We the Unmarried: Universities Just Aren’t into Us, and That Needs to Change

columbia-university-1463234186azpColleges and universities are powerhouses of critical thinking. They set agendas. They influence generations of students. And they are not just ivory towers. What happens in universities does not stay in universities. It slips out into the ether, seeping into the minds of political leaders, business leaders, religious leaders, social justice advocates, and decision-makers in the workplace, in marketing, advertising and in the media – and ultimately, molding the mindsets of all of us.

The potential is enormous, but when it comes to unmarried people, there’s a big problem. Colleges and universities just aren’t into us. Neither are researchers, regardless of whether they are employed by institutions of higher education, working in think tanks or other organizations, or out there on their own.

Research and teaching has been dominated by a marital mindset. There has been a lot of hand-wringing lately about the supposed lefty inclinations of universities, but on matters of marriage, they are deeply conservative. For too many scholars, researchers, and administrators, their belief in marriage borders on the ideological. They seem to accept uncritically claims that getting married makes people happier, healthier, and better off in all sorts of ways. (It doesn’t, except for making them wealthier because of all of the unfair advantages they receive). They seem to believe that just about everyone wants to marry and that a marital relationship is the one truly important peer relationship.

An unchallenged ideology leaves its mark. It undermines fairness and deep thinking in decisions about:

  • What gets studied and discussed
  • Which assumptions get made and never get questioned
  • Which questions get asked
  • Which questions never get asked, or even considered
  • What gets reported
  • How results of studies are interpreted

The study of marriage and conventional family has an entire institutional structure behind it that is nearly a century in the making. The prestigious Journal of Marriage and Family, for example, publishes hundreds of articles a year, and has been around for 77 years. It is one of dozens of journals with the same focus. The scholarship finds its way into textbooks, which are used for the many courses on marriage and family, which are sometimes part of entire programs on the topic, which employ faculty members who specialized in the study of marriage and conventional family. There are millions of dollars in grant money available to those who want funding for their studies of the glory of marriage. There are conferences, regionally, nationally, and around the world; these meetings connect like-thinking researchers and get the marriage-praising messages out to the media.

Meanwhile, the study of single people is stuck in steerage. To get attention, single people need to have some connection to marriage or conventional families. That means there are lots of studies of people who are divorced or widowed (at least they were married in the past, the reasoning seems to go), single parents (well, at least they have kids, and maybe they will eventually marry), people who are cohabiting (sometimes conceptualized as a step on the path to marriage), and increasingly, emerging adults (they are taking longer to marry, but eventually, it is assumed, they will get there).

Want to know about single people who settle into their single lives? Good luck with that.

There are no journals devoted to the study of single people. There are no textbooks on the topic. There is no grant money dedicated to the study of singles. There are no conferences. There are no faculty positions for people who study singles. There are no Singles Studies programs anywhere in the world. There may not even be any classes on single people at the moment (though there have been a few in the past, such as my own and Kay Trimberger’s).

Remember, this is happening at a time when:

  • Just in the United States, there are more than 107 million adults who are not married – that’s almost as many as those who are married. (If you start counting at age 16 instead of 18, then the US became a majority-unmarried nation years ago.)
  • Americans are spending more years of their adult lives unmarried than married. (That’s been true for more than a decade.)
  • The number of people living on their own has been growing dramatically in the US – and even more quickly elsewhere. Knock on any door at random across the US, and you are more likely to be met by a single person living alone than by a household of mom, dad, and the kids. (That’s been true for years, too.)

In academia and beyond, single people are in a place similar to where LGBT people, women, and African-Americans were before social movements, consciousness-raising, and rigorous academic programs questioned stereotypes and challenged discrimination. The costs to unmarried people and our understanding of single life are many. For example:

  • Words such as “alone” and “unattached” are often used as synonyms for “single.” A strong singles perspective would challenge that, based on a boatload of data showing that single people have more friends than married people do and they do more to maintain their ties with siblings, parents, friends, neighbors and coworkers. In contrast, when people marry, they become more insular. So saying about a single person, because they are single, “She’s alone” or “He’s unattached” is not just demeaning, it is inaccurate.
  • The word “relationship” is big and broad and all-encompassing. But it is too often used in a narrow, stingy way, to refer only to romantic relationships. Academia gets some of the blame for that, too. There is a lively cross-disciplinary field of relationship studies, which is supposedly about all relationships, but in fact is overwhelmingly about romantic relationships. Studies that have gone beyond the focus on romantic couples have produced findings that are quite telling, and that do not fit neatly into the ideology that insists that such relationships are more significant than any other adult relationships. For example, there are ways in which friendship skills are more important than romantic skills. There are risks to the “you are my everything” approach to investing all of your relationship capital into your romantic partner. There are benefits to having a more diverse portfolio of people in your life.
  • Claims that getting married makes people happier, healthier, more connected, and better off in all sorts of other ways, too, are pervasive. They reach far beyond the halls of academia, having made it into popular culture, analyses by public intellectuals, and even Supreme Court rulings. But most of the studies upon which such claims are based could not possibly support them – methodologically, they are not up to the task. Many studies are designed in ways that offer big, unfair advantages to married people. And even with those egregious biases favoring married people, sometimes results show that it is the single people who are doing better. If we had a longstanding Singles Studies tradition, there would be many more people critiquing claims about the implications of getting married.
  • Because single life is so often stigmatized and even pitied, research and writing focuses on the perceived risks instead of anything truly positive. Reports of the rise of single people and solo living are often met with predictions of a looming epidemic of loneliness. In contrast, in-depth discussions of the potential benefits of solitude for creativity, relaxation, restoration, spirituality, and personal growth are rare. Again, researchers’ choices of topics of study fuel such one-sidedness. Currently, the database of all published psychology articles shows that there are 8,144 on loneliness but just 933 on solitude.
  • Research on topics such as racism, sexism, ageism, heterosexism, classism, and fat-shaming is sophisticated and plentiful. Studies of singlism (the stereotyping, stigmatizing, and discrimination against people who are single) are much more rare. Concepts such as singlism, marital status discrimination, marital privilege, and matrimania are barely recognized within or beyond academe.
  • Because getting married and having children are assumed to be the standard markers of adult development, we know relatively little about adult development across the lifespan for people who do not marry and do not have kids.
  • Because researchers have been so preoccupied with married couples and how they function, we have piles of studies on topics such as the division of labor (e.g., who takes care of the kids? Who takes out the trash? Who goes grocery shopping? Cooks the meals?). There are related questions that are relevant to single people but they are rarely addressed. For example, do single people develop a greater range of competencies than married people do, because they are not dividing up the chores?

Going forward, researchers need to ask the kinds of questions that take single life as seriously as married life. Below are a few examples. I think that if we had more answers to questions like these, we would have a very different understanding of single life.

  • To what extent are you pursuing your interests and your passions? To what extent are you doing so guiltlessly?
  • To what extent can you save or spend your money as you see fit?
  • To what extent have you been able to make the life choices that you find most fulfilling and most meaningful?
  • How close are you to getting the amount of solitude that you desire?
  • How close are you to getting the mix of time alone and time together that you consider ideal for you?
  • How meaningful is your work? (A longitudinal study suggests that single people value meaningful work more than married people do.)
  • To what extent do you have a sense of self-determination? (The scant research that is available shows that single people fare better than married people on autonomy.)
  • To what extent do you have “a sense of continued growth and development as a person”? (The one relevant study shows that single people fare better than married people on personal growth.)

Once researchers and other academics start taking single people more seriously, it is likely that others will, too. Political candidates in particular should be paying attention to their unmarried constituents. If we participate in big numbers, their fate is in our hands.

[Notes. (1) The opinions expressed here are my own and do not represent the official positions of Unmarried Equality. (2) 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 color, square, 376 dpiAbout 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:

#15 The Subversive Implication of Same-Sex Marriage that No One Predicted

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

#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