Its a directive some singles are tired of hearing.
"Our culture tries to say that unless youre married, youre going to be miserable that marriage is the one way to have a happy and meaningful life," said social psychologist Bella DePaulo, who has studied the topic for the past seven years.
In appearances on television and radio including interviews on National Public Radio and "The Rush Limbaugh Show" the visiting University of California at Santa Barbara professor proclaims that this belief is not only false but unhealthy.
"What Im trying to do in all of my writing and thinking," DePaulo said in a phone interview, "is debunk all of the subtle and not-so-subtle ways that single people are dismissed, marginalized and denigrated."
Her book, Singled Out, is scheduled to be released next year by St. Martins Press. In July, DePaulo published a paper in the journal Psychological Inquiry about how social scientists often overlook the stigma against singles.
"Unfair treatment and the stigma really permeate all aspects of society," agrees Thomas Coleman, executive director of Unmarried America, an information service and online library for single and unmarried people. "Its still expected that people will marry and that theres something weird about you if you dont." Socially isnt the only way singles suffer, Coleman pointed out. Singles endure unfair work policies, tax codes that penalize them, higher auto insurance rates and federal laws that outlaw most forms of discrimination except those based on marital status.
He recalled hearing from a single woman who had a pension plan through her employer, a major airline, and wanted to name her sister as her beneficiary.
"She was told, you can do this," Coleman said, "but you should know that if you die before you retire, [your sister] wont get a penny." The money would go back to the company.
If a married employee died before retiring, however, the surviving spouse would get the pension.
In another instance, a single woman wanted to use family medical leave laws to
take time off work to care for her sister, who was dying of cancer and was her
only living relative. Because the law doesnt apply to siblings, she couldnt
get the time off.
Legal issues aside, it was the social stigma that first drew DePaulo, who is single, to the subject after she noticed she was treated differently than married friends. Women she frequently met with over lunch never asked her to their dinner parties. Was it because they found her dull, she wondered, or was it because she didnt have a date to bring to their all-couples events?
Curious, she started taking notes about each instance, just to see what the patterns were. Then one day at a party, she began talking to another single person about her observations. Soon, other single partygoers joined the discussion and shared their own stories.
DePaulo decided to start researching the topic in earnest. Among her findings: People often assume that singles are less mature, secure, generous, happy and loving than people in a romantic relationship especially when compared with married people. Instead, singles are viewed as lonely, envious and selfish.
The stigma is stronger the older the single person is, but she found 20-something single college students also are viewed less-favorably than their coupled peers.
Even divorced people once the scourge of polite society fare better than singles. "If youve been married and divorced, youve shown youre capable of being loved," DePaulo said. "Instead of saying, `Whats this persons flaw that makes them unable to hold onto a marriage, theyll say, Whats your flaw that you never got married?"
"Theres a kind of hierarchy of goodness, worthiness and respect," DePaulo said. "At the top are people who are married, and at the bottom are people who have never been married." Yet even as our culture clings to The Couple, roughly 49 percent of all U.S. households are headed by a single person, said Unmarried Americas Coleman. In California, single households are in the majority.
Despite societys denigrating assumptions, singles live satisfying lives.
One study DePaulo reviewed found that among married and single people, single
women are the happiest. Other research suggests that its stability
not marital status that matters. People who remain single or who get and
stay married may be happier than those who marry and divorce. Also, contentment
can vary dramatically not only across individuals, but also over time. For example,
people who get married often feel happier for a year or so afterward, but then
return to their pre-marriage level of happiness, DePaulo said. "I think there
are legions of single people quietly living lives of happiness," DePaulo
Lara Battles of Arroyo Grande, Calif., is one such person. The 50-something divorcee has been single since 1998 and said she has no intention of marrying again but admits she might feel differently if shed never been married.
"I have known women who never married who do appear to hunger for marriage, as if it would complete something they feel is lacking," Battles said. "I think its cultural conditioning, cultural expectation."
As demographics continue to shift, and as social scientists like DePaulo increasingly research how singles are treated, its likely societys attitudes will finally catch up with reality.
At last, single men who routinely earn less than their married counterparts
will get a wage raise. And single women wont feel they need to read
books titled If Im So Wonderful, Why am I Still Single?
"Its like before the womens movement," DePaulo explained. "There are all these assumptions made that really derogate singles and demean them, and they havent been challenged. Once we challenge them and show them for what they are, they will make no more sense to us than all the dopey things people used to say about women."
© 2005, The Tribune, San Luis Obispo, Calif.
Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.