How being single affects the individual and the society (9:30 to 10:15, 45 minutes) Bella DePaulo

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1 How being single affects the individual and the society (9:30 to 10:15, 45 minutes) Bella DePaulo I m 60 years old and I have always been single. I always will be. I love being single. I have never dreamed about some big fancy wedding. I never wanted to be married. I also do not have any kids. I did not start studying single people and their place in society until around 15 years ago, when I was around 45 years old. I already had an area of expertise I had studied the psychology of lying and detecting lies for more than 20 years. For a long time, though, I kept a secret folder of notes about single life. I included stories about single people from newspapers and magazines. I also included my own observations about single life. It seemed to me that there was something wrong with how single people were viewed and how they were treated. Sometimes single people were treated unfairly because they were single. For example, when I started my first university teaching job, the person who scheduled the classes asked me to teach at night. She said that it would be too much trouble for my married colleagues to come back to work at night. (At the time, those colleagues did not even have kids yet!) I wondered whether other single people had these experiences. For a long time, I never asked anyone. I kept all my notes secret. But then one time, I was at a big party, and I decided to ask another single person if she was ever treated differently because she was single. She loved my question! She had so many of her own experiences to share. As we were talking, other single people heard us, and they joined the conversation. Each new single person had examples to add to our discussion. We talked for the rest of the evening. Then, the next day, when I opened my , I found messages from the same people. They thought of even more examples that they wanted to tell me about. The next time I went to a party, I did the same thing. I asked another single person if she had ever been treated differently because she was single. And again, she had lots of examples. Once more, other people heard us talking and joined our conversation, and we all talked for the rest of the evening. Here are some of the comments and stories those single people shared with me: Several single people said that they had friends they used to see a lot when they were single. But once those friends got involved in romantic relationships and got married, then they only wanted to socialize with other couples. Some single people have had parents who got sick and needed lots of help. Their married siblings assumed that the single people should be the ones to help maybe even move in with their parents. But single people have just one income. If they stop working, they have no money. It is very difficult for them to continue working full time and provide lots of care. Markets often sell groceries in big quantities. That s fine if you are feeding a big family but if you are living by yourself, the food will go bad before you use it all. Why don t they offer food in smaller and more affordable quantities? Why is it that couples and families get discounts, while single people pay full price? When people get married, single people are expected to buy them wedding presents. Often, the two people getting married each have a salary and they each have lots of things. Why should 1

2 single people, who have just one salary, be expected to buy expensive presents for people who get married? There are no special events in the lives of single people that are celebrated the way we celebrate getting married. Political candidates are always talking about married people and families. Why don t they care about the concerns of people who are single and living alone? Why are so many movies and TV shows so preoccupied with weddings and couples and marriage? Why are singles so often portrayed as interested in just one thing finding the One and getting married? Other people seem to assume that if you are single, there is something wrong with you. Why can t you find a spouse, they wonder. Sometimes they offer to help you find someone. They never seem to consider the possibility that you might like being single. I didn t know it at the time, but all of these examples were just the small ways that single people were viewed or treated unfairly. I had not yet learned about all of the bigger, more important ways that single people were targets of what I could eventually call singlism. Singlism is all the ways in which single people are stereotyped, stigmatized, ignored, and discriminated against. Because so many single people wanted to talk to me about their experiences, and cared about what was happening to them, I became more motivated to take this topic seriously. Eventually, I decided that I would completely change my research. From then on, my main concern would be researching people who are single and their place in society. That s what I would think about, learn about, write about, and talk about. There were so many questions I wanted to answer. For example: 1. Is it really true that single people are targets of discrimination? 2. Is it really true that single people are viewed more negatively than married people? Do other people really think that if you are single, there must be something wrong with you? 3. If other people really do view single people in more negative ways, are those negative perceptions just stereotypes? Or, are there real differences between single and married people? For example, if you get married, will you become happier or healthier than you were when you were single? Will you feel better about yourself? Will you be less isolated? The Main Points Here s a summary of some of the main points I will be making: 1. Single people are discriminated against in many ways. Some are just small things but others are big and important. 2. Single people are viewed more negatively than married people in many ways. 3. If you look at the very best research studies, the ones that follow people over time as they stay single or get married, you will see that on the average, people who get married do not get lasting benefits. Sometime they become a bit happier or healthier at first during the first few years of marriage but over time, those advantages disappear. Some people get so unhappy that they divorce. But even the ones who stay married do not stay happier or healthier than when they were 2

3 single. Over time, they go back to being as happy or as healthy as they were when they were single. 4. On the average, people who stay single are not doing any worse than people who are married. But those numbers are averaging over all different kinds of single people. I think there are two main kinds of single people: a. Vulnerable singles: Some single people are really hurt by the all the stereotyping and discrimination. They know other people judge them harshly for being single, and that makes them feel badly about themselves. Getting left out of social events by their coupled friends makes them feel isolated and lonely. The important question about these single people is: What can we do for them? b. Resilient singles: Some single people are resilient. Despite all of the stereotyping and the stigmatizing, they lead full, productive, happy and healthy lives. It is because of them that studies comparing all single people to all married people often show no differences, or only small differences that disappear over time. The important question about resilient single people is: What can we learn from them? How is it possible for some single people to be stereotyped, stigmatized, discriminated against, and ignored, and still live happily ever after? 5. There are ways that single people, and people who live alone, really are vulnerable, even if they are psychologically resilient. For example: a. Single people have one income. What happens if they lose their job? b. Some single people do not even have one income they are unemployed. c. Single people who are retired may have little money. If they are living alone, they are paying for all of their living expenses themselves. d. People who are seriously ill or disabled and who live alone may find that it is especially difficult to take care of their home and themselves without anyone else around to help. 6. Looking into the future, the number of single people, and the number of people living alone, is likely to grow. Each society needs to ask: Are we prepared for this? The Rise of Single People and of People Living Alone There were so many things I did not know when I first started studying single people. American society is so preoccupied with marriage and couples that I did not realize that there were huge numbers of single people in the United States and around the world, and that the number of singles was growing all the time. Who Counts as Single? First, I should tell you how I define single. There are at least 2 ways: 1. Legally single. People who are legally single are people who are not officially, legally married. Legal marriage matters a lot in the US, because there are so many benefits and protections you get only if you get married legally. Most statistics on the number of single people are based on this definition. 2. Socially single. This is about how you are viewed and treated in everyday life. If you are not in a serious romantic relationship, then you will be viewed and treated as single. There are more people who are socially coupled than legally coupled. If you live with someone, but you are not married, you will still be treated more like a couple than as a single person. Even if you don t live with a romantic partner, but you have a committed relationship with that person, you will be treated more like a couple than a single person. The Rise of Single People 3

4 In the U.S. today, there are 103 million people, 18 and older, who are not married. (They are divorced or widowed or they have always been single). That s close to half (44%). That number has been increasing for decades. In 1960, for example, only 28% of American adults were single. 62% of those 103 million single people have always been single. But what about the people who are living together as couples who are living together but not married? There are 13.4 million of them (6.7 million couples, including same-sex couples.). That still leaves nearly 90 million American adults who are not married. The growing number of single people is happening all around the world. A United Nations report showed that: Between the 1970s and the 2000s, the age at which women first got married increased in 75 out of the 77 countries that were studied. When people wait longer to get married, more and more young people remain single. And, more people stay single throughout their lives. Between the 1990s and the 2000s, the percentage of women, ages 45 to 49, who had never been married had increased in all of the developed nations. Here s an important statistic from the US: People there now spend more years of their adult lives unmarried than married! The Rise of People Living Alone Not all single people live alone. For example, in the US, of the 103 million single people, only 33 million live alone. Other unmarried people live with friends or family or roommates or romantic partners. So the number of single people and the number of people living alone are two different numbers. The number of people living alone is growing in many countries around the world. In his book, Going Solo, sociologist Eric Klinenberg reports that: The countries with the biggest percentages of people living alone are Sweden, Norway, Finland, and Denmark. In each of those countries, at least 40% of the households are 1-person households. In the US, the percentage of 1-person households has been growing for decades; now about 27% of all households are people living alone. In fact, in a huge change from the past, there are now more households consisting of just one person than households comprised of mom, dad, and the kids (just 20%). Lots of other countries have a greater percentage of 1-person households than the US, including Germany, France, the UK, Australia, and Canada. Discrimination against Single People In the US, there are many ways in which single people are targets of discrimination. I m going to describe some of them now. First, though, I want to make an important point: I am not saying that singlism is as bad as racism or some of the other forms of discrimination. There is a level of viciousness, and sometimes even violence, associated with racism, for example, that is absent from singlism. 4

5 Still, the ways in which single people are discriminated against are significant. Singlism needs to be taken seriously. [In Singled Out (DePaulo, 2006) and in Singlism (2011), I described many examples of discrimination against single people. (Additional references can be found in those books.)] Housing Discrimination My colleagues and I did several studies to see whether people discriminate against single people who are looking for a place to live (Morris, Sinclair, & DePaulo, 2007). In one study, we went to rental agents and told them about 3 pairs of people who were interested in renting a house. The pairs of people were described in similar ways for example, they were all in their 30s. One pair was a married couple, one was a cohabiting couple, and the other was a pair of friends. We asked the rental agents to pick the pair they would prefer to rent the house to. If they had no bias, each pair would be chosen 33% of the time. Instead, we found these results: 61% chose the married couple 24% chose the cohabiting couple 15% chose the pair of friends In another study, we asked undergraduates to image that they were rental agents, and tell us their choices. The students were very biased against a single man or a single woman, even though only one person would be occupying the space: 70% chose the married couple 18% chose the single woman 12% chose the single man Discrimination in the Workplace There are lots of examples of discrimination in the workplace. One of the best documented is pay discrimination: Several studies showed that married men get paid more than single men. That happens even when married men and single men have the same accomplishments and have been working the same number of years. It also happens when married and single men are as similar as they can possibly be. In a study of identical twins, the married twin made 26% more than the single twin! Discrimination in Medical Care In a national survey, American doctors who treated patients 55 and older were asked about the quality of the care they provided. They admitted that they provided better care or more complete care to patients who had supportive families than to those who appeared to be alone. What Is the Life of a Single Person Worth? After the US was attacked on September 11, 2001, a fund was set up to compensate the families of the victims. Each family got the same amount for pain and suffering. Then, in addition, spouses of the victims were paid $50,000 more. No one got that extra $50,000 if the victim was single not the victim s parents, not their siblings, not their closest friend or relative no one. In the US, Many Federal Laws Protect and Benefit Only People Who Are Legally Married 5

6 Here are just a few of the benefits and protections that are available only to married people. Single people get none of these benefits. Time Off From Work to Care for Others There is a law in the US that allows workers to take time off from work to care for parents or children who are sick. Married workers can also take time off to care for their spouse. But single people cannot take time off to care for someone especially important to them, such as a sibling or a close friend. Also, someone such as a sibling or close friend cannot take time off in their workplaces to care for the single person. Taxes Single people pay more income taxes on the same taxable income than married couples filing their taxes together. Single people also pay more in estate taxes. Financial Assistance in Old Age In the US, workers earn money that goes into Social Security, which is a pension that provides money to them when they are 62 or older. When married people die, the money they earned goes to their spouse. When single people die, the money goes back into the system. Single people cannot give the money they earned to someone they care about. Also, no one can give the money they earned to people who have always been single. Funeral Expenses In the US, the government provides a small amount of money to cover the funeral expenses of a person who was married. If the person who died was single, the government provides no money for this. Stereotypes of Single People Lots of single people think that other people see them in stereotyped ways just because they are single, but is that really true? The first study my colleagues and I did was very simple. About 1000 people participated. We asked half of them to think about people who are single and just write down what comes to mind. The other half thought about married people. The results were amazing. When people thought about married people, almost every other one 49% -- said that they thought married people were kind, caring, or giving. Only 2% of the participants who were describing single people said that. One out of every three participants thinking about married people said that married people are loving. None of the participants thinking about singles said that single people are loving not even one! In other ways, too, the married people were described more positively. For example, they were seen as happier, more loyal, and less lonely. There was one way that single people were seen more positively they were seen as more independent than married people. 6

7 Then we did several more studies in which we created brief biographical sketches of single people and married people. The sketches were always identical for the single and married person except for whether they were described as single or married. For example, one version of the sketch said: Dave is a 40-year old artist living in Portland, Maine. He enjoys hiking and is married. Half the participants instead read that Dave is single. We included female versions, too. Again, we found the same thing. Even though everything about the married person and the single person was exactly the same except for their marital status, the married people were rated more positively than single people in every way except for independence. [These studies of stereotying are described in DePaulo, 2006, 2011; DePaulo & Morris, 2005, 2006; and Morris, DePaulo, Hertel, & Taylor, 2008.] What Are the Real Differences between Single People and Married People? I have been saying that these negative perceptions of single people are stereotypes they are not really true. But how do I know? What does the research say about the actual differences between single people and married people? In the United States, single people are often told that if they get married, their whole life will improve. They will be happier, they will be healthier, and they will never be depressed or lonely again. Thanks to the European Social Survey, we have data from people from more than 30 European nations. People rated how satisfied with their lives on a 0 to 10 scale, where 10 meant extremely satisfied. Tobias Greitemeyer (2009) analyzed those data, comparing people who were currently married to people who had always been single and were never in a civil partnership so, they never had a relationship that was like a marriage. Here s what he found: Life Satisfaction: 7.10 currently married 7.12 always single The results were nearly identical. In the Survey, participants were also asked to rate their self-esteem on a 1 to 5 scale, where 5 indicated the highest self-esteem. Self-esteem: 2.13 currently married 2.13 always single For self-esteem, the results were identical. So, averaging across more than 30 European nations, people who had always been single reported exactly the same self-esteem and the same satisfaction with their lives as people who were currently married. 7

8 There are now hundreds of studies comparing people who are single to people who are married. Suppose you found a study that showed that the currently married people were happier or healthier or better off in some other way than the people who had never gotten married? Would that mean that the married people were happier or healthier because they got married? The answer is no, for several reasons. #1 People who are single might differ from people who are married in all sorts of ways. For example, maybe the single people in the study were younger than the married people. Maybe they had less access to good health care. Maybe they had jobs that paid less. Maybe they had less education. Maybe they had different personalities. Any of the ways that single people differ from married people could explain why one group is happier or healthier than the other. Sometimes researchers try to control for those differences statistically, but you can never think of all of the ways that single and married people could possibly differ. #2 There is something else that may be very important, but no one asks about it: Do the single people want to be single? If you take someone like me who loves living single, and make me get married, I am not going to get happier. I m probably going to be miserable! So even if, on the average, married people did better, that does not mean that every single person would do better if they got married. #3 There is another big problem with these kinds of studies. Because they are comparing single and married people at just one point in time, we don t know whether the married people were happier than the single people even before they got married. So maybe the people who get married are just happier people, and they would be happy whether they stayed single or got married. Maybe marriage has nothing to do with happiness. #4 Remember that the typical claim is that if you get married, you will get happier or healthier. But if you look only at the people who are currently married, you are not looking at everyone who ever got married. People who are divorced, for example, did get married they just didn t stay married. In many studies, people who got divorced or became widowed are less happy and less healthy than people who stayed single. The same reasoning applies to studies of people who live alone. Suppose you found a study showing that people living alone are not as healthy as people not living alone. Would that mean that the people living alone were less healthy because they were living alone, and that if they moved in with other people, they would be healthier? No, for the same reasons. To emphasize just one of them: People who live alone include some who wish they were not living alone and some who love living alone. The people who love living alone may be just as healthy as the people who are not living alone. If you forced the people who want to live alone to live with other people, don t be so sure that they will become healthier. The better kind of study is a longitudinal one. In longitudinal studies, you follow the same people over time, as they stay single or get married and ask them again and again how happy they are. These studies 8

9 are important, because you can see, for the same people, how happy or healthy they were when they were single, and then see if that happiness or health changed when they got married. In 2012, several scholars published a meta-analysis of 18 studies in which the same people were studied repeatedly, starting when they were single, and continuing for years (Luhmann, Hofmann, Eid, & Lucas, 2012). These studies showed that people who got married did not become any happier or more satisfied in the long run than they were when they were single. There was only one hint of an improvement, but it didn t last. When people described their satisfaction with their lives just after they got married, they said they were a bit more satisfied just after they got married than they were before. Eventually, though, their satisfaction decreased, and they ended up no more satisfied with their lives than they were when they were single. [Show a graph.] One other longitudinal study of Americans (Musick & Bumpass, 2012) is worth noting for several reasons: The authors asked about more than just happiness. They also asked about health, depression, selfesteem, and connections with other people. They looked separately at those people who had been married only 3 years or fewer, and those who had been married between 4 and 6 years. That s important because sometimes, any positive effects of marrying disappear after a few years. Here s what they found: Those who had been married only a few years said that they were happier, healthier, less depressed, and had greater self-esteem than they did when they were single. BUT, Among those who had been married for more than 3 years, they were not doing any better in any way than they were when they were single. They were not any happier, they were not any healthier, they were not any less depressed, and their self-esteem was not any better than when they were single. There was one important way in which the people who got married did worse than when they were single: They were less connected to other people. They had less contact with their parents and they spent less time with their friends. That was true for the people who had been married only 3 years, and it was also true for the people who had been married as long as 6 years. One of the beliefs about single people is that they are isolated, and that it is married people who are keeping communities together. In the US and some other countries, too, that s a myth. Single people maintain ties with other people more than married people do. One way single people are not doing nearly as well as married people: Financial and economic status The research I have described so far has shown that just about every stereotype about single people is either exaggerated or just not true. Single people generally are not miserable or isolated. But there is one domain in which single people really are in worse shape than married people they have fewer financial resources. They are less secure economically. For example, in a study of American women approaching retirement age, married women had the most money and the most financial assets (for example, homes and cars that they owned). The women who had 9

10 always been single had the least money and financial assets. The women who were previously married (either divorced or widowed) were in the middle (Addo & Lichter, 2013). There is another very important way in which almost all single people are financially vulnerable if they lose their job, they do not have another person who can cover their expenses. Important Qualifications Single people in general vs. particular subgroups of single people Most of the research on differences between married and single people compares the average across all single people to the average across all married people. But different kinds of single people may have very different experiences. For example: Single men vs. single women Singles of different races Single people who want to be single vs. single people who really want to be married Single people who are poor vs. single people who are doing reasonably well financially Single people in different countries. (There are a few studies from Finland comparing people who live alone to people who do not live alone [Joutsenniemi, 2007; Pulkki-Raback et al. 2012]. Those studies seem to suggest that people in Finland who live alone are more depressed and have worse health than people who do not live alone. Studies of Americans who live alone do not usually paint such a negative picture. I can say more about these studies at the end of my second talk if anyone is interested. For now, I will just say this: The studies did not follow the same people over time, as they moved from one living arrangement to another for example, from living alone to living with other people, or from living with other people to living alone. So we do not know if the people who were living alone would have become any happier or healthier if they lived with other people. Maybe, though, there really are differences, and people who live alone in Finland are worse off than people who do not live alone. In my next talk, I will mention some of the data on poverty that may be relevant.) Vulnerable singles vs. resilient singles Probably one of the most important distinctions is between vulnerable single people and resilient single people. Vulnerable singles: For some single people, the stigma and the stereotypes are hurtful. Knowing that other people judge them so harshly makes them feel badly about themselves. Getting left out of social events by their coupled friends makes them feel isolated and lonely. The important question about these single people is: What can we do for them? Resilient singles: Some single people are resilient. Despite all of the stereotyping and the stigmatizing, they lead full and productive, happy and healthy lives. It is because of them that studies comparing all single people to all married people often show no differences, or only small differences that disappear over time. The important question about resilient single people is: What can we learn from them? The subtitle of my first book, Singled Out, was: How single people are stereotyped, stigmatized, and ignored, and still live happily ever after. That s a very important question. How is it possible that some 10

11 single people can be stereotyped and stigmatized and ignored and discriminated against, and still live happy and healthy lives? People are often surprised by the studies that show that people who get married, in the long run, do not end up happier or healthier than they were when they were single. I think they are surprised because: 1. There is little recognition of the strengths of people who are single. 2. There is too much emphasis on what might be good or beneficial about getting married. Our cultural conversations are all about what is bad or limiting about being single and what is good or rewarding about being married. But that leaves out all of the other possibilities what is good about being single and what is bad or limiting about being married. I think that resilient single people have some important strengths and values that are not often recognized. For example: 1. Successful single people often nurture their relationships with a wider variety of people. While married people are focusing mostly on their spouse, single people are staying in closer contact with their siblings, parents, friends, and neighbors (Gerstel & Sarkisian, 2006). 2. Research has shown that single people value work that is meaningful more than married people do. Married people care more about how much a job pays (Kirpatrick Johnson, 2005). 3. Single people may have more different skills than married people do. If you are married, maybe you do some things and your spouse does other things. If you are single, you have to figure it all out for yourself. You do the housework, the yard work, the money management, and everything else or you find someone else to help. 4. Single people may be more inclined to pursue their interests and their passions than married people are. 5. Single people who live alone may have more opportunities to enjoy solitude. Maybe the skills of successful single people offer some suggestions as to how to help vulnerable single people. Maybe people such as counselors, social workers, and spiritual leaders should ask themselves how they can help single people find friends and create deeper connections with friends? How can they encourage single people to pursue their interests and their passions? How can they help single people master all of the skills they will need? Are there sufficient services available for single people who cannot do everything for themselves? It is likely that over time, the number of people who are single, and the number of people who live alone, will continue to grow. Is society prepared for this? For example: Is there enough decent housing for single people? Is the housing affordable? Is society prepared to help the single people who will need help? o As more and more single people get older, they will need more help (for example, with meals or transportation or maintaining their homes). o It is not just the older single people who need help. Sometimes younger single people do, too. 11

12 Single people are especially vulnerable economically. What happens if they cannot find a job that pays a decent salary, or if they lose their job? In welfare states such as Finland, you have more protections for people than we do in the US. But are those protections and resources enough for single people to live a dignified life? That s for you to tell me. As you can tell, I care about people who are single. I want them to be able to live the best lives they possibly can. I want the stereotyping and the stigma and the discrimination and all of the other kinds of singlism to end. If it did end, that would be good for single people. But here is another really important point: If singlism ended, that would also be good for couples. People who want to be coupled would approach potential partners from a position of strength. They would be moving toward something they want, rather than running away from the stigma of being single. By resisting singlism, we are making it possible for every person to live the life that is best for them, whether that is single life or married life. [References will be included at the end of the second talk.] 12

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