Singled out for being single: what's going on?
The sociology of being single
Although the subheading of this section may sound like the title of an ambitious undergraduate dissertation, a great deal of import can be drawn from the social sciences when it comes to understanding singlehood. You may well be wondering what on earth sociology has to do with being single. Here’s the scoop.
Most of us will be all too familiar with that oft-parodied image of a hapless single lost in a sea of self-help books and empty wine bottles. Whilst this caricature is both exaggerated and insulting, it’s a depiction that pervades both the media and our imaginations.
In search of an alternate perspective on being single, EliteSingles spoke to one of the most prominent researchers involved in the study of singlehood; Bella DePaulo. A visiting professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara, she has published extensively on broad range of issues that overlap with being single.
The Harvard-educated academic is quick to point the pros of a more rigorous and sociological standpoint can bring to the debate. “A scientific approach can push past selective perception and bust myths,” says DePaulo, “It lets us talk about singlehood based on data rather than just opinion and prejudice. With good research, we can see the strengths of being single and the meaningfulness of single life.”
Myth busting and raising awareness are central components of DePaulo’s work. For example, she challenges scientifically endorsed research that suggests wedded couples live happier and healthier lives (of which there is plenty). “It can be tricky,” she says of contesting the status quo, “all too often claims about the benefits of getting married are made that cannot possibly be supported based on the kind of research that’s been conducted.”
In fact, there’s evidence to support DePaulo’s claims. In 2015 a study conducted by researchers at the University of Auckland revealed that for some people, relationships can apparently have an adverse effect on quality of life1. More specifically, the investigation found that individuals of a non-confrontational disposition had a higher degree of life satisfaction being single as opposed to being in a relationship.
To advance her critique DePaulo coined two terms; singlism and matrimania. The former relates to the prejudice that’s targeted at single men and women. “There is little cultural awareness of singlism,” says DePaulo, “yet discrimination against single people is written into the law. In the US for example, there are more than 1,000 laws at the federal level alone that benefit and protect only those people who are legally married.” Examples of where being single is ignored legally include income tax deductions, rights to inheritance and employment laws
DePaulo’s second concept, matrimania, is meant to “the over-the-top hyping of marriage and coupling and weddings.” “Matrimania has actually gotten more extreme since, say, the 1950s or so,” says DePaulo, “people celebrate marriage so relentlessly, and in such ostentatious ways, not because we are all so secure about the place of marriage in our lives, but because we are so insecure. Marriage just isn’t important to our lives in the big important ways it used to be.”
Long live singledom
On the flipside, is it not fair to reason that singlehood in the 21st century is much less stigmatised than ever before? And could matrimania be ebbing? It’s certainly true that marital habits have changed drastically over the last forty years in Australia. In 1975 a mere 16% of couples had lived together before getting hitched.
Fast-forward to the 21st century and things are much different; in 2013 77% of marriages were preceded by cohabitation2. The median age for first time marriages increased over this period too; 23 for men in 1975 compared to 30 in 2013, 21 for women in 1975 as opposed to 28 in 2013. Furthermore, since 1986, there has been a 9% drop in married Aussie couples, 58-49% to be precise.
These findings would appear to indicate that though people aren’t necessarily opting for singlehood, they’re certainly being a lot more cautious, or sceptical, about marriage. And according to a 2011 report published by the US-based Pew Research Centre, something is indeed afoot, and in other parts of the world as well. Not only did the study reveal that just over half of adult Americans are married, it also flagged up that 43% of individuals aged 18-49 think matrimony is becoming less relevant3.
READ MORE: Get the lowdown on the science behind falling in love.
For DePaulo the latter is representative of a more positive societal trend. When asked whether the rise in conservatism in evidence across the globe could lead to a spike in both singlism and matrimania, she remains upbeat. “I hope it won’t happen,” she says, “I have some optimism based on the fact that today’s younger generation of adults tends to be open-minded and unlikely to be sexist, racist or homophobic.”