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

champagneIt is a paradox of contemporary life in the U.S. and in other nations around the world: More people than ever before are not married, and yet, in so many ways, marriage still rules. Marriage retains a special place in the cultural and legal landscape, and married couples are glorified and celebrated and rewarded simply because they are married.

Why is this happening? Why hasn’t all the matrimania and singlism subsided? Why don’t unmarried Americans push back against the laws and practices and belief systems that position their lives as second rate? Why aren’t the institutions of modern life reshaping themselves in response to the ongoing demographic revolutions?

Consider, first, the ways in which people who are not married have marched into the center of American life:

  1. The number of unmarried Americans has grown by leaps and bounds, from 38 million in 1970 (28% of all adults 18 and older) to 107 million in 2014 (or 44%). (The Bureau of Labor statistics starts counting at 16 instead of 18, and by that standard, unmarried Americans already outnumbered married ones years ago.)
  2. Americans spend more years of their adult lives not married than married.
  3. There are now fewer households comprised of mom, dad, and the kids than of single people living alone.
  4. Most Americans do still marry eventually, but even those who do marry are waiting longer and longer to do so. In 1950, the median age at which Americans first married was just under 23 for men and just over 20 for women. Now it is about 29 for men and 27 for women.
  5. Although Americans cycle in and out of marriage and cohabiting relationships more often than people in other Western nations, even that pattern is showing signs of slowing. For example, rates of remarriage are slipping, and even those who do remarry are taking longer to do so.
  6. Rates of staying single for life may be heading to new levels. A Pew Report estimates that by the time today’s young adults reach the age of 50, about one in four of them will have been single all their lives.

Consider, too, just a few of the ways in which marriage is still glorified and married people are still privileged and wield disproportionate power. (There are many other examples in Singlism: What It Is, Why It Matters, and How to Stop It.)

  1. More than 1,000 laws at the federal level benefit and protect only those who are legally married. The legalization of same-sex marriage across the land opened the doors to those benefits and protections to a new swath of Americans, but did nothing for the people of all sexual orientations who are not married (and perhaps do not want to be).
  2. Many political leaders and candidates seem more attuned to the needs and wishes of married people than those of single people.
  3. Untold numbers of goods and services are offered to married couples at a price that is less per person than what single people pay. When singles pay more for insurance, health club memberships, travel, entertainment, professional dues and memberships, and so much more, they are subsidizing the discounts given to married people.
  4. In teaching and research, married people get far more attention, and far more favorable attention, than single people do. False and exaggerated claims about the benefits of marrying are commonplace. There are no options for students to take courses on single life, much less entire programs of study.
  5. TV shows and movies and novels are packed with trite romantic narratives leading up to the tearful gasp of a woman presented with a diamond ring. Matrimaniacal reality shows such as The Bachelor seem to run on an endless loop.
  6. Advertisements use wedding themes to sell a stunning array of products, many with only the most dubious ties to such ceremonies. I started a list a while back. Products advertised with brides or other wedding iconography included cereal, soft drinks, ice cream, chocolate, cheese, dentistry, headache medication, boy lotion, eye drops, cars, clothes, credit cards, beer, cigarettes, wine coolers, hotels, real estate, life insurance, lottery tickets, a medication that makes you pee less often, a product that promises to “balance your colon,” and motor oil.
  7. Workplaces are sometimes friendlier to married workers than to single workers, for example, by paying married men more than single men even when their accomplishments are equal; by offering leave to care for a spouse but not a close friend or relative; and by accommodating married workers’ requests to take certain holidays or vacation days more often or more readily than the same kinds of requests made by unmarried workers.

Here is a partial list of reasons why married people continue to be so privileged when demographically, in so many ways, it is single people who rule.

  1. Money. Worldwide, the wedding market is estimated to be a $300 billion industry. There are quite a few people and services and businesses invested in the continued celebrations of marriages – the more costly, the better.
  2. Religion. Marriage has a special place in various religions – a place that is not easily budged by changing social trends.
  3. Political rewards. Although unmarried Americans are potentially a powerful political force, they tend to vote at lower rates than married Americans. It is probably a vicious cycle: unmarried people vote less often, so politicians ignore them and pander to married people, so unmarried people are even more alienated from the political system.
  4. Career rewards. Many social scientists have made a career out of claiming that married people are better than single people. Having done so, how can they now own up to the fact that their claims are not warranted by their data or their methodologies?
  5. Ideology. Beliefs about the transformative powers of marrying and about the superiority of married people are not neutral. People have deep investments in those beliefs. They want them to be true. They will reject contrary evidence more readily than they will reject similar evidence for beliefs that do not matter as much to them. What the ideology of marriage is offering is something profoundly appealing: Get married, and all of your wishes and dreams will come true. Your path through the rest of your life will be set, and it will be a very happy life – happier than it could ever be if you did not marry. Who would want to resist that?
  6. Empathy deficit. Marital status is seen as controllable and changeable. Unmarried Americans who speak out against marital status discrimination and other forms of singlism are sometimes blithely told to just get married. Never mind that some want to get married and have never found the right person and never mind that others do not ever want to marry, and should be able to make that choice without being punished for it. Also curtailing empathy is the perception (in some ways justified) that the penalties for being single are not as severe as those endured by other groups such as certain racial or ethnic group or various sexual minorities. But why must a group be at risk for physical violence in order to have their appeals for fairness and equal treatment taken seriously?
  7. Social class. Marriage has become a class-based institution. People with more wealth, education, and status are especially likely to marry. The greater resources of married people give them more control over the media, political leaders, and other sources of power. That also means they have disproportionate control over the narratives of our lives – narratives that proclaim that married lives are better than unmarried ones, and deserve to be privileged.

What else am I missing?

[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. (3) Maybe also of interest: Single, No Children: Who Is Your Family?]

Bella DePaulo2About 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:

#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