Research shows that single people are a growing demographic with active social and community ties – yet social and institutional bias against them lingers.
Same-sex couples who wish to marry are on a winning streak in the courts, and public polling reveals that marriage equality enjoys a higher level of support than at any time in the past. This increasing openness to different kinds of relationships and families provides an opportunity to think more broadly about how we can dignify the relationship decisions of all people — not only those who wish to marry, but those who don’t.
Singleness is on the rise in the United States. According to the 2010 census, nearly 100 million Americans eighteen and over (43.6 percent) are unmarried, and of these, 61 percent have never been married. While of course not all unmarried or never married people are single by choice, many of them are. For example, a 2006 Pew survey found that 55 percent of single people are uninterested in finding a partner.
Many people cannot imagine life without marriage, and the dedication with which same-sex couples and their allies have fought for the right to marry demonstrates how important marriage is to many people. Yet others feel just as strongly about remaining single. Many single people see significant advantages to their status, arguing that the fixation on coupledom leads to neglect other important relationships such as those among friends and other family members and stifles other important social and community values. Singleness, many argue, is not only tolerable, but desirable.
In at least some ways, researchers agree. For example, sociologists Natalia Sarkisian and Naomi Gerstel argue that married people have become increasingly isolated during the past generation because they focus on their marriages to the exclusion of both other relationships and investment in the broader community. As they put it, “greedy” marriages have resulted in a “short-circuiting of community ties.” Contrary to the popular social view of marriage as the pillar of the community, marriage in fact crowds out community involvement. Gerstel and Sarkisian have found that never-married and unmarried people are more politically active, more engaged with their neighbors, and have stronger networks of family and friends.
Despite these positive consequences of singleness, research also reveals many negative attitudes directed at single people. A study by social psychologists Bella de Paulo and Wendy Morris revealed that single people were viewed more negatively across a wide spectrum of personality traits. For example, married people were more likely than singles to be described as mature, stable, honest, happy, kind, and loving; singles were more likely to be called immature, insecure, self-centered, unhappy, lonely, and ugly. A different study by Morris found that married people were described as caring, kind, and giving by almost 50 percent of respondents, while only 2% percent said the same of single people.
Research also suggests that bias against single people affects actions, not only beliefs. For example, a series of studies of housing rentals found that when presented with a choice between married and unmarried renters who had the same occupation, hobbies, and other characteristics, 80 percent of people chose to rent to a married couple, 12 percent to a cohabiting couple, and 8 percent to a pair of friends. Likewise, a study found that participants rated a male job applicant as more “suitable” if he was married and rated a male employee as more dedicated if he was married. (The opposite was true for women, which suggests that in some instances, perhaps due to stereotypes about gender and childrearing, women suffer a marriage penalty. This is also an important issue that I don’t wish to undermine, although it’s not my focus in this column.)
Perhaps most notably, people were quite open about their bias against single people. When asked why they preferred to rent to married people, for example, a majority of participants in the rental study stated simply: “because they’re married.” It is very difficult to imagine that such a large number would have proclaimed that they preferred not to rent to black people “because they’re black,” or to Jewish people “because they’re Jewish.”
Moreover, single people are often treated worse than married people in ways so deeply entrenched that we don’t think about them. Legal scholar Lily Kahng has shown that single people pay more taxes than married people on the same amount of income. Married couples often receive better rates on everything from car insurance to employee benefits to cell phone service. And “couple discounts” are everywhere. For example, some gyms offer memberships at one rate for a single person, and at substantially less than twice that rate for a couple.
Yet it’s unclear why these financial benefits should attach to marriage. A single gym member who pays a higher per-person rate is subsidizing the couple discount for me and my husband. The same could be said for all of the financial benefits I’ve mentioned. Of course this benefits me, financially, as an individual, and me and my husband as a couple. But that’s no reason to pretend it’s not fundamentally unfair to expect someone to subsidize me simply because I’m married and they aren’t, or at least aren’t right now.
What might we do about discrimination against single people? Currently single people are under-protected under federal law, which prohibits neither employment discrimination nor housing discrimination on the basis of marital status. Legal scholar Nicole Porter, among others, has argued that the federal prohibition on employment discrimination should extend to discrimination on the basis of marital status. Such a proposal has little downside: it would protect single people from worse treatment in the workplace, and, moreover, would also ensure equal treatment of couples in situations where they are disadvantaged.
Single people fare somewhat better under state law. My own research shows that 22 states and the District of Columbia currently protect against marital status discrimination in employment, and 24 states prohibit marital status discrimination in housing. While these laws are a step in the right direction, many of them are limited to specific types of employers or landlords. And, of course, more than half of states have no such laws at all.
How do we level the playing field between single and married people? A good place to begin is to expand federal employment and housing discrimination law to cover single people, and to promote the same treatment at the state level. Likewise, the United States is one of only a few developed countries to retain the joint tax return, and we should think seriously about reconsidering whether it’s actually justified. And private businesses should rethink the discounts they offer to married couples simply for being married.
The move toward equality for everyone who wishes to marry is cause for celebration. It also provides an opportunity to reflect on marital status more generally, and to look for ways to equalize those who wish to marry and those who don’t.