I was single for almost all of my 20s. From the time I graduated college up until a few months before I turned 31, it was always just me, which I was largely comfortable with because when you’re super single for that long, you have no choice but to get comfortable.
Many a right (and left) swipe later, I met my current boyfriend, Jake*. A few months into our relationship, he enrolled in an MBA program, and he was invited — I mean, we were invited, I’m part of a we now — to a partner welcome drinks before classes began. We had a private wine tasting, ate fancy passed appetizers, and listened to speeches about how to be successful as a couple when one half of the couple is earning their MBA.
The night before, all students, single and coupled, were invited to a different welcome drinks event, which was held at a tacky, crowded, East Village bar. The difference between this and the wine tasting was like night and day, which left me quite stunned. Why was I, someone who’s simply dating a person about to enter this program, getting better treatment than a single person actually attending it?
Frankly, it pissed me off. I spent much of my 20s trying not to feel bad about being a third wheel, not to roll my eyes when I didn’t get a plus one, not to get annoyed when people told me I just had to wait until I found the right person, not to scream at restaurant hosts when they asked me, “Just one?”
The ugly truth is that singles are singled out. Until now, I’d seen the other side of the coin, but I already knew the facts. Singlism is real.
“Singlism is the stereotyping, stigmatizing, and marginalizing of single people and the discrimination against them,” says Bella DePaulo, Ph.D., a social psychologist and author of Singled Out. “Most single people realize that they are stereotyped. They know that other people see them as sadder, lonelier, less secure, less mature, and so forth, just because they are single. None of that is true.”
Marisa*, a 26-year-old single who lives in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, says the pressure to tie the knot has led friends to get married just for the sake of getting married.
“A friend who I think is in a pretty unhealthy relationship recently sent me a picture of an engagement ring as I was in the middle of applying eczema lotion to my legs,” she says. “I laughed, thinking, I’m doing this and my friends are getting engaged. But I’d rather be happy and solo with my eczema lotion than in the relationship she’s in, because I think she’s only in it because she wants to be in a relationship and have a baby.”
This, according to DePaulo, is matrimania, the over-the-top hyping of marriage, coupling, and weddings.
“Think of the oohing and aahing that happens when someone announces they are engaged,” she says. “Or the wedding celebrations that keep getting more extravagant and expensive. Or the proposals that have turned into public spectacles. All that says, ‘We are in awe of married people. Single people, not so much.’”
Cara*, a 23-year-old in New York City, says that her closest friends from college all happen to be in relationships and, without even realizing it, they treat her differently
“Whether it’s asking to look at my dating apps or starting catch-ups with, ‘soooo, anyone?’ they find a way to weave my being single into our conversations,” she says. “I just got an amazing dream job right out of college, and I wish I got asked more about that before jumping to the cure for my singlehood.”
According to DePaulo, this feeds right into a common singlism myth for women: that “your work won’t love you back,” and, as gender stereotypes dictate, we should prioritize the personal over the professional.
Singlism doesn’t only affect women, either. Andy Cohen, of Bravo and “Real Housewives” fame, recently had a baby with a surrogate because he was eager to become a father. The headline of his People cover story? “Andy Cohen Explains His Decision to Become a Single Parent.”
The focus on his singledom has earned him attention of all kinds, including that of so-called momsplainers who attack his parenting style on social media, feeding single — and gender — stereotypes in the process.
For men, a common singlism myth, DePaulo says, is that “you are horny, slovenly, and irresponsible, and you are the scary criminals.
Jeff*, a 33 -year-old fintech attorney in San Francisco says that he’s constantly misunderstood and often feels the pressures of singlism at work, particularly living the startup life in Silicon Valley. Married colleagues, particularly those with children, get more freedom when it comes to leaving early or taking vacation.
“I’m definitely asked to entertain client events after work more than others,” he says. “Like I don’t have a life or anything else to do. Even one guy who’s engaged is getting cut a lot of slack with [getting time off for] his honeymoon.”
On top of this, the startup where Jeff works only recently started offering benefits, which are better for married employees than for singles.
Obvious anti-single bias seem to know no boundaries: There are tax breaks and discounts, not having to testify against your spouse in criminal cases, veterans’ benefits, adoption benefits, hospital visitation rights, and more.
Social Security benefits, for example, can only go to a spouse after an employee dies, DePaulo explains. A single person’s? Theirs goes right back into the system.
In the tax department, married couples are provided many more benefits than singles.
Singles will always pay more, according to a Seattle University Law School paper by law professor Lily Kang. “The scant attention paid to single people is striking in light of the most recent U.S. census data, which indicate that they are nearing a majority of the adult population.”
Eric Feldman, tax strategist for creative freelancers and founder of Four15 Advisors, says that “the recent Tax Cuts and Jobs Act bill passed in late 2017 is a home run for married tax filers. Not only does this new bill nearly double the previous standard deduction to $24,000, but it also widens the married filing jointly tax brackets. These new brackets and tax rates have led to the lowest tax liability for many married filers that I’ve seen in my 15 years in business.”
If you’ve ever watched “Law and Order,” you’ve probably heard about spousal or marital privilege, where federal law dictates that spouses not only don’t have to testify against each other in court but the couple’s communication is also protected by the same law. Even for those who served their country, things are unequal. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs provides different pension benefits to spouses of service members than to singles who have served.
And some travel discounts apply only to couples, which can be frustrating. Oona*, a 25-year-old in London, notes you have to travel as a couple to get railcard discounts in the U.K., a luxury she can’t cash in on. The discount card is literally called the Two Together Railcard and features pink and purple colors on its homepage with a photo of a loving, you guessed it, couple.
In 2016, Anne*, 31, of New Zealand, broke off her engagement weeks before her wedding, She now struggles with worry that she was as obnoxious to her single friends as her coupled friends now are to her.
“There is a group of us who are all friends, a few couples and a few singles, and the men in the couples keep saying, ‘We just want you to find a boyfriend so he can hang!’” she says. “All I know is that I am much happier on my own than [I was] in a bad relationship. If that makes me look unaccomplished, broken, or incomplete, then fine. I don’t want to conform to be ‘okay’ in other people’s eyes.”
But how can you combat singlism? DePaulo says the best thing you can do is live your single years fully, joyfully, and unapologetically. And if you’re not single, treat single people the same way you treat someone in a relationship. Don’t assume that they are unhappy, won’t be as good of a parent, or have no valid priorities. A prime example: inclusion.
“Invite them to the same events,” DePaulo says. “No more, oh, I think I’ll only invite couples to this dinner party.”
Lest you forget, take a moment to think about a world in which coupled people face the same kind of discrimination as singles. Imagine when you tell people you are married, they tilt their heads and say things like “awww” or “don’t worry, honey, your turn to divorce will come.” Just imagine.
*Names have been changed to protect innocent singles everywhere.