plan at a discounted rate, but single people can’t do the same for a close friend or sibling or anyone else who might matter to them.
Singlism in medicine
When health insurance is more expensive per person for a single person than for a couple or a family.
When hospitals require patients to have another person (and not a taxi or Uber) drive them home from a procedure and maybe stay with them as well, that policy can disadvantage anyone, but it is especially likely to disadvantage singles and people who live alone.
Singlism in research and teaching
When there are no courses or degree programs about single people; but there are courses and degree programs about marriage and family.
When textbooks include sections on marriage and family but ignore or marginalise single people.
When scholars overwhelmingly focus on marriage, conventional family, and romantic relationships in their research and mostly ignore single people and relationships such as adult friendships and chosen families.
When social scientists only study the ways in which they expect single people to do worse than coupled people and ignore all the ways single people are likely to do better.
When social scientists use cheater techniques to try to make the case that married people are superior to single people.
Singlism in housing
When rental agents vastly prefer renting to married couples over pairs of friends, even when the couples and the pairs of friends are all similar in their jobs and interests and what they like about the place, that’s singlism.
Preferences for renting to a married couple over a single woman or a single man are examples of singlism, too, all of which my colleagues and I have documented in our research. Because of these biases, single people and people who will live alone are less likely to get the place they want most, and they may end up having to pay more for a less desired place.
When there are not enough available and affordable places for people who want to live alone, that’s singlism.
When homes are built only with nuclear families in mind — for example, with one primary bedroom. If two or more single people want to share a home (which is an increasingly common desire, even beyond the young adult years), they are likely to each want their own adult bedroom and not get stuck with a room that was intended for a child.
I’ve listed just a few of the relevant examples in each of the above domains. There are lots of other places, too, where singlism is rife. They include religion, advertising and marketing, psychotherapy and mental health, the military, and of course, popular culture.
The less obvious ways structural singlism can harm single people
Structural singlism can cost single people money, undermine the important people in our lives, and even cost us our lives. It does that in direct ways. From a recent book on ageism, Becca Levy’s Breaking the Age Code: How Your Beliefs About Aging Determine How Long & Well You Live, I came to appreciate more fully the indirect and unobvious ways that structural singlism can mess with our minds and our lives.
Levy’s main point is that all those negative ageist beliefs can really get to us when we internalise them. People who truly believe things like they are going to get more and more useless as they age actually live 7.5 fewer years than those who internalise more positive beliefs about ageing. I think the same thing applies to beliefs about being single, as I explain here.
All those instances of structural singlism I describe above contribute to negative beliefs about single people, beliefs that can be internalised. They all convey the message that if you are single, then you are just not as worthy than if you are coupled.
You are not worth protecting under the same laws and policies that benefit and protect married people. The people who matter to you aren’t as important as a spouse, so there is no need to give you time off to care for them or to grieve them.
Sure, you may have only your income to cover all of your expenses, but the discounts and special deals will still go to couples instead. They seem to be the people who matter.
What can we do
We can resist those negative beliefs about single people and turn things around. We can push back against both structural singlism and the interpersonal instances of singlism we experience in our everyday lives.
Those of us who are happy being single should be able to say so proudly. We can challenge people who make singlist remarks. We can publicly praise businesses that treat single customers well and call out the ones that don’t.
We can support political leaders who advocate for policies that are fair to single people and who use singles-inclusive language. (I know, good luck finding them.) We can talk up our favourite books, movies, TV shows, and songs that feature single people who love their single lives and are not desperately seeking romantic coupledom.
When we do those kinds of things, we are more likely to flourish in our single lives. Even the reluctantly single will benefit. Maybe we will all get to add those 7.5 years to our lives instead of losing them.