Are the estimated 93 million single adults in this country—more than 30 million of them age 50-plus—treated unfairly? Bella DePaulo, 53, a visiting professor of psychology at the University of California, Santa Barbara, argues the case in her new book, Singled Out: How Singles Are Stereotyped, Stigmatized, and Ignored, and Still Live Happily Ever After (St. Martin's Press). Writer Julia M. Klein talked to DePaulo about the prejudice she calls "singlism."
Q. How did you get interested in studying single people?
I've been single my whole life, and I noticed two things: what people seemed to believe about single people—that they were lonely and miserable and wanted nothing more than to find a partner—and what my life was really like. I loved being single; I wasn't pining for a partner. It made me wonder if it was just me, or if other people were experiencing this disconnect.
Another part of it was watching what happened when my father died and my mother became a widow. She found that some of the people that she and my dad saw quite frequently would not always include her after he died. It's so sad.
Q. How did your background as a social psychologist specializing in deception inform your current research?
When I read headlines saying that married people were happier and healthier, I would go to the original research reports, and again and again, I would find that was not what they really were finding.
Q. So the research was being distorted?
There was a very consistent bias—to make married people look better than they really were and single people look worse. For example, in a health study by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, people who had always been single and married people were nearly indistinguishable. Divorced or widowed people were a little less healthy. When the CDC issued a press release, the headline was "Married Adults Are Healthiest." It's like the water that the fish live in: We don't even see it, this unquestioned assumption that married people are not just better off, but better. It's obviously not fair to single people to have their lives misrepresented and caricatured. It's also not fair to people who are interested in getting married to tell them they will be happier, or healthier, live longer, have better sex. That's matrimania.
Q. What are the most harmful aspects of "singlism"?
There are several levels. One is the everyday stuff that might seem trivial but can be hurtful. That's being excluded—from weekend evening events, for example. Or in the workplace having people assume that because you're single you don't have anything to do, you can take the travel assignment that no one wants, you can cover the holidays.
Another level is more economic. Again, it starts with the trivial, like two-for-one restaurant coupons. But there are also big things: Married men are paid more than single men, even when they have the same accomplishments, seniority and expertise. Why doesn't this happen with married and single women? The assumption that a married person has to earn enough to take care of a spouse doesn't extend to wives.
Q. So not all singles are equal. Don't older women have a particularly difficult time?
They do for three reasons: They're older, they're women and they're single. And yet they often do really well. Take the subgroup that you would expect to be most miserable: Older women who've been single all their lives. In the mythology, they don't have anyone, they never had anyone, they grew old alone, they're going to die alone.
And yet studies of loneliness often find no group that is less lonely than women in old age who've always been single.
Q. Why is that?
Because women, especially single women, have a network of people who are important to them. These women often have friendships that have outlasted many, many marriages.
Q. You suggest that the cultural emphasis on marriage, reflected in television reality shows like The Bachelor and the craze for elaborate weddings, is a sign of the institution's increasing frailty.
It's like protesting too much. It's totally understandable if some shows had wedding scenes, or a few of the reality shows were about scampering for a mate. But it's way over the top. It's a sign of a culture that's feeling threatened about the place of marriage.
Q. Isn't it natural to want to be part of a couple?
Yes, it is, to an extent, but what's not natural is the way we practice coupling today: This idea that you're going to find someone and that person is going to be your everything, your best friend and confidant and co-financial manager and sexual partner and vacation planner.
Q. You don't seem to place much emphasis on sexual intimacy. A recent AARP survey found that only 18 percent of single women 45 and older had a regular sex partner—and only 24 percent said they were content to do without sex.
I'm not trying to say that if you stay single, everything will be great. We have this implicit comparison—that if you're married, you're automatically getting exactly the right kind and amount of sex that you want. It's really not that clear.
Q. You're happily single. Did you never envision a different life for yourself?
I really didn't.
Q. That's rare.
It is. I'm both a very sociable person and a person who loves solitude. Around the holidays, I have the best deal: I can socialize, and then I can return to a home that's just mine and there's nobody else there. And I love that.
Q. What impact would you like the book to have?
At every level, single and married people should be treated fairly. I would like single people not to feel defensive—to live their lives fully and not be pushed in a fearful way toward something perhaps that they don't really want. At the same time, if they do want to be coupled, I'd like to see them approach that from a position of strength.
Julia M. Klein is a cultural reporter and critic in Philadelphia.