On Saturday October 10, 2020, I will be giving the keynote address for the online conference, Singles Studies: Global Perspectives. You can read more about it here. If it is not yet Oct 10, you can register here. This is the text of my talk, so you can follow along or just read it when it is convenient.
Changing Thinking, Changing Language, Changing Lives: The Power and Promise of Singles Studies
Thank-you to our organizers, Ketaki Chowkhani and Craig Wynne, for putting together this exciting event as well as the collection of essays that will follow. Thanks also to our speakers at the cutting edge of Singles Studies, to the Manipal Academy of Higher Education in India and the University of the District of Columbia in the US, and to everyone listening in.
I hope we all get way more than we ever expected from this conference, because what I want us to aspire to is nothing short of a complete transformation. We are at the cusp of creating a global, interdisciplinary field of Singles Studies. If we are successful, our perspectives will ultimately transform how we think about single people, how we talk about single people, and how single people experience their single lives.
What we are up against, though, is daunting – a deficit narrative about single lives, a story that describes single people as lesser than. It is an ideology that is powerful, pervasive, relentless, ensconced in laws and cultures, and rarely questioned. The assumption that single people just aren’t as good as those married people, or as people with serious romantic partners, is the conventional wisdom. It is accepted as just the way things are.
In 2005, the journal Psychological Inquiry invited me and Wendy Morris to write about this in a wide-ranging target article, “Singles in Society and in Science.” The editors also invited 10 commentaries from scholars from different disciplines and then a response from us to those 10 papers. I think of that as a first step toward launching a field of Singles Studies.
The next big step was in 2007, when the Chronicle of Higher Education published “Make room for singles in teaching and research” in a special issue on diversity. I’m a social psychologist, and I worked with Rachel Moran, a law professor, and Kay Trimberger, a sociologist, to issue that call to incorporate singles’ perspectives throughout the higher education curriculum.
But there just weren’t that many scholars who thought of themselves as scholars of single people back then. It is different now, as this conference attests. More of us are doing relevant scholarship, and more people seem interested in learning about what we are up to.
So let’s start with the Ideology of Marriage and Family. From our North American perspective, Wendy Morris and I identified what we saw as three key tenets:
- First, just about everyone wants to marry, and just about everyone does.
- Second, adults who marry are better people than people who don’t. They are worthier and more valuable. They are happier, more mature, and less lonely. Their lives are more meaningful and more complete.
- Third, married people are better people because they have that one peer relationship that is more important than any other.
Even when the stories that are told about single people are not entirely demeaning, they are still, by and large, not our stories. They are stories told from the perspective of people who are married or coupled, or who yearn to be. That perspective can never adequately represent the lives of all people who are single, just as history books written only by men, or from the perspective of men, rarely do justice to the experiences and contributions of women, and just as the plays, novels, movies, TV shows, operas and song lyrics, as well as the scholarly work, written only by white people, or from a white person’s perspective, rarely capture the full depth and breadth and textures and contexts of what it means to be a person of color.
The ideology that privileges marriage and coupling seeps into every nook and cranny of our lives. In the U.S., for example, it is at the heart of the stories we are told as children. It is in our classrooms. It is in boardrooms. It is in religion and politics, the marketplace and the workplace. It is in the military. It is part of the health care system. Even some mental health professionals ascribe to the ideology of marriage and family. And of course, popular culture is drowning in it.
Challenging the Ideology on Its Own Terms
We need to challenge the ideology on its own terms, knock it down, defang it.
I’ve been doing that for decades by explaining why you should be wary of certain kinds of studies that are held up as support for the claim that getting married makes you happier or healthier. For example, whenever a study compares only people who are currently married to people who are not married, beware! If the married people look better, what are you supposed to think? Oh, if I get married, I’ll be happier, too? That’s the implication, and sometimes that claim is made explicitly. But for many reasons, that’s just not true. For one thing, that group of people who are currently married – it does not include all the people who got married, hated it, and got divorced! In the U.S., that’s about 42% of all people who get married. If you are single and you get married, you could very well end up divorced, and probably less happy than you were when you were single.
More sophisticated studies follow people over the course of their adult lives to see if they become happier or healthier after they marry than they were when they were single. The best of those studies show that people do not become lastingly happier after they get married and may even become a bit less healthy.
Suppose you can’t study the same people for many years. You are stuck with comparing two groups at one point in time – let’s say people who live alone and people who live with others. Not all single people live alone, but they are more likely to do so than people who are married. In a German study of more than 16,000 adults, the researchers compared all the people who lived alone with all the people who lived with other people. They found that the people who lived alone were lonelier. Just what the ideology claims!
But, the people who lived alone differed from people who lived with others in all sorts of ways. For example, they were less financially secure. Well, our interest isn’t in whether financial security protects you from loneliness, it is about whether living alone matters. You can deal with that statistically, by making sure that the people you are comparing – those who live alone and those who live with others – are similar to each other in important ways. So, for example, you would compare the financially secure people living alone with the financially secure people living with others, and the same for the financially insecure. When the researchers did those analyses, they found something really dramatic: the people who lived alone were less lonely than the people who lived with others!
Those are a few examples of challenging the ideology on its own terms. But that’s not enough.
Decentering Marriage and Romantic Partnering and Centering Single Life
We have to come out on the other side of the ideology, untethered from it. We need to replace it with a whole different, more enlightened view. A set of perspectives in which single life is itself the focus of our attention, not just in contrast to marriage or romantic partnering, and not as an alternative to it, but something of significance in and of itself.
We need to decenter marriage and romantic partnering and center single life. That, I think, is the key to our mission.
Let me give you a few examples of what that looks like. I have been studying people I call “single at heart.” They are people who live their best lives by being single. Single life, for them, is their most fulfilling, and most meaningful life. They are not stuck with it by default. They embrace it.
I have asked people who see themselves as single at heart to tell me about their lives, in great detail. Not, “compare your life to a married person’s,” but just “tell me about your life.” So far, 42 people have. They are mostly from the U.S., but others are from Austria, Australia, Canada, England, India, Mexico, Portugal, Saudi Arabia, and South Africa.
One theme that comes up in their stories, even when I haven’t asked about it directly, is their homes. They talk about their own spaces and their own places, how they have made them their own, what they mean to them.
Other scholars have already realized the importance of this topic and fortunately, we will be hearing from two of them later today.
In 1991, my father died, leaving my mother to live alone for the first time in her life. Someone sent me a condolence card that said, “When my father died, my mother thrived. She finally became her own person.” I thought it was an unusual thing to write as an expression of sympathy, but it was intriguing. A few days later, I got another sympathy card, from someone who said the same thing. Her mother, too, lived more authentically once she was no longer accommodating a husband.
What does that mean, “living authentically”? Psychologists who study authenticity sometimes ask people if they agree with statements such as “My whole self stands behind the important decisions I make” and “My actions are congruent with who I really am.” Those kinds of sentiments abound in the stories of people who are single at heart. That’s what it’s like to live single when you feel that single life really suits you and you have the resources you need to stay single.
Another powerful theme in the stories of the single at heart is how much they cherish the time they have to themselves. When I asked them the question, “How important is it to you, if at all, to have time to yourself?”, every single one of them said it was very important – sometimes extraordinarily important. Several people said it was like breathing.
I also asked about this in a brief quiz about being single at heart that I posted online. More than 8,000 people from more than 100 nations have taken the quiz, though they are not a representative sample of any country.
In one of the quiz questions, I asked people what came to mind when they thought about spending time alone. Were they worried about being lonely, or did they look forward to some “sweet solitude”? Of those who scored as clearly single at heart, a truly astonishing 98% said that to them, time alone was sweet solitude.
That’s exactly the opposite of what the Ideology of Marriage and Family insists that single life is supposed to be like. We’re all supposed to be desperately lonely.
Why We Need Singles Perspectives in Research
At a psychology conference I attended decades ago, long before I started studying single people, there was a symposium on feminist methodology. I thought that was bizarre. To me, methodology was methodology. You learn the techniques and that’s that. I never went to that symposium because I thought it was dumb.
Now, all these years later, I get it. I see how we need singles perspectives in research, the same way my colleagues from years ago realized the need for feminist perspectives. Without perspectives from single life, the ideology of marriage will run wild. It will shape the kinds of studies we do and how we analyze them. It will dictate the assumptions that are made (those poor single people), the questions that are asked (they’re all sad and lonely, right?), and the way the findings are discussed (how can we help fill the holes in single people’s lives?).
The ideology also has a big hand in determining the questions that are not asked, such as:
- What makes (some) single people proud? (their homes)
- What are their strengths and their values? (living an authentic life)
- What do they find fulfilling? (solitude)
Going forward, we are going to be asking a lot of those kinds of questions that put single life at the center of our scholarship.
Changing How We Talk about Single People
Let’s talk language.
Consider these examples:
“She doesn’t have anyone.”
That’s how people in the U.S. refer to people who are single, as if those expressions were synonyms or definitions, instead of ideologically infused mischaracterizations. Remember, according to the ideology, the only peers who really count are romantic partners. It is a way of thinking that erases every friendship, every relationship with a relative, and every other relationship, no matter how close, how meaningful, or how long-lasting, if that relationship is not with a spouse or romantic partner. Single people don’t have a romantic partner, so ideologically, that means they don’t have anyone.
Single people – especially if they are single at heart – may well like their time alone, but most of them are far from being truly alone or unattached. In fact, dozens of studies show that single people are, in many important ways, more connected to other people. People who marry, in contrast, typically become more insular, at least in the western nations where that research has been conducted.
Here are 2 more examples:
“Why are you single?”
“Why are you still single?”
Those are questions you would ask if you just assumed, as the ideology insists, that just about everyone wants to marry. We don’t ask married people why they are married, or why they are still married.
Here’s another example:
“He’s in a relationship.”
The word “relationship,” in its true meaning, is a big, inclusive word that throws its arms around all the people who matter to us. But it has been ideologically co-opted to refer mostly only to romantic relationships. That happens even in scholarly journals dedicated to the study of relationships. They use the word “relationship” as a shorthand for romantic relationships. It is similar to when the word “he” was used to refer to both men and women. That’s not allowed in scholarly journals anymore, and the misuse of the word “relationships” should not be allowed anymore either – in scholarly publications or in the conversations of our everyday lives.
One last example, the one that galls me more than any other:
“She deserves to be happy.”
That expression, in the U.S., is used to mean that a person deserves to be married or in a committed romantic relationship. Happiness is equated with being coupled! No one ever says, “She deserves to be happy – she should stay single.” We need to challenge that.
Sharing Our Perspectives on Single Life
As singles studies scholars, as we put single life at the center of our own thinking, we also need to share our understandings far and wide.
Within academia, we need to talk to each other and to scholars with no exposure whatsoever to a Singles Studies perspective. A Singles Studies Journal, which is in the works, will be important. We need to train the next generation of singles scholars, so they won’t just generate more ideologically-compromised research. And we need to reach our undergraduates.
We also need to share our thinking beyond the academy, by writing for publications that reach broader audiences and by talking to reporters who are writing about single people. We need to be there for people who care about social justice, with our insights and resources, and our own efforts, too, for those of us so inclined.
Let’s talk about our conversations among ourselves
In conferences such as this one, in the book that our organizers are editing, and in all the scholarship we share among ourselves, we need to develop frameworks, theories, and overarching perspectives that guide us in our work, and help students understand the big picture.
We also need to define our most basic terms and concepts, such as who counts as single and how that differs in different places, and whether single people are even being counted. It is altogether fitting that our first presentation today will address these matters.
We also need to honor the vast variability among single people. The single people who interest me the most, those who embrace single life, are very different from those who are reluctantly single. Other familiar categories, and their intersectionality, will be significant in our studies, too. They include, for example, age, social class, ability, culture, nationality, gender identity and orientation, race or ethnicity, and many others.
I love the kinds of sweeping, broad strokes research that we will hear about later today, that compares hundreds of thousands of married and single people from dozens of countries. It’s amazing that we have data like that. But we also need to understand the experiences of particular kinds of single people in particular places around the world. Later today, we will also hear about important work like that.
Reaching our undergraduates
As Singles Studies scholars, some of our most consequential outreach will be to our undergraduates. A few years ago, I gave a guest lecture on my singles work to undergraduates in a communications class. They seemed really into it, but it’s hard to know for sure. Then I got this card in the mail, with all these handwritten notes of thanks. One said, “you brought up perspectives I never thought of before,” and another said. “You made me feel empowered as a young single woman.”
I’d love to say that happened because I’m so special. Really, though, what it meant was that in the 21st century, in the United States of America, dozens of students at a high-powered university had never heard a respectful, affirming perspective on single life – a perspective that wasn’t just my opinion, but was grounded in data. They had never heard a critique of popular culture, of song lyrics, of advertising that exposed the stigmatizing and marginalizing of single people and the relentless celebration of coupling. That was eye-opening to them.
It is a real strength of our conference today that we will get to hear all sorts of critiques like that. Educating people on how to think critically from a singles perspective is fundamental to our mission.
Once we succeed in getting Singles Studies programs incorporated into colleges and universities, and more than just a few courses about single people become available, I think undergraduates will flock to them. I think that at first, they will be intrigued because single life is personal. It is about their own lives. Many of them will have grown up hearing nothing but a deficit story of single life.
And it is wonderful that we, as singles scholars, can address concerns that feel so personal. But we can also give our students the gift of something even more powerful – an understanding that their experience of single life is not just personal. We can show them how much bigger forces – cultural forces, religious forces, political forces, and more – are shaping the way they think about their single lives and about married and coupled lives. We can train them to see how singles-shaming ideologies slither their way into just about every cultural product, every institution, and way too many of our everyday life conversations. In Singled Out, I called this “mental blanketing.” No matter where you go, it’s got you covered.
When I teach, I like to point out how, in the U.S., the systematic advantaging of people who are married is written right into the laws of the land. At the federal level alone, there are more than 1,000 laws that benefit and protect only people who are legally married. The costs to people who are not married are tremendous.
And it is not just those of us who are single who are hurt by those laws. Policies also discriminate against the important people in our lives. That happens, for example, when a married person can take time off from work to care for a spouse, but we can’t take time off to care for our closest friend, and that person can’t take time off to care for us.
Once students are sensitized to the broader contexts of single life, I think they will start asking better questions. Instead of posing ideologically-driven questions such as, “what’s wrong with those poor single people?”, they may start to ask more profound questions, such as, “How is it that so many single people have managed to do so well when so much is stacked against them?”.
What We Are No Longer Up Against
We are so fortunate to be participating in this terrific conference today. But if scholars of single life had the same standing as scholars of marriage and family, this would not be our first conference, it would be more like our 81st.
81 years ago, in 1939, the premier English-language journal of marriage and family, the Journal of Marriage and Family, was first published. Marriage and Family Studies is now a behemoth. There are dozens of scholarly journals, there are entire programs for teaching students and training scholars and practitioners, there are conferences, textbooks, and dedicated faculty positions. There’s a ton of funding for social science research, and boatloads of money for scholars who agree to promote marriage fundamentalist agendas.
There is something really significant, though, that we are no longer up against: the numbers. Last year, the United Nations released a report showing that all around the world, rates of marriage are declining and the number of single people is rising. Most remarkable, perhaps, are the people who get to their late 40s without ever having married. In Australia and New Zealand, as of 2010, 1 out of every 7 women got to their late 40s without ever having married. In Latin America and the Caribbean, the numbers were almost as high. In Europe and North America, more than 1 in 10 got to their late 40s without ever having married. The numbers were smaller elsewhere, but in every single region of the world, they were increasing.
And, they may well continue to increase. An analysis of trends in the U.S., for example, estimates that by the time today’s young adults reach the age of 50, an astonishing 25% of them – 1 out of ever 4 — will have been single their whole lives.
And consider this finding, from a survey conducted in the U.S. just before the pandemic: Half of solo single people do not want a romantic relationship and they don’t even want a date!
What we are doing, in trying to create a Singles Studies discipline, is timely. What we have to say may well be relevant to more people, in more parts of the world, than ever before.
But I would be advocating for a Singles Studies discipline even if our numbers were far smaller and they were dwindling. We have a profoundly important set of perspectives to share.
We can change thinking, we can change language, and we can change lives. Let’s do it.
Thank you for listening and for all you are doing to make Singles Studies a reality.
[Fun fact: the picture at the top of this post is from Bart’s Books in Ojai, California, USA. Finding one of my books there was a nice surprise.]