If you are single, after graduation there isn’t one occasion where people celebrate you…Hallmark doesn’t make a “congratulations, you didn’t marry the wrong guy” card. And where’s the flatware for going on vacation alone? – Carrie Bradshaw (Sex and the City)
Over the past few decades, the rate of marriage has declined while the rate of divorce has crept up. In spite of these major social shifts, most people still view marriage positively and think of it as the ideal state we should strive for.1 In fact, we hold the institution of marriage in such high regard that not only do we celebrate and reward marriages with extravagant ceremonies and gifts (even when it’s someone’s second, third, or fourth wedding!), but society also gives preferential treatment to people who are married. This bias favoring married over single people has only recently caught scientists’ attention and we are just beginning to learn how deep this prejudice runs.
Singlism is the technical term for holding negative beliefs about single people or treating them unfairly because of their marital status. As some evidence of this form of bias, consider a recent survey study in which over 1,000 college undergraduates were asked to list the most common traits and characteristics that come to mind when thinking about married and single people.2 Although participants typically described married folks in very positive terms, such as being honest, mature, and nice, the singles did not fare well at all. Among the most common terms used to describe single people were immature, lonely, and ugly!
These negative beliefs appear to contribute to unequal treatment of single folks. For example, in one set of experiments that sampled both college undergraduates and real life rental agents, participants were shown fictitious property rental applications and were asked to choose which applicant they would be most inclined to accept.3 Participants consistently indicated that they would prefer renting to married couples over single people and willingly divulged that marital status was the deciding factor in their decision. The researchers also found that participants viewed discrimination against singles as more legitimate than most other forms of discrimination (e.g., racism, sexism, anti-gay prejudice). Thus, people seem comfortable holding this kind of bias and do not make much (if any) effort to hide it.
Part of the reason for this overt prejudice likely stems from the fact that this kind of discrimination is perfectly legal in many parts of the United States. There is no federal law prohibiting discrimination based on marital status, and although some states have enacted such bans, many have not.
In summary, society does indeed appear to “single out” those who are romantically unattached. In a world that is still very pro-marriage, there can be a stiff penalty for not being involved in a relationship.
1Thornton, A., & Young-DeMarco, L. (2001). Four decades of attitudes toward family issues in the United States: The 1960s through the 1990s. Journal of Marriage and the Family, 63, 1009-1037.
2DePaulo, B. M., & Morris, W. L. (2006). The unrecognized stereotyping and discrimination against singles. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 15, 251-254.
3Morris, W. L., Sinclair, S., & DePaulo, B. M. (2007). No shelter for singles: The perceived legitimacy of marital status discrimination. Group Processes Intergroup Relations, 10, 457-470.
Dr. Justin Lehmiller - Science of Relationships articles | Website/CV
Dr. Lehmiller's research program focuses on how secrecy and stigmatization impact relationship quality and physical and psychological health. He also conducts research on commitment, sexuality, and safer-sex practices.