"DePaulo says that 'singlism' -- a term she coined and for which we are prepared to forgive her -- is not just aimed at unmarried women." -Gail Collins, New York Times, December 4, 2008
That quote sums up what it has been like to be the person who made up a word for the stereotyping and stigmatizing of adults who are single, then set out to study the phenomenon. Here is one of my very favorite columnists writing about this prejudice in the New York Times (very exciting!) but at the same time gently ribbing me for it.
I get it, but I am undeterred. Now in my new book, Singlism: What It Is, Why It Matters, and How to Stop It, 28 others have joined me in showing where singlism lurks and how to deal with it. Here are the first few paragraphs of my introduction:
It's different being single. Different from what other people expect your life to be like. Different from what gets celebrated in the headlines and starring roles, and in the everyday lives of couples. For me, as a 57-year-old woman who has always been single, a lot of the difference is joyous. I love my single life. I am, in fact, single at heart.
There is, though, another side to the difference. The dark side. That's the wide-ranging stigmatizing of adults who are single -- the negative stereotyping of them and the discrimination against them. I call it singlism. Reverend Mark Almlie offers this apt analogy: "Prejudice is like a cockroach: It is able to get into the smallest places, and it is very hard to kill."
With regard to the more familiar prejudices such as racism, sexism, heterosexism, and ageism, the lights are on. We can see those nasty little critters scurrying about, and we know just how creepy they are. It's different with singlism. The humans are stumbling around in their pj's, still in the dark. Try to reach for the light switch and someone will grab your hand, admonishing: "Move on, there's nothing to see here. Nothing to see here."
Are you among those who prefer to dwell in the dark? Or maybe you are one who believes that there really isn't anything to see here. If you are, well let me tell you, you have lots of company. I named the bias of singlism to make it more recognizable, in hopes that every time the word was uttered or read, a puff of old-fashioned consciousness-raising would waft through the air. Sometimes that happens. I've gotten reports of that delicious sweet scent of recognition -- the putting into place of the pieces that had no real substance or form until they were named. The "aha!" moment of the downside of single life. It is not about not having The One. (Or, for those who want The One, it is not just about that.) It is about the assumptions people make about you -- nearly all of them damning -- when all they know is that you are single. It is about the expectation that you will stay late at work or cover for the couples, because how could you have a life of your own if you are single. It is about the question you are asked -- "So why are you single?" -- that in its parallel form would be considered entirely inappropriate, ludicrous, or insulting if turned on the asker ("So why are you married?") It is about the full price or even surcharge you pay for health insurance, car insurance, travel packages, membership dues, and more, all of which subsidize the discounts that go to couples. It is about the headlines that proclaim (erroneously), that if only you would marry, you would become lastingly happier and healthier and live longer. And it is about a whole lot more.
But I had started to tell you about the company you had in rolling your eyes at the discovery of still another -ism, and one that perhaps seems utterly trivial, to boot. We know all too well that some of the other isms can be bloody serious -- getting-pummeled-to-death serious, just for being gay or African-American or Muslim, for instance. People don't get murdered in a cold fury or swept away by a frenzied mob simply for being single. So I'll grant you that. Singlism does not incite people to the same depths of viciousness and hatred that some other isms do.
And yet I think it matters. I have always thought it mattered. But now, some five or six years after I first started using the term singlism in my book, Singled Out: How Singles Are Stereotyped, Stigmatized, and Ignored, and Still Live Happily Ever After, and in my early writings with Wendy Morris, I have much more than a litany of anecdotes and complaints to go on.
I'm a social psychologist, so many of my contributions to the book describe the evidence showing that there really is discrimination against single people (in the housing market, for instance) and that stereotypes of single people are easily documented but actual differences between singles and couples are harder to establish. I also point to new research that helps us understand why people cling to mythologies of marriage and coupling, and how the psychological dynamics are different for women than for men.
Among the other perspectives on singlism represented in the book are the personal, political, historical, religious, legal, clinical, economic, and sociological. There are media critiques, op-ed essays, and personal stories of standing up to singlism and dealing with internalized singlism. Advocates and activists describe their successes and their challenges. Also included are sections on singlism's cousin (the stereotyping and stigmatizing of adults with no children) and on valuing all of the important people in our lives (and not just conjugal partners and children).