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Views of singles, not least by singles: PC says, we’ve a heap of work to do on attitudes

January 21, 2015
Not so puzzling, divergent perceptions of single men and women, are they? Image by njaj/Courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net

Divergent perceptions of single men and women: not that puzzling, but a shame, none the less. Image by njaj/Courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net

About 29% of UK households are occupied today by one person. It was a mere ten years ago that the words ‘spinster’ and ‘bachelor’, with their outdated negative, stereotyping undertones, were cut from marriage certificates. A study at the time however warned that there seemed to be a persistent ‘ideology of marriage and family that is widely embraced and infrequently questioned’ (B.M. DePaulo and W.L. Morris, ‘Singles in society and in science, in Psychological Inquiry, 16, 2005, quoted in J. Hertel, A. Schűtz, B.M. DePaulo, W.L. Morris and T.S. Stucke, ‘She’s single, so what? How are singles perceived compared with people who are married?’, in Zeitschrift fűr Familienforschung, 19, 2007)(http://www.zeitschrift-fuer-familienforschung.de/pdf/2007-2-schuetz.pdf). J. Hertel et al agreed in 2007 that

‘Singleness is often regarded as a transitional state between romantic relationships. It is seen as a period of living and not as a form of living.’ (B. Kupper, Are singles different from others? A comparison between singles and couples, 2002.)

And yet, and yet. Women who have never been married tend to enjoy better health than other women; ‘younger and middle-aged single women tend to have high general ability scores, are highly educated, and have high-status occupations… In general, never married people report satisfaction in terms of friendships, general health, standard of living, and finances….The majority of never married individuals are socially active, with friends, neighbors, and relatives, as well as dating partners.’ (OK, so there’s a biggish proviso here – apart from the fact that these findings are marriage-based, as so often: single men have a harder time: in health, socially and romantically; and the never married, especially women, tend to experience more problems later in life, especially when their caregiving needs grow.) (http://family.jrank.org/pages/1583/Singles-Never-Married-Persons-Psychosocial-Characteristics-Never-Married.html”&gt).

And yet, and yet, too, society is undergoing a momentous shift in the variety, the status and the degrees of permanence/commitment of different kinds of relationship and family/community networks, accelerating us far beyond the aptness of such attitudes. ‘Singlehood’ takes very many, variegated forms: it’s now a constricting term. While national and international statistics collection often still uses the antiquated definition of singles as ‘the unmarried’, in reality ‘singledom’ now encompasses too those in a couple who live regularly apart; the separated; widows and widowers; single parents (lone mothers, one could argue, having become ‘the weakest link in the embattled welfare state’ (http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/this-britain/sin-and-the-single-mother-the-history-of-lone-parenthood-7782370.html); ‘uncoupled’ people who are creating ‘families’, or other living arrangements, together; people living solo who treat their pets almost as ‘partners’; even – in some circumstances – gays living in a stable union but unable to attain full ‘married’ status; and more.

In her Atlantic article All the Single Ladies (2011)(http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2011/11/all-the-single-ladies/308654), Kate Bolick recognises the importance of the work of the social historian Stephanie Coontz and her landmark 1990s book Marriage, a History: From Obedience to Intimacy, or How Love Conquered Marriage. There, Coontz demonstrates that throughout history, our views of the legal contract of marriage between a man and a woman have always been in flux. Janelle Nanos’s ‘”Spinster” and the Stigma of Being Single’ in Boston Magazine, January 2012 (http://www.bostonmagazine.com/news/blog/2012/01/10/spinster-and-the-stigma-of-being-single/) points out that one important factor in our prejudice towards marriage and against singledom from the late nineteenth century, given the large-scale loss of male lives in the North American Civil War and in the two World Wars, has been a recurring pattern of societal concern about having ‘too many women’ for the state to support without, as it were, ‘male breadwinners’ help’. In some cohorts, in some countries, this remains a thematic refrain (‘Across the country [the UK in June 2014], … when it comes to those aged 35-64, [there are] more single women – 271,000 – than men who are unattached’: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/single-women-should-move-to-london-but-single-men-should-go-to-merseyside-research-shows-9480725.html). ‘Unattached’: now there’s an unpleasant term.

Another influence against singledom was the thinking of the Freudian era, which ‘stigmatized singles and deemed them abnormal (marriage [was] elevated and the only “normal” path to intimacy)’. It could be argued that in the 70s and 80s there was a more positive image of singles as young and attractive, loving to have fun; but since then, we seem to have regressed into more traditional values (S. Hradil, ‘From admiration to pity: Changes in how singles are perceived and the re-emergence of traditional values’, in Zeitschrift fűr Familienforschung, 16, 2003).

All this, and yet, when interviewed by Bolick in 2011, Stephanie Coontz had to admit that things have irreversibly moved on:

‘We are … in the midst of an extraordinary sea change…. When it comes to what people actually want and expect from marriage and relationships, and how they organize their sexual and romantic lives, all the old ways have broken down.’

For a start, Bolick points out, we keep putting marriage off: the average marriage age is rising (at least, in the US and the UK). We’re also marrying less in the first place. Furthermore, women (and men) no longer have to marry to procreate; and parenthood is no longer seen as ‘compulsory’, either.

Yet society, modern culture, still obsesses on marriage, or certainly coupledom, as the Golden Ideal. Even Kate Bolick slips into writing of her ‘chances’ of finding a mate and having children. Not just statistics collection, but qualitative research, historical and sociological, is biased: revolving around marriage/coupledom or its lack but also being gender-unbalanced. For instance, studies of widows increased in volume from the 1970s to now, while studies of widowers are much more sparse, and have tended to consider them in the context of their re-marriage: a reflection, experts argue, of our patriarchal values (Widowhood in Medieval and Early Modern Europe, reviewed in Reviews in History, 2015: http://www.history.ac.uk/reviews/review/165).

Our linguistic usage is sexist, as well as biased around singledom, and that doesn’t help. From being a term of respect for women who chose a trade in spinning wool over marriage, ‘spinster’ has become deeply pejorative, on a par with the phrase ‘old maid’, i.e. someone to be pitied for being unmarried/uncoupled. It’s a word now thankfully little used; though it’s been proudly reclaimed for the blog The Modern Spinster with its really contemporary, illuminating posts (https://themodernspinster.wordpress.com/). Telling, isn’t it, that the equivalent male word ‘bachelor’ was at first glamourised in the early twentieth century (‘bachelor pad’, ‘gay bachelor’) then more or less abandoned – sooner than ‘spinster’? There’s a (less noticed) gender inequality between ‘widow’ and ‘widower’, ‘widow’ being more negative in associations than the male equivalent, and also more often tagged to the dead man’s name (‘Bill Smith’s widow’). Of course, there are historical reasons for all this: men were the primary breadwinners in earlier centuries, so their loss – according to societal economic values – was in the past noted more keenly.

The marriage/parenthood ideal naturally permeates the media, too. News outlets commonly report ‘Widow robbed’ or ‘Mother of two killed in car crash’, labelling women in a facile way that they’d never do with men. (http://www.academica.edu/4320377/Sexism_in_Language_-_An_Analysis_of_Non-Parallel_Use_of_Paired_Gender_Nouns). Then of course, everywhere we read ‘light, fun’ journalistic pieces that perpetuate societal notions of the single as merely undergoing a period devoid of the ideal state of existence, coupledom. See for instance ’10 Types of 30-Year-Old Single Guys’ (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/wait-but-why/30-year-old-single-guys_b_5760034.html), and ‘The 10 Types of Single Women Over the Age of 30’ (a nasty piece, not only singlist but misogynistic, with a further distasteful edge of ageism, at http://www.lightlybraisedturnip.com/10-types-single-women-over-30/. Disturbingly, it’s written by a man who’s self-professedly the ‘finest dating and romance coach on the West Coast’ who ‘has been helping single women past their “best served by” date [OMG! My exclamation] to find love since 2003′).

Hertel et al‘s study ‘She’s single, so what?’ of 2007, interviewing 267 Germans, single and coupled, male and female, and of many ages up to 50, thus showed – unsurprisingly – that

‘married people are generally still seen more positively than singles. Singles were seen as more lonely, less warm and caring than married people….It is the men who are more negative in their views of targets who are single. Men think that single people are less sophisticated and sociable than married people…. Perhaps the perception of singles as less [warm and caring]/nurturant corresponds to the actual likelihood of having children, [as] married people are more likely to have children than single people are. Yet, that difference is narrowing….’

Anyhoo, we probably all know that society at large is prejudiced against singles. Although – of course! – a shedload of ‘singles’ (however defined) have high self-esteem and positive attitudes to their own singlehood, what interests me, what saddens me more, is some of their attitudes to ‘other’ singles: to singles in certain groups, or singles in general. There’s an insightful Hons thesis by Kimberly McErlean (2012), ‘Examining Conceptions of Singlehood among Older Ever-Singles’ (i.e. what she calls ‘the voluntary and involuntary stable categories of singlehood’)(https://dspacelibrary.cornell.edu/bitstream/1813/29535/2/McErlean%2c%20Kimberly%20-20%20Research%20Honors%20Thesis.pdf). Single women felt that their singledom was perceived more negatively than men’s, divorcees sensing themselves to be slightly higher in the singledom pecking order ‘because someone had found them attractive once’; while single males found themselves regarded as an oddity or a rarity, rather than being so defined by their status in relation to marriage or non-marriage. Singles can thus be reluctant to identify themselves in pieces on singlehood in the media: see Janelle Nanos’s piece, cited above, for instance.

According to Hertel at al, it wasn’t just older couples who judged singles ‘especially more harshly than they judged marrieds’: it was also YOUNGER SINGLES. What a shame.

This is a hard one to tease out, because the same study (remember, undertaken with singles and couples, of a range of ages) explains that

‘Women – especially younger women – think single people are more sophisticated and sociable than married people. Younger men disagree…. Men … are more negative in their views of targets who are single. Men think that single people are less sophisticated and sociable than married people…. Coupled perceivers sometimes rate singles as more sophisticated and sociable than marrieds, but only if they are young or the targets they are rating are young.’

So, perhaps the researchers’ most important observation is that

‘There is a positive trend in the way singles are perceived, but only with respect to young singles…. Apparently, being young, flexible, and independent is regarded as positive, being old and still without a partner as negative.’

Even singles who regard themselves as in the ‘dating pool’ reflect these prejudices. Dating research from a large online agency, OKCupid, is full of sobering stuff about the age distortion in the self-perceptions of men, in particular, looking for love: compared with women seeking male partners, they’re heavily biased against women older than them http://blog.okcupid.com/index.php/page/12/).

Singlism – including self-singlism – is gender-biased and ageist, too, it turns out.

Looks like there’s one heck of a lot of work on attitudes to do. We could start by forming some kind of gender-blind, age-blind Singles Organisation to promote our cause and advertise all the new forms of ‘singlehood’. (I personally can’t find one.) Alternatively, we could all support and follow the work of experts in the field such as Dr Bella DePaulo (http://belladepaulo.com/). (It was she who coined the term ‘singlism’ – used here – for all forms of prejudice against singledom; I admire her work tremendously).

I dedicate this post to her.

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