People Get All Weird If You Tell Them You Chose to Be Single: Why?
Tell people how you feel and they will believe you — unless you are happily single
In 2002, Time magazine published a cover story about women who were choosing to stay single and not have kids. I had not yet written my first book about single people, and I was still trying to understand the psychology of how single people are viewed. I was baffled by this letter to the editor that was written in response to the cover story:
“As long as women bounce around kidding themselves that life is full when alone, they are putting their hedonistic, selfish desires ahead of what’s best for children and society.”
The reader did not know the women in the Time story. He had no personal investment in them. What’s more, the women were not complaining about being single. They chose that! If they are happy with their life choices, then why was this random reader unhappy? So unhappy that he would sign his name to a letter in a magazine that, at the time, had a readership of about 4 million.
When I did write that book, Singled Out, I included an entire chapter about that matter, “To be or not to be single: Why does anyone care?”. Since then, science has marched on. Systematic research has shown that it is true — people will vilify and belittle you, and deny your own experiences, if you are single and want to stay that way. They are much nicer about single people who wish they weren’t single.
Here’s the Evidence
In two studies, one from Israel and the other from the U.S., participants were shown brief biographical sketches of people who were single and wanted to stay single and people who were single but wanted to be married or coupled. (Sketches of married or coupled people were included, too.) The single people who were single because they wanted to be single were judged more harshly than the single people who wished they were not single.
Remarkably, the single people who wanted to be single, probably because they were happy with their single lives, were judged as less happy than the single people who wanted to be coupled! They were also judged as less secure, less warm and sociable, more self-centered, and as leading less exciting lives.
In another startling finding, people expressed more anger at the single people who chose to stay single than the single people who were pining to be coupled.
Why Is This Happening?
Why do people go after singles who are not complaining about their single lives? Why are they angry at those single people? Why do they look at single people who are happily single, and who are leading the life they want to be leading, and proclaim that they are actually less happy, and leading less exciting lives, than the single people who want to be married?
I think the happy single people are challenging a cherished worldview. Many people — including many single people — want to believe the fairy tales about marriage. They are invested in the idea that if only you find the right person and get married, you will be happier and healthier and live longer, and all the pieces of your life will fall in place.
People who are happily single challenge all that. By choosing to live single, they are refusing to buy what the culture is selling. They are saying: “No, you are not a better person just because you are married. I’m single, I’m happy, and I want to stay single.” Lots of people really don’t want to hear that, even though it is true. It makes them angry. They would prefer to believe that if you are single, you are unhappy and what you want more than anything else is not to be single anymore. The single people who tow that ideological line, and say that they are unhappy, are the ones who are going to be looked upon more kindly.
Previously, at my blog at Psych Central (which has been taken down, along with all the other blogs, now that Healthline has bought the site), David P. Crews wrote a two-part guest post describing his single life. David is a single man of many talents and great adventures. But he too often finds that when he describes the experiences that he so enjoys, other people are dismissive. They have nothing to say, or they offer some perfunctory response and then change the subject. David wondered what that was about. I think the studies I described here offer one possible answer. Some people just do not want to believe that a single life can be a good life — a happy, fulfilling, and exciting life. That threatens their cherished view of the world. So they’d rather talk about something else.
Morris, W. L., & Osburn, B. K. (2016). Do you take this marriage? Perceived choice over marital status affects the stereotypes of single and married people. In K. Adamczyk (Ed.), Singlehood from individual and social perspectives (pp 145–162). Krakow, Poland: Libron Publishing.
Slonim, G., Gur-Yaish, N., & Katz, R. (2015). By choice or by circumstance?: Stereotypes and feelings about single people. Studia Psychologica, 57, 35–48.
[Want to learn more? Take a look at this collection of articles on all sorts of topics relevant to single life. Watch my TEDX talk, “What no one ever told you about people who are single.” Check out my website. Find my other stories on Medium here. Disclosure: Links to books may include affiliate links. Finally, my “Single at Heart” blog that I have been writing for Psych Central since 2011 ended in 2020; I am updating many of those posts and moving them to this blog on Medium.]