Singletude: A Positive Blog for Singles

Singletude is a positive, supportive singles blog about life choices for the new single majority. It's about dating and relationships, yes, but it's also about the other 90% of your life--family, friends, career, hobbies--and flying solo and sane in this crazy, coupled world. Singletude isn't about denying loneliness. It's about realizing that whether you're single by choice or by circumstance, this single life is your life to live.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Singled Out by Bella DePaulo: A Singletude Review

Today I want to introduce you to an eye-opening book that confirms what many of us have suspected about singlehood but lacked the research to prove--yes, we singles are treated like second-class citizens, but we're still some of the happiest, healthiest citizens in the world. Welcome to Singled Out: How Singles Are Stereotyped, Stigmatized, and Ignored, and Still Live Happily Ever Afterby Bella DePaulo, Ph.D.

In bookstores across America, self-help manuals instructing supposedly desperate singles to settle a little more and love themselves a little less overflow the shelves. This is not one of them. Singled Out shatters the stereotypes of the forlorn spinster surrounded by cats and the messy bachelor in the midst of dirty laundry and pizza boxes and replaces them with the research-based reality of 87.5 million singles leading richly fulfilling, resilient lives in which marriage is an afterthought if it's a thought at all.

In an effort to raise awareness for the last unrecognized minority in this country, DePaulo coins the term singlism, discrimination based on relationship status, and shows how insidiously pervasive it is. When you're taxed at a higher rate because you're single, when you're denied access to a relative's Social Security or health insurance because yours is the bond of blood, not a marriage certificate, when you bankroll couples' hotel accommodations, car rentals, and gym memberships by paying the full fee as a single person, that's singlism. It pops up in subtler, more personal ways, too--at those parties you're not invited to because your friends "didn't think you'd want to sit around with a bunch of couples," in those alumni newsletters that advertise weddings and births but not professional accomplishments, in those tsks and tuts from family members when you don't bring a sweetheart home for the holidays again this year.

Anticipating the argument that marriage really is our natural state, DePaulo traces the history of the institution as a practical foundation for reproduction and its eventual convergence with the concept of romantic passion in the 18th century. While denying that she is anti-marriage, DePaulo asserts that the marital relationship has only recently been elevated to the pinnacle on which it now reigns, above all other ties of family, friendship, and community. This is an unnatural state, she declares, albeit one that our society has become invested in supporting for reasons detailed in the book. She then lays out ten popular myths about singles, scrutinizes the falsified claims undergirding each one, and systematically demolishes their flimsy pedestals, which can't stand against solid research.

You may be surprised and dismayed at how many of these myths you've unknowingly bought into, even if you're happily single. For instance, most of us singles know that we have a rainbow of interests beyond just dating (Myth #2), can be as hard-working and generous as marrieds (Myth #4), and are far from "alone" (Myth #9), maintaining strong connections with our friends and family.

But did you also know that, despite facing rampant prejudice, which has been proven to contribute to depression, singles and marrieds barely differ in self-reported happiness? On a scale of one to ten, the difference in happiness between singles and marrieds is less than a point. It's even smaller, half a point, when only never-married singles are considered. Furthermore, married individuals were happier from the outset, long before they were married, so we can't conclude that marriage made them happier. On the other hand, we can conclude that financial and health status both predict happiness better than marital status.

Speaking of health, did you know that, regardless of media propaganda to the contrary, marriage actually doesn't convey any longterm health benefits? Men who marry experience a boost in good health around the time of the marriage, and widows and widowers see a dip in health when their spouses die, but within a few years, all of these people are no more or less healthy than they ever were. For never-married singles and married women, there's no change in health status, while those who divorce are healthier than ever once their marriages end.

What about sex? We all know that married people have the most sex, right? Well, no. Cohabiting people do. Okay, but married couples have the most emotionally satisfying sex lives, right? Err, um, not quite. Never-married cohabiting women are more likely to be "extremely emotionally satisfied" with their sex lives than are married women. As for men, although more marrieds than singles report high levels of emotional satisfaction, the most emotionally satisfied men are--wait for it--cohabiting divorces. And--oh, dear--guess who complains of the most sexual dysfunction? That would be married men. Moreover, there's no data to compare how sexually active or satisfied any of these individuals were before and after marriage, so, once again, we can't say it was a white dress and a minister that made the difference.

One by one, Singled Out picks apart some of the most lauded, influential studies on marriage and shines a light on their bias toward couples, explaining the tactics they use to obscure confounds in data collection and interpretation. This could be dry, confusing, or intimidating, but DePaulo uses everyday language, real-life anecdotes, and a light, humorous tone to demystify the charts and stats. In fact, even if you have no interest in singles issues, this book is worth the read simply as a layperson's crash course in experimental analysis, after which you may forever view pop science headlines with a more critical eye.

A brief summary of the myths DePaulo addresses and refutes wouldn't do justice to Singled Out, which teems with truths about the single life that will by turns amaze, appall, and encourage you. However, suffice it to say that by the time you've read it, any stereotypes you've clung to about such maligned figures as chronic bachelors, career women, and single parents will be turned inside out. However, the main thrust of the book, once you perceive the patterns evident in the research, may startle you even more, and no, it's not that the single life is better than marriage. It's that marriage doesn't matter all that much. At the end of the day, whether you take a husband or a wife or a solo trek around the world, your life will probably be about the same. Your experiences will be different, but you'll still be as healthy, happy, and wise as you would've been had you taken the opposite path, maybe even more so.

You see, while finding a spouse doesn't appear to be a transformative event, losing a spouse is. Eventually, recovery is possible, but on numerous measures, those who've always been single fare better, making marriage, at least as it's practiced in the Western world today, a risky proposition. DePaulo suggests that glorification of the nuclear family at the expense of the larger social network guarantees that many couples will wrap themselves in the insular bubble of The Relationship, only to be devastated when the bubble bursts, leaving one or both of them flailing in a sea of strangers. The final chapter presents a vision for the future in which this trauma would be ameliorated by true legal equality, renewed emphasis on extended families and community, and respect for singlehood as a legitimate lifestyle.

If Singled Out has any flaw, it's that it may underestimate the deep-seated desire to couple that many singles have. In one vignette, when someone asks DePaulo why she's never married, she replies, "I love being single...I just love my life…the way it is." Much of the book seems to operate on the assumption that most singles would agree, but the evidence isn't entirely convincing. For instance, the oft-quoted Pew Internet & American Life Project survey does show that 55% of single adults are "not looking for a partner," but that includes the elderly, divorced, and widowed, who may not be eager for a second or third time around. But among adults in the prime marrying years, 18-29, only 38% are "not looking." This is not to say that marriage is preferable to singlehood or that the wish to marry isn't partially fueled by enculturation, but it is a wish shared by a substantial portion of the population, both men and women, and shouldn't be dismissed.

That said, if there is a tendency to minimize the urge to couple, it's a minor complaint in this remarkably clear-eyed, meticulously documented depiction of the single life with all its--pardon the pun--singular challenges and satisfactions. DePaulo is the champion that we singles have awaited to validate the worth of the individual in a "matrimaniacal" culture and advocate for our fair treatment, and Singled Out could be the vehicle for a sea change, a reconstitution of what it means to be single. Read it, enjoy it, learn from it, pass it on to other singles to inspire them and to couples to clue them in. Even with the cards stacked against us, we singles are doing okay. In fact, we're doing better than okay--we're growing, thriving, and living our lives to the fullest. We know it, and now it's time everyone else knew it, too.

Were you surprised to learn about some of the myths discussed above? Have you experienced singlism in your life? If you've read Singled Out, do you have comments on the book?

Fun Link of the Day

Do you have a book or web site for or about singles that you would like Singletude to review? Contact Elsie!


Unknown said...

Wow, I'm totally going to pick up this book when I get the chance. I feel singled out for being single all the time. People ask me questions like, "Girl, when you gonna get you a MAN?" and also (because I'm a virgin) I get people asking me why I haven't had intercourse yet. So frustrating.

Clever Elsie said...

I hear you! Here's a list I like of smart answers to people who can't mind their own business and keep their noses out of your love life.

Good for you for sticking to your principles and not letting anyone pressure you into having sex until YOU want to! Your sex life is nobody's business but yours. With a little modification, I think some of the retorts in the list above would probably work well for people questioning your virginity, too.