During National Singles Week, we explore a lesser-known form of discrimination: singlism.
For many years, I was in a cooking club. I was single, as I always have been and always will be. Most of the other members were couples, but that was fine. They were long-time friends who understood that I loved living single and did not exclude me or treat me differently because of my single status.
We had a tradition of inviting guests who were not members of the club. One evening, at the end of a long, leisurely dinner, a married (for the fourth time) guest proposed what she considered a fabulous idea: She would host a couples dinner at her home! She knew I was single, as was one of the others that evening, and yet there she was, proposing a dinner that would exclude us.
Grown-ups do that in front of their children sometimes — they make adults-only plans while the children are listening. But I'm not a child.
There was a time in my life when I would have said nothing. I would have headed home, opened my secret folder of obnoxious ways some married people behave toward single people, and added a new entry. By then, though, my folder was bulging and I was in full consciousness-raising mode. "Oh, so the single people aren’t welcome?" I asked.
When I first started collecting observations about single life, my notes were mostly about the small stuff. For example:
- The person coordinating class schedules asked me to teach at night because she thought it would be too inconvenient for my married colleagues to return after dinner (and they did not even have kids yet!).
- When I wanted to buy my first home and went to an open house, the realtor – upon learning that I was single – offered to show me a small townhouse instead of the spacious home I had come to see.
- I was constantly on the spot for gifts for wedding showers, baby showers, weddings, and children’s birthdays, when I knew that I was never going to marry or have children.
- My mailbox was stuffed with special deals offering great rates for couples or families on car insurance or health clubs or hotel stays. They were of no use to me – I was the one subsidizing the discounts by paying full price.
One of the first questions I wondered about was, "Is this just me, or are other single people also noticing these kinds of practices and finding them objectionable?" One evening at a social event, I approached another guest I knew to be single, and very tentatively asked her if she had any of these kinds of experiences.
Oh, did she! We continued talking. Other guests overheard bits of the conversation and joined us. The circle grew. We talked for more than an hour. When I got home, I spend several hours writing notes. In the morning, when I opened my email, I found messages saying, “…and another thing!” Clearly, the topic had struck a nerve.
Every single person had a favorite example of what I would come to call 'singlism' — the stereotyping, stigmatizing, and discrimination against people who are single. Why, one person asked, do supermarkets so often offer deals on huge family-sized portions when so many people live alone? Another recounted his experience, when visiting friends, of being assigned the couch in the living room instead of a bedroom with a door that shut. Why would a single person need any privacy? Several singles spoke of getting dumped by erstwhile friends once the friends entered the Married Couples Club. Other singles did not get tossed completely overboard; they just got demoted — to lunch instead of dinner, and to children's birthday parties instead of dinner and a movie on a Saturday night.
I became more sensitized to the over-the-top celebrations of couples, marriage, and weddings in just about every corner of contemporary life. On television, such matrimania is the premise of shows such as The Bachelor, but it also inflects every other series, whether about doctors or cops or attorneys, which includes a build-up to a wedding.
In politics, candidates vow to fight for "working families," as if employers hired units comprised of mom, dad, and the 2-year old instead of individual adults. In universities, students can find course offerings on marriage and family in departments of psychology, sociology, history, and more, but woe to those who would like to pursue an intensive study of the 102 million American adults who are not married or the 33 million who live alone.
As I talked more freely about the pervasiveness of singlism, I was admonished repeatedly that the slights I had enumerated were small ones and that the monetary costs were negligible. That made me wonder whether these matters would still be regarded as trivial if the tables were turned and coupled people paid more per person than singles and were expected to celebrate their weddings by giving expensive gifts to single people.
Singlism, though, extends far beyond the small stuff. Discrimination against single people has been documented in the workplace, the housing market, and in medical care. It is written right into more than 1,000 federal laws.
Take Social Security, for example. If I were married and my spouse died, I could receive my spouse's benefits. That smug quadruply-married dinner guest could, under certain conditions, line up all of the potential benefit packages from each of her exes and pick the best one. In stinging contrast, no one can give their benefits to me — not even if I had been sharing a home and a life with a sister or a best friend for decades, and living as interdependently as any married couple in every way except for the sex. Nor can I, as a single person with no children, leave my benefits to the person of my choosing; they just go back into the system.
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