3 Roads to Social Justice – For Lasting Change, We Must Follow Them All

[This is the third in my new series of monthly columns. The views expressed here are my own and not the official positions of Unmarried Equality.]

“Unmarried Equality (UE) advocates for equality and fairness for unmarried people, including people who are single, choose not to marry, cannot marry, or live together before marriage.” That’s the opening sentence of the UE mission statement.

But how do we go about achieving that equality and fairness that is so important, and yet so far from being realized? There are at least three roads to social justice. They do not diverge and in order to achieve lasting change, we need to follow all of them.

  1. Institutional Change

In some ways, achieving change at the level of social policy seems like the gold standard. If we can get fairness and equality written right into the laws of the land, then we will have achieved something of real substance, something with the weight of legal enforcement behind it, and something that would be difficult to undo. There’s something rock-solid about institutional change.

UE has long advocated for social policies that create a fair and just society for people who are not married, and will continue to do so. But the other work we do is significant, too. As our mission statement adds, our goals are not just to “fight discrimination on the basis of marital status,” but also to “provide support and information…and educate the public about relevant social and economic issues.”

I was reminded of the different routes to justice in a new book by MacArthur genius Ai-Jen Poo, The Age of Dignity: Preparing for the Elder Boom in a Changing America. The author, who has been tremendously successful as an organizer and activist, reminds us that policy changes, though deeply significant, are not enough. The Civil Rights Act, for example, should have dealt a death blow to segregation, yet “schools are more segregated now than they were in the 1960s, and housing segregation is also on the rise.” She urges us to pursue social justice not just at the institutional level, but also at the cultural and behavioral levels. Her focus is on elders and the people who care for them, but her vision applies to all people pursuing all varieties of social change.

          2. Cultural Change

What are the stories we tell about ourselves? What are the cultural narratives about the good life? When we watch TV or movies, read books or magazines or newspapers (in whatever format), and listen to podcasts and the radio, what are the unchallenged assumptions that underlie those cultural messages? Who is represented in our culture, who is celebrated, and who is marginalized or caricatured or even demonized?

I coined the term matrimania, and the adjective version, matrimaniacal, to capture the crazed ways in which contemporary American society goes over the top in its celebration of marriage, coupling, and weddings. TV shows such as The Bachelor and The Bachelorette are only the most obvious manifestations. Watch any movie or any TV show, read any novel, and chances are, you will come up against a predictable plot: boy meets girl, faces obstacles, overcomes them, gets married and lives happily ever after. It is significant that now, occasionally, a “boy” can meet another boy, or a “girl” another girl. But still, the story remains, at its core, deeply matrimaniacal.

That needs to change. Hollywood is supposed to be home to at least some of our creative geniuses, and serious literary authors are sometimes revered. Surely, the members of our Creative Class can foment dramatic tension and delve into the heart of what makes us human without resorting to the same tired plot line time after time.

To me as a researcher, the most disappointing and embarrassing instances of matrimania are the claims made by some of my fellow social scientists that getting married makes people happier or healthier or live longer. Just about every time I hear such a claim (many of them get trumpeted in the media), I take a close look at the original research report. Typically, the studies are so badly flawed that no such claim could ever be substantiated. I believe that the same researchers would never stand by similar claims based on the same massively compromised research methodologies if the topic were something other than marriage. (If you are interested in learning more about just what is wrong with so much of this research, check out Marriage vs. Single Life: How Science and the Media Got It So Wrong.)

Matrimania is the flip side of singlism, the stereotyping, stigmatizing, and discrimination against people who are single. Negative, prejudicial beliefs about people who are not married are rampant. In a program of research, my colleagues and I showed that when two people are described in biographical sketches that are identical except for the fact that one person is described as married and the other as unmarried, people who see the sketch of the person described as unmarried evaluate that person more harshly. Research from other labs in other Western nations documents similar stereotypes of people who are not married. It is time to challenge those stereotypes and misperceptions.

       3. Behavioral Change

If we want better lives for people who are not married, we do not wait until new laws get passed or the culture sheds its matrimaniacal skin or its singlist ways. We can take steps ourselves and encourage others to do the same.

Some of the steps can be baby steps. If you are an unmarried person, are there ways you wish that people would treat you differently? For example, if you are cohabiting with your romantic partner, are you tired of other people asking when you are going to make it official? If you are a solo single person, do you sometimes find that other people are obsessed with the question of whether you are seeing anyone? Or, do you recognize yourself as someone who has pelted single people with questions about dating to the exclusion of just about every other topic? Try instead asking them about the people who are important to them in their lives, just as you would ask a married person about their spouse. Ask about their interests, their work, their passions. Include them in the same social events to which you would invite your married friends. Let them know they are welcome to bring a friend or any other plus-one if they prefer that to attending on their own. (And let the couples know that bringing their partner is not a requirement – they can come on their own, too.) If there is something you would not do or say to a married person, maybe you should not do or say it to an unmarried person, either.

All of these kinds of examples (I’m sure you can think of many others) are the small stuff. But we can do big things, too. Take, for example, the latest scare story in the media that people who are single with no kids are at risk for ending up as “elder orphans” with no one to care for them when they most need help. The threat is that they will end up in institutions where no one will ever visit them. For my forthcoming book, How We Live Now: Redefining Home and Family in the 21st Century, I traveled around the country asking adults of all ages to show me their homes and tell me about the important places, spaces, and people in their lives. Among the seniors, and those approaching their senior years, I learned about many innovative lifespaces. Some shared a place with other friends, some lived in places of their own but within communities in which everyone wanted a truly neighborly neighborhood, and others lived in multigenerational or extended family households. Even those who lived on their own and not within a self-conscious community were often thinking ahead to ways they could stay in their own places even when they would need help to do so.

Some of the people I interviewed were coming up with their own innovations. Other solutions are more systematic and can be found in many cities and towns across the nation. One example is a membership-based program called the “Village” movement, created specifically to help seniors stay in homes of their own as long as possible. Sign up for the Village in your hometown (usually for a fee) and whenever you need a ride or help with your groceries or getting something in your place fixed or just about anything else, you call your Village office or send an email, and someone from the Village will be there to help you, or, if the task is beyond their offerings, point you to some vetted expert or service provider. Villages usually organize social events as well.

Do What You Can, What You Like to Do, What You Want to Learn to Do, or What You Are Good At

In her review of Kate Bolick’s Spinster: Making a Life of One’s Own, Samhita Mukhopadhyay elaborated on the title of her article, “All the single ladies aren’t so privileged.” She noted, for example, that for many single women, work is not an empowering choice but a financial necessity. “All of that work is not leading to prosperity, however, especially for single moms and women of color.” Many are impoverished, and their financial situation “is made worse by the shame attached to it – the caricature of the single woman or the single mother who lives off the state, demonized for being sexually lascivious and living outside of the supposedly decent bounds of marriage. There are women who live in the borderlands of hetero-normativity, where single may not be an empowering choice, but instead a cast upon reality full of judgments and unfair treatment. Simply celebrating your inner spinster won’t help them.”

Mukhopadhyay is right, of course. But I don’t think that people who want to tell their own stories of their lives lived joyfully outside of marriage should be discouraged from doing so. We all have different talents and interests, different likes and dislikes. We should all contribute to the cause of social justice in whatever ways we can, whether that means developing new skills or exercising the talents we enjoy that are already part of our repertoire.

Bella DePaulo2  About the author: Bella DePaulo (PhD, Harvard), a long-time member of Unmarried Equality, is the author of Singled Out: How Singles Are Stereotyped, Stigmatized, and Ignored, and Still Live Happily Ever After and the forthcoming How We Live Now: Redefining Home and Family in the 21st Century. She writes the “Living Single” blog for Psychology Today and the “Single at Heart” blog for Psych Central. Visit her website at www.BellaDePaulo.com.

Previous columns:

#1 The Marriage Opportunists Are Coming – We Need to Be Prepared (or click here for a version that includes links)

#2 The Global Struggle for Unmarried Equality: The Case of Finland

About Bella DePaulo


  1. Hi Bella DePaulo, Great article! Thank you so much for expressing your views. I like the mention of the book “How We Live Now: Redefining Home and Family in the 21st Century. All the best!


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