The year 2009 was a radical one for many reasons—Michael Jackson died, a plane successfully landed on the Hudson, High School Musical 3 changed all of our lives for the better—but one of the most significant changes was in the demographic makeup of the United States. For the first time in the nation’s history, the number of married women dropped below 50 percent.
Despite the demographic shift away from marriage (a change that had been brewing for years), federal laws and cultural practices continue to promote and benefit those who choose to marry.
Plenty has been written about the over 1,000 laws providing exclusive benefits and privileges to married people. It’s illegal to discriminate against people for their race, gender, or religion, but it is completely legal to discriminate against someone because of their marital status. The tax breaks, social security gains, and insurance benefits granted to married people effectively force unmarried people to subsidize their lifestyles.
On top of the financial and legal ramifications there is an emotional toll paid by unmarried people over a lifetime of apologizing and defending their humanity against those who believe there must be something wrong with you if you do not want to legally tie your life to another person in the eyes of the federal government.
The foundation of this cultural preference is not laws though, it’s the word we’ve allowed to define people who aren’t married: single.
The problem with “single” as a descriptive term is that it is condescending and inherently negative, not to mention unnecessary. This word is the bedrock of the stigmatism and distrust directed toward those who are romantically unattached and is used to promote the idea that being unmarried is a condition in need of curing.
In her book All the Single Ladies, Rebecca Traister traces the history of unmarried women and concludes, among other things, that during times where women have had the freedom to choose when and whom they marry, they have used the opportunity to be catalysts for social change in their society. She reports that today 20 percent of Americans between the ages of 18 and 29 are married. In 1960 this number was 60 percent.
Traister says the decline in marriage rates has not necessarily occurred because women hate the institution of marriage, but because women now view marriage as an “enhancement of life, not a ratifying requirement.”
This perspective of marriage as an enhancement instead of requirement is not reflected in the word we currently use to describe half of America’s population. Most young people today will spend a far greater period of their lives—perhaps the entirety of their earthly existence—unmarried. This means it’s possible they could spend a far greater portion of their lives with the looming label of “single” as a defining characteristic of their existence. Which might not be so bad except everything American society associates with being single is negative.
Bella DePaulo is a name you will run across often if you begin researching single life in America. She made headlines for coining the term “singlism” in 2005. According to DePaulo, singlism is discrimination against people who are single. Its converse is matrimania—the obsession and idolization of marriage and weddings.
DePaulo uses single as a descriptive term in all of her work, but it’s this term itself that is probably one of the strongest arguments for her theory of singlism. The most basic threshold of singlism is the term single itself because it assumes an incomplete, unsatisfied existence.
Jaclyn Geller, a professor and author of Here Comes the Bride: Women, Weddings, and the Marriage Mystique, has rejected single as a descriptive term.
“I don’t like the “single”/ “married” binary,” she has said. “It implies that any unmarried person is a fragmentary half-self awaiting completion in a spouse. It suggests that all other partnerships – including the close friendships that sustain so many people – especially women – do not factor into one’s self-definition.”
Geller proposes several alternatives including, “unconventionally partnered” and points to Nancy D. Polikoff’s term “intra-dependent.” Other options include my girl Gwyneth Paltrow’s idea of “conscious uncoupling” or you could go with New York Times bestselling author, Kate Bollick’s preferred term: spinster.
“If I stopped seeing my present life as provisional,” Bollick wrote in the Atlantic cover story that preceded her book deal, “perhaps I’d be a little … happier.”
Therein lies the rub. The average American adult now spends more time unmarried than married. This is not a condition or disease or temporary state. It is a reality of life and our current linguistic approach to this reality has been to deny it and treat those living through it as engaged in a transitional period. The question of how long people are supposed to wait for their lives to stop being treated as temporary and subpar existences remains unanswered.
I asked some members of the Literally, Darling team how they felt about the definitive term single and most of them viewed it as mostly harmless, if unnecessary.
“Despite not dating, I’ve never actually used the word to describe myself and can’t really fathom doing so,” Editor-in-Chief Katie Racine said. “It’s not that I’m against labeling myself per se, it’s just never been one of any relevance. Calling me a redhead is going to give you more information about my personality than my relationship—or lack thereof—status.”
Love & Sex editor Korey Raye Lane said it can create a separatist mindset.
“I honestly just feel that using ‘singles’ as a group term starts to create an unnecessary divide and makes single people, as well as people in relationships, start to feel defensive about who’s better off.”
Laws and pop culture reinforce this division, but it’s a construct that unmarried people should feel free to reject.
Of course there are lifestyle differences between those who are married and those who aren’t. But defining someone’s entire existence based upon their matrimonial status makes their entire life one never ending DTR with the entire world. It’s an irrelevant and lopsided division that presents a distorted representation of what the social makeup of our country actually looks like.
Marriage is no longer an assumption of adulthood or a status that everyone reaches at some point. There are numerous reasons for this shift but it’s worth noting that this drastic decline in marriage has happened despite the many legal and financial benefits that still exist for married people. Those who are worried about protecting the institution of marriage from extinction do not help their cause by insisting on stigmatizing all other social states. The consequence of continuing to define people who are not moving toward marriage as single is that you define their entire existence in negative terms.
Here is a fact: unless you are a conjoined twin, you are one human being. Married, divorced, celibate, engaged, or unattached status aside you are still a single unit. Single is an accurate description of your biological vehicle, not your social status.
It would be nice if society and the federal government magically came together and decided to present a different narrative about what it means to live a happy, contented life. In the likely event that this narrative does not emerge from higher up it is up to unmarried people to claim control of their identity as real, whole human beings without conditions or provisions.
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