Women’s studies scholar Peggy McIntosh was hardly the first to write about “privilege,” the notion that “some people benefit from unearned, and largely unacknowledged, advantages, even when those advantages are not discriminatory,” but her personal account and list of examples resonated with readers in a way that previous conceptualizations had not. When The New Yorker asked her how she got interested in the topic, she talked about a faculty seminar she led in the 1980s about how new research on women could be integrated into academic disciplines. She wanted to know how disciplines could “be changed by the recognition that women are half the world’s population, and have half the world’s lived experience.”
The US legal system is explicit in its commitment to many forms of non-discrimination. But in federal statutes, there are more than 1,000 laws that protect or benefit only those persons who are legally married.
Now, decades later, the notion of privilege is no longer new. Discussions of male privilege and white privilege have raised consciousness about all sorts of other unearned privileges, such as those conditional on age, social class and sexual orientation. Similarly, awareness of isms has jumped the bounds of sexism and racism to include heterosexism, ageism, classism, ableism and others. Yet, in the United States in the 21st century, the ism and the privilege that disadvantage nearly half of the country’s adult population have gone largely unrecognized. Singlism – the stereotyping, stigmatizing and discrimination against people who are not married – and marital privilege – the unearned advantages that benefit those who are married – continue to frequently slip under the cultural radar.
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It is easy to dismiss singlism, partially because some of the most egregious and violent examples of other isms simply are not part of the not-married experience. In some ways, though, singlism and marital privilege are striking and special. The US legal system, for instance, is explicit in its commitment to many forms of non-discrimination. But in federal statutes, there are more than 1,000 laws that protect or benefit only those persons who are legally married. All unmarried people, even those who do not identify as single, are excluded. That injustice motivated many of the advocates for same-sex marriage. The question they pose is compelling: Why should only a certain kind of couple have access to basic benefits and protections? However, that question is just one small step to an equally reasonable but more expansive question: Why should adults have to be any kind of couple at all in order to benefit and be protected under the law?
Examples of Singlism: The Stereotyping, Stigmatizing and Discrimination Against Single People
Consider the example of lifelong single people with no children who work side-by-side with married co-workers doing the same work for the same number of years. When the married workers die, their Social Security benefits go to their spouse (and, under certain circumstances, several former spouses). Unmarried people’s benefits cannot be given to the most important people in their lives – they go back into the system. And, no other person can give their Social Security benefits to lifelong single people.
The Family and Medical Leave Act is similarly dismissive of the significant people in the lives of single people. Under the act, any worker in an eligible workplace (regardless of marital status) can take time off to care for a child or parent. Married workers can also take time to care for their spouse. Single people, though, cannot take time to care for a person just as important to them, such as a sibling or close friend. Nor can any such person take time under the act to care for single people.
Many forms of tax relief are available only to legally married people. At the heart of one of the landmark same-sex marriage cases, United States v. Windsor, was the exemption from federal estate taxes available to surviving spouses only. Edith Windsor believed that she should be entitled to the same exemption when her female partner died. Windsor won her case, but her victory did nothing for uncoupled single people with no children who want to leave their estates to the people who matter most to them.
Singlism often goes unrecognized and unchallenged.
In the marketplace, married couples are advantaged when they pay less per person for car insurance, health club memberships, travel or entertainment packages, or anything else than single people do. In the workplace, married men are paid more than single men, even when they are similar in their accomplishments and even when they are identical twins. Research has also shown that there is housing discrimination against unmarried people.
Singlism, unlike many other “isms,” often goes unrecognized and unchallenged. The research on housing discrimination included a study in which people read about a landlord who had two very good potential tenants, one Black and one White, interested in renting a property. The Black applicant offered to pay more money, but the landlord rented to the White person instead. When research participants were asked why they thought the landlord chose the White person, 71 percent said the landlord was prejudiced and was practicing discrimination. In a parallel scenario in which a single applicant offered to pay more than a married one, but the landlord chose the married applicant, only 10 percent attributed the decision to bias. (Of course, the fact that people recognize racial bias does not mean that such bias is adequately addressed.)
Certain classes of stereotypes, such as those pertaining to African-Americans, are so widely recognized as offensive that researchers cannot ask people explicitly what they think of Black people and expect to get honest answers. So, they lean on more implicit measures. With regard to single people, though, direct questions readily elicit negative judgments. For example, when Wendy Morris, Bella DePaulo and their colleagues asked 950 people to describe what comes to mind when they think about either married or single people, the people assigned to describe married people were much more positive. Nearly every other person spontaneously suggested that married people are kind, caring or giving; only 2 percent of those describing singles said the same thing. Every third person thinking about married people said they were loving; no one describing single people offered that characterization. In other research from the United States and elsewhere, participants were shown brief biographical profiles in which married and single people were described identically except for their marital status. People who read the profiles attributed to single people rated them more harshly than those reading the same profiles attributed to married people. For example, they viewed the single people as more insecure, immature and lacking in self-esteem, as well as less attractive, less happy and less satisfied with their lives.
The media and even the social science establishment have contributed to the negative perceptions of single people by their trumped-up claims that getting married makes people happier, healthier and better off in all sorts of psychological ways. In fact, the vast majority of studies upon which such claims rest are fundamentally flawed. Researchers rarely compare everyone who ever got married to people who stay single – the comparison most relevant to the question of whether getting married improves people’s lives. Instead, they set aside all the people who got married, hated it and got divorced, and then include in their married group only those skimmed off the top – the ones who got married and are still currently married. It is the equivalent of a pharmaceutical company trying to sell a new drug so distasteful that more than 40 percent of those who try it refuse to continue taking it. To make its case, the drug company simply excludes from the drug group all those people who hated the drug and compares the remaining drug takers to those who are not taking the drug. Tellingly, in research on marital status, even such blatantly biased studies do not always show that married people fare better than single people. For example, a comparison of currently married to single people across 30 nations found identical levels of life satisfaction and self-esteem. In other ways, the single people do better. For example, people who marry become less attentive to their parents and friends.
Marital Privilege: The Unearned and Mostly Unacknowledged Advantages of Married People
Complementing the discrimination and stereotyping aimed at single people is the vast set of unearned advantages that are part of the experience of married life in the United States and many other countries as well. In matters of privilege, legally married people benefit, but often so do other people who are coupled but not married.
“Why is a person as nice/successful/intelligent as you still single?” is an unremarkable conversational gambit, whereas the analogous why-are-you-still-married would be considered unthinkable – and unthinkably rude.
Marital privilege means that married people’s experiences are normalized while single people’s are problematized. “Why is a person as nice/successful/intelligent as you still single?” is an unremarkable conversational gambit, whereas the analogous why-are-you-still-married would be considered unthinkable – and unthinkably rude.
The experiences of privileged groups are considered ordinary – just the way things are. When ticket prices or the costs of services are quoted as “$100 per couple,” when greeting cards express “our” sympathy, and when retirement products are promoted with images of elderly couples holding hands on the beach, it seems that coupled lives are the default settings of our minds.
The longstanding neglect of the perspectives from groups such as women, people of color and LGBTQ people is being addressed, to some extent, in universities with the introduction of women’s studies, Black studies, and queer studies programs, as well as the inclusion in other “mainstream” courses of relevant scholarship. However, there is no singles studies program in any university, anywhere.
In institutions of higher education, marriage has a special and uncontested place. Scholars interested in marriage have access to grant money to fund their research, many journals and publishing houses to publish it, conferences to discuss it and students to study it. There are textbooks, courses and degree programs on marriage. In contrast, singles make it into the curriculum only if they have some link to marriage or family – if, for example, they were previously married (studies of divorce and widowhood are plentiful) or they are raising children. The mating patterns and preferences of young single adults also attract interest. The life experiences of single people apart from any quest to become coupled – their values, interests, passions, attitudes toward work, their preferences for time alone vs. time together, the important people in their lives, for example – all get short shrift.
Single people have been mostly missing from the ongoing cultural conversations about balancing personal life and work life. The “all” in “having it all” is most often conceptualized as marriage, family and work, as if just about everyone wants the same things out of life.
In everyday life, as in the law, the friends, relatives, neighbors, mentors and other people who might be significant to single people are typically treated as nonexistent or of no consequence. The word “alone” is too often used as a synonym for single. Invitations to social events that are extended to married people routinely include the spouse; when uncoupled single people are offered the option of bringing a “plus-one,” that’s considered a special treat. When married people have lots of pets, they are seen as loving; when single people do, they are dismissed as compensating for the lack of important humans in their lives. When married people are dedicated to their jobs, it is because they love their work or they are selflessly supporting their families. Research suggests that single people value meaningful work even more than married people do, but when they are dedicated to their jobs, they are derided as workaholics who have nothing better to do.
Marital privilege is emotional privilege. Other people express happiness for people who marry but pity for those who stay single. Married people’s claims to happiness are taken at face value. Single people who say they are happy are seen as desperately trying to justify their sad status; deep down inside, it is assumed, they are actually miserable. When married people complain about tax burdens or any other perceived injustices, they are taken seriously; when single people do, they are dismissed as bitter.
Marital privilege means that married status is valued and glorified, whereas single status is portrayed as that which must be escaped.
Marital privilege is about entitlement. People who marry expect shower gifts, wedding gifts and attendance at their weddings. In the workplace, they sometimes expect single people to show up on holidays, to take whatever vacation times are left after married workers’ choices have been honored and to cover for their married co-workers on ordinary workdays as they head out early.
Pandering is part of the package, too. Political candidates vow to fight for “working families,” though 2-year-olds make for rather inadequate employees. They are joined by pundits and other self-styled experts in their shameless (and misleading) declarations that married-parent families are inspirational and single-parent families are dysfunctional, and that the children of married parents are destined for success whereas the children of single parents are doomed to a life of delinquency and failure.
Marital privilege is a place of respect. Married people are regarded as mature and fully adult; single people are seen as immature and child-like.
Marital privilege means that married status is valued and glorified, whereas single status is portrayed as that which must be escaped. Countless movies, TV shows, stories and books feature characters desperately seeking a spouse, and celebrated when they succeed. Well-meaning friends and relatives offer to “fix up” single people, as if they are broken.
Set against the demographic trends of the past half-century, the current societal cluelessness about singlism and marital privilege is especially jarring. The number of single people has been growing steadily. Today in the United States, there are nearly as many adults who are not married (either divorced, widowed or always single) as married. Americans spend more years of their adult lives not married than married. A person knocking at random on front doors across the nation is more likely to be met by a single person living alone than a household comprised of married parents and their dependent children. These trends are not unique to the United States, but are evident – and sometimes even more pronounced – in many countries around the globe.
Global trends have not yet reached the point where single people are “half the world’s population and have half the world’s lived experience,” but they are close enough. It is time to integrate single people’s experiences into everyone’s understandings without bias or disparagement. It is time to stop singlism and recognize marital privilege for what it really is. It is time for all people, regardless of marital or relationship status, to have the same basic rights, dignities and respect.