Journalists and Social Scientists Glorify Married People. Will We All Look Back in Shame?

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It is open season on people who are not married. It always has been. Our lives are inferior, we are told, over and over again. What’s more, the reporters and moralizers and others telling us our lives are second rate claim to have the backing of science. Get married, they tell us, and we will be happier and healthier and live longer and have a richer network of social ties and all the rest. Science says so.

It doesn’t.

A Proud History of Challenging Unfair Claims – But Not the Ones about People Who Are Unmarried

We’ve seen this sort of stigmatizing of other groups before. My favorite example comes from the history of homosexuality. There was a time when homosexuality was considered a psychiatric disorder. It was an entry in the official manual of mental disorders, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). Those who claimed that homosexuals were quite literally “sick” also thought they had science on their side. They could point to the research that supposedly supported their claim.

Happily, the sick label didn’t stick. Consciousness-raising, protests, searing critiques of the existing research, and new and more rigorous studies combined to free LGBT people from the DSM pages of infamy.

Those who want to put LBGTQ people back in their place (as they see it) keep trying. In 2012, for example, the sociologist Mark Regnerus published a study claiming that adult children of parents who had same-sex relationships were disadvantaged in many significant ways compared to the grown children raised by married biological heterosexual parents. For example, they supposedly were more depressed, somewhat less healthy, more likely to smoke, and more likely to have been arrested.

The conservative Family Research Council loved it. Others, though, pounced. There were so many take-downs of the study that publications such as The Week compiled reviews of the reviews and published them under bold titles such as “The new ‘evidence’ that kids with gay parents fare worse: Fraudulent?“. By 2015, a new set of authors reanalyzed the same data, correcting as many of the flaws as they could. Suddenly, the adult kids who had lived with same-sex parents had psychological profiles very similar to those who had been raised by the supposedly superior intact biological families.

Journalists and Social Scientists are Peddling a Misleading Narrative about the Superiority of People Who Get Married

I admire and envy the brilliance, the passion, and the persistence of those who will not let stand the false, misleading, and stigmatizing claims about the science of LGBTQ people or their children. I wish we could mobilize the same energy to defend and support all people who are unmarried, regardless of their sexual orientation or identity.

Instead, we have an endless glut of stories about studies that supposedly show the superiority of people who have gotten married. All the same kinds of disadvantages that Regnerus tried to pin on the grown children of same-sex parents have also been attributed to single people (and their children). Unmarried people, we are told, are more likely to be depressed, less likely to be healthy, more likely to smoke, and more likely to be criminals. That’s because we’re not married, the story goes, and if we would just hurry up and get married already, that would all change.

In a way, it would be understandable if getting married really did result in so many benefits to psychological and physical health, because official marriage comes with a treasure trove of benefits and protections denied to everyone else, including many financial ones. Marriage brings a panoply of privileges, and offers escape from the stereotyping, stigmatizing, and discrimination that attaches to single life. (I call that singlism.)

Despite all the unearned advantages that come with marrying, the much-heralded psychological benefits are not what we have been led to believe. If researchers were held to the standards taught to undergraduates taking their first research methods course, they could no longer make blanket claims that unmarried people are inferior because they are unmarried, and that getting married would cure what supposedly ails them. We would have a whole different narrative about single and married life.

Even if Getting Married Really Did Make People Better Than They Were When They Were Single, It Would Still Be Unseemly for Journalists to Write about This As Relentlessly and Uncritically as They Do

Americans cling to the myth of the transformative power of marrying with a stunning tenacity. It is going to take many more years to pry that out of their minds.

Suppose, though, that getting married really did uniformly make people better off in all the ways we have been told that it does. Would that justify the torrent of stories in the media reminding us, over and over again, that married people are better than everyone else? Isn’t there something a bit unseemly about that?

I think there is something particularly creepy about the glorifying of marriage at this point in history. Marriage has changed. It has become a class-based institution, akin in some ways to a luxury good. People who are the most advantaged economically and educationally are the ones most likely to marry.

Journalists are supposed to aspire to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. But in writing one fawning story after another about the privileged class of married people, they are doing just the opposite.

The fetishistic celebration of married people also reveals an embarrassingly narrow view of what makes life meaningful. It is as if generations of journalists have shown that they can only fathom one worthy way of living.

The obsession with marriage is also out of step with how contemporary adults are actually living their lives. In the U.S., for example, more than 100 million adults are unmarried (close to half), and Americans spend more years of their adult lives unmarried than married. Yet journalists and social scientists only want to tell us about how great married people are?

To get to a fresher, more affirming, and more accurate picture of single life, we need to let go of another myth that has too often gone unchallenged – that single people are single because they can’t find anyone to marry them. It is the myth that what single people want more than anything else is to become unsingle. But when the number of unmarried people in this country alone tops 100 million, it is a bit of a stretch to continue to insist that they are all single by default.

It is time to look seriously at the appeal of single life. We need to understand why, for some unknown number of adults, living single is the way they live their best, most authentic, and most meaningful lives.

It is time to put an end to this shameful period of celebrating married people and stigmatizing unmarried ones, and pretending that all that matrimania and singlism is rooted in science rather than ideology.

[Notes. (1) Want to understand more about what’s wrong with the studies purporting to show that getting married makes people happier and healthier? Check out Chapter 2 of Singled Out, or the more recent Marriage vs. Single Life: How Science and the Media Got It So Wrong. For a short version, try the article from the Washington Post, “Everything you think you know about single people is wrong.”(2) The opinions expressed here are my own and do not represent the official positions of Unmarried Equality. (3) The comment option on the UE website has been invaded by spammers, so I have disabled comments for now. I’ll post all of these blog posts at the UE Facebook page; please join our discussions there.]

Bella DePaulo2

About the Author: Bella DePaulo (PhD, Harvard), a long-time member of Unmarried Equality, is the author of  How We Live Now: Redefining Home and Family in the 21st Century and Singled Out: How Singles Are Stereotyped, Stigmatized, and Ignored, and Still Live Happily Ever After. 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:

#13 Why Is Marriage Still So Glorified When So Many People Are Not Married?

#12 Beyond the Nuclear Family: New Policies and Practices Are Needed for the Way We Live Now

#11 How the Washington Post (Almost) Published a Week of Respectful Articles about Unmarried Life

#10 Unmarried Status Is a Diversity Issue

#9 Unmarried Americans as home buyers and home creators

#8 The right to be single

#7 Nuclear family privilege: Naming it and slaying it

#6 Is marriage a greedy institution?

#5 Housing Discrimination against People Who Are Not Married: What We Just Don’t Get

#4 Now It’s Really Time for Unmarried Equality

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

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

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

About Bella DePaulo