Now that all couples have a right to marry, can we now have a right to be single?
But don’t we have that already? Surely, no one is forcing single people to get married. But the right to be single is not equivalent to the right to be married. Single life does not come with the same benefits and protections as marriage, and it is not accorded the same dignity.
Remember that flowery language in the landmark Supreme Court decision legalizing same-sex marriage (Obergefell v. Hodges) – the passages that glorified married people and demeaned the unmarried? The most egregious example was in Justice Anthony Kennedy’s closing:
“No union is more profound than marriage, for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice, and family. In forming a marital union, two people become something greater than they once were…Their hope is not to be condemned to live in loneliness…They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law.”
The legal scholar Nan Hunter referred to that attitude when she argued that:
“A right to marry that is so central to personhood must entail a commensurate right not to marry.”
Continuing, she added:
“Every important liberty is a Janus-like construct; absent extraordinary and urgent conditions, there are always two equal sides. One has the liberty to speak or not to speak. One has the right to bear or beget a child, or not. Americans can travel at will, but cannot be forcibly relocated. So too, not-marriage as a negative liberty right must be fundamental.”
To live single, though, is to forfeit all of the rights and protections that are afforded to married people, including more than 1,000 of them just at the federal level.
Benefits and Protections: We Shouldn’t Have to Marry to Get Them
When I discuss the many ways in which unmarried people are disadvantaged, sometimes in ways that are institutionalized and codified into laws, some of the reactions I get are decidedly unsympathetic. So what, my detractors ask. Being single is not like being Black or female or gay. If I want all the benefits of marriage, I can just get married.
That’s not good enough. A right to be single would mean that I did not have to marry in order to enjoy equal justice under the law. As Vivian Gornick pointed out, LGBT activism was not always so preoccupied with the right to marry:
“It was the hope of many of us – gays and straights alike – in the giddy-making ’70s and ’80s, that gays would fight to have extended to homosexual men and women the rights and benefits that all other citizens were receiving through marriage – without having to marry.” [emphasis is mine]
Beyond Married vs. Unmarried: What about the Right to Be Different?
In the U.S. and in many other nations around the world, single vs. married hardly encompasses the vast array of ways that people live now. Unmarried adults may be solo singles or they may be cohabiting. Either way, they may be living on their own or in places they share with friends or family. Or they may be living in places of their own in intentional communities such as cohousing communities. Married couples, too, may be living on their own (with or without children) or with friends or extended family or in self-conscious communities. Some married couples live apart from each other because they want to, and not just because far-flung jobs keep them separated. These and other configurations are forcing expansions and redefinitions of fundamental concepts such as home and family, as I explained in How We Live Now: Redefining Home and Family in the 21st Century.
Hunter pointed out that South Africa is way ahead of the U.S. in recognizing and respecting the many ways we live now:
“The Constitutional Court of South Africa joined the right of same-sex couples to marry with a ‘right to be different,’ noting ‘South Africa has a multitude of family formations that are evolving rapidly as our society develops, so that it is inappropriate to entrench any particular form as the only socially and legally acceptable one.'”
We have no comparable “right to be different” in the U.S.
Beyond the Legalities: The Right to Be Single in Everyday Life
The word “socially” in the quote about South Africa is significant. It expands rights way beyond legal ones and suggests that different ways of living should be equally acceptable in our everyday lives. The pervasiveness of singlism (the stereotyping, stigmatizing, and discrimination against people who are single) illustrates just how far we are from attaining that ideal.
If unmarried Americans really were on an equal footing with married Americans in everyday life, then they would be treated in comparable ways. In fact, fair treatment would be so self-evidently appropriate that it would happen automatically and unselfconsciously.
But it doesn’t. Unmarried Americans, for example, are often asked questions such as “So when are you going to get married” or “Why are you still single?” when the comparable questions posed to married people would be considered unspeakably rude (e.g., “So when are you going to get divorced?” or “Why are you still married?”) Other examples come from the workplace, where single people are sometimes expected to cover for married people who want to leave early, or take the vacation times or travel assignments that no one else wants, or come in on the holidays – all on the condescending assumption that they don’t have anyone and don’t have a life.
My colleagues and I once tried to enumerate the many ways that married people enjoy unearned privileges just because they are married. We shared this list, but it is, of course, woefully incomplete.
To those who say that all of this is inconsequential and we single people should just shrug it off, I say this: Then why don’t we turn the tables and offer all the same privileges only to those people who are legally single? Would that be okay?
Is the Real Issue Moral Superiority?
I’ve long thought that for people standing at the doors of the Married Couples Club with their arms crossed, vowing not to let anyone else in, the most fundamental issue was actually not access to legal benefits and protections. Many could probably be persuaded to share the material rewards linked to official marriage. They may even be willing to budge a bit on their inclination to stereotype people who are not married as miserable or lonely or self-centered or broken. Perhaps they would acknowledge that some of their best friends are unmarried – and also happy and healthy. The line in the sand, though, is moral superiority. Many (though certainly not all) married people, and many who are single but who hope to marry, simply do not want to concede the moral high ground.
Until the moral worthiness of unmarried adults is so obvious that it is part of our conventional wisdom, we will not have a real right to be single in America.
[Notes. (1) This is one of my monthly columns. The views expressed here are my own and not the official positions of Unmarried Equality. (2) Thanks to Vicki Larson for the heads-up about Nan Hunter’s article.]
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.
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