The Systematic Disadvantaging Of Single People And How It's Denied

What’s wrong with claims that married people are doing better and singles are not treated unfairly?

The Systematic Disadvantaging Of Single People And How It Is Denied pocstock | Canva

I had the great good fortune of participating in an hour-long show that will air on many NPR stations. The show is Open to Debate, moderated by John Donvan, and “Married or single?” was the topic.

As I challenged the deficit narratives of single life, I pointed to the whole system of inequality that advantages married people and disadvantages single people. The next day, on X, my debate opponent, Jonathan Rothwell, posted this: "I agree that single people were treated unfairly at some points in recent history, but I doubt very much that is the case today, in our highly secular culture which now greatly respects (maybe too much!) idiosyncratic individual lifestyle choices."


I was going to wait until the debate aired to discuss it, but that tweet stunned me. It shouldn’t have — of course, I know that plenty of people deny that singlism exists, and when it is pointed out to them, they just shrug. But for an expert on marriage, who seems to be the lead person at Gallup heralding their findings, to be so uninformed on this issue — wow! (I’m not criticizing him personally; he was a gracious debate partner, often beginning his responses to me with, “There’s something to that.”)


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Let’s take a look at “singlism” — the ways that single people are stereotyped, stigmatized, marginalized, ignored, and targeted with discrimination. The review in the next section will be brief, but for more, you can also read:

Singlism: The advantaging of married people and disadvantaging of single people at every level

Single people are disadvantaged at every level: federal laws (and laws at other levels); other domains of institutional, structural singlism; and the singlism of everyday life.


Singlist laws

As I’ve discussed many times before, there are hundreds of federal laws that benefit and protect only people who are legally married. The benefits are economic, health-related, related to children, and much more. As Lisa Arnold and Christina Campbell pointed out in the Atlantic, “Over a lifetime, unmarried people can pay upwards of $1 million more than their married counterparts for health care, taxes, and more.”

Social Security is just one example. When a married person dies, their Social Security benefits go to their spouse — and, under certain conditions, a series of exes! I’m a lifelong single person; all the benefits I earned go back into the system, subsidizing all those spouses and exes. I can’t give them to the most important person in my life, and no one can give theirs to me.

Married people do not need to be good people or good spouses to receive all those rewards. They can be cold and uncommunicative; they can be cheaters; they can even be abusers. It doesn’t matter — if they are married, they qualify. Meanwhile, single people — no matter how virtuous — are left unrewarded and unprotected. (There are many discriminatory laws at state and local levels, too.)


I’m focusing on the US, but singlism is built right into the laws of other countries too. See, for example, The Tenacity of the Couple-Norm, by Sasha Roseneil and her colleagues.

Structural singlism in other domains

Singlism is rampant in many domains. It is built right into our institutions, policies, and practices. In this article, I point to structural singlism in the marketplace, the workplace, housing, medicine, psychotherapy and mental health, religion, research and teaching, advertising and marketing, the military, and popular culture.

When I talk about singlism, some single people claim they have never experienced it. But in the US, that’s impossible. It is right there in our laws, policies, and practices. When they say that, I think they mean that they don’t notice any prejudices in their everyday lives. 


In one example, a woman said that when she dines solo and is shown to an undesirable table in a restaurant, she refuses it and asks to be seated elsewhere. Of course, that example may well have been an instance of singlism! She was discounting it because she resisted. (Good for her for resisting.)

Singlism in everyday life

In everyday life, single people get the single treatment in many ways; for example:

  • Getting asked questions such as “Why are you still single?” or “Just one?”

  • Getting invited by couples to lunch but not dinner, outings on weekdays but not weekends, kids’ birthday parties but not movies with grown-ups.

  • Getting assigned to the kids' table at Thanksgiving, the singles table at weddings, or, as a guest in another person’s home, the couch in the living room instead of a bedroom with a door that shuts.


This is the small stuff, sometimes called “microaggressions.” Single people who mention these kinds of experiences often get reactions that are dismissive or even mocking. Here’s more about the microaggressions of single life and why they matter.

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Another comment that came up during the debate when I mentioned the system of inequality that advantages married people and disadvantages single people was something to the effect of “let’s set that aside.” I think that is tantamount to saying — we are going to discuss how well single and married people are faring, but let’s do so without considering the laws that benefit and protect only married people; all the other systematic, structural ways that singlism is built into the systems of society; or any of the relentless daily slights.

I have heard the same suggestion from someone who has published articles about single people and is regarded as a scholar of single life. That was jaw-dropping. Think about all the isms that are better known than singlism — racism, sexism, ageism, ableism, and all the rest. Can you imagine suggesting that we assess the health and well-being of the targets of those isms, without considering the systematic and pervasive ways they are stereotyped, stigmatized, and discriminated against?


In “Single and Flourishing,” I put it this way: “Too often missing from the social science of single life, until very recently, has been an elucidation, or even an acknowledgment, of the systems of inequality, including laws and policies and practices, that advantage coupled people and disadvantage single people and the people who matter most to them. Rendering those systems invisible invites a personal explanation for any difficulties single people experience — they are struggling because they are deficient.”

Turning the tables

Imagine if the tables were turned and married people were stereotyped, stigmatized, marginalized, and discriminated against, and single people were generously rewarded, celebrated, and protected just because they were single. Do you think we’d see the same collective shrug if that happened?

I described just that thought experiment in the opening pages of Singled Out: How Singles Are Stereotyped, Stigmatized, and Ignored, and Still Live Happily Ever After:

  • 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, 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 co-workers die, they can leave their Social Security benefits to the person who is most important to them; you are not 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 convince 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 single people — whether divorced, widowed, or ever-single — is a 21st-century problem that has no name. I’ll call it singlism.


RELATED: 7 Reasons Being Single Makes You Healthier, Says Study

He is perpetuating the unfairness that he denies

Back to where I started: Rothwell doubts very much that single people are treated unfairly today. I wish that were true, but everything I’ve discussed above shows that it most certainly is not. What’s more, I think he is practicing the very singlism that he claims is nonexistent. (I’m not impugning his motives; I think he does believe, as he said in his tweet, that culture may be respecting us single people too much!)

If I remember correctly, no matter what topic came up in the debate, Rothwell claimed that married people were doing better than single people. They are, he insisted, happier and healthier and they have better lives. Also, the kids of married parents do better than the kids of single parents. 

In one of his published articles, he quotes, approvingly, a Roman philosopher who said, “Anyone who deprives people of marriage destroys family, city, and indeed, the whole human race.” But sure, single people are not at all being stereotyped, stigmatized, marginalized, or discriminated against. We’re just a threat to the whole human race. (News flash: Single people can and do have children.)


The data he draws from to support his claims of marital superiority comes from Gallup data. Those surveys compare people who are currently married to people who are not married. Then, Rothwell and others proclaim, “See, married people are better!” Anyone who has been reading my work for the past decades knows what is wrong with that. It is the implication that if only single people would marry, they would become happier and healthier, too, and get to live their best lives. He is implying that married people are doing better because they are married. He is careful in his writings to say that causality cannot be proved, but it is also clear that he believes that the link is causal.

I’ve explained the problem with this type of analysis many times before. There is a lot wrong; here, I’ll just mention a few things.

First, he is comparing only the currently married to everyone else. The big chunk of people who marry and then divorce are removed from the married group. Getting married is supposed to be the royal road to health and well-being. The divorced people did get married. They didn’t get divorced because marriage was making them happy and healthy.

As I’ve often pointed out, how would you feel if: a drug company tested a new drug and found that close to half of the people taking it had such a bad experience that they refused to keep taking it; but when they report their results, they set those people aside, and show us only the results of the people who kept taking the drug. Then they say, “See, our drug works — people taking it are doing better than people not taking it!” No medical journal would publish such a claim. But lots of journals are publishing comparable claims about married people.


He is comparing married and single people at one point in time. This is a correlation. Any way that single and married people differ could account for any differences in how they experience their lives. For example, maybe single people would report more favorable experiences if they did not have swarms of scientists and pollsters buzzing around them, claiming their lives are inferior — and if they were not stereotyped, stigmatized, marginalized, and discriminated against in so many other ways.

If you want to know whether people who marry get happier or healthier, follow people throughout their adult lives and see whether the people who marry become lastingly happier or healthier. They don’t — in fact, sometimes they become a bit less healthy.

As is typical of Gallup and most social science research, questions are formulated from a married person’s perspective, in ways biased to provide answers that make married people look good and single people look bad. For example, they ask whether people have more money after they marry, but they do not ask whether they have the same amount of control over their money.

RELATED: The Emotional Inequality Of Being Single


Bella DePaulo (PhD, Harvard) is the author of the award-winning Single at Heart: The Power, Freedom, and Heart-Filling Joy of Single Life. She has been writing the “Living Single” blog for Psychology Today since 2008 and her TEDx talk, “What no one ever told you about people who are single,” has been viewed more than 1.7 million times.