Resisting Matrimania

A Conversation with Bella DePaulo

Magazine Issue
November/December 2018
A headshot of a woman

Think of a prototypical healthy adult. You’re likely imagining someone who works out, meditates, goes to therapy, journals, contributes to social causes, eats a plant-based diet, and, wait . . . are they married or single? If you’re a regular consumer of popular research, you’d probably say married, citing studies promoting the mental and physical benefits of marriage.

Not so fast, says Bella DePaulo, an academic associate at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and long-time singles advocate. The reported findings are biased, she contends, and the single life is often as healthy, if not healthier, for many people. DePaulo, a seasoned blogger at Psychology Today, has written articles for The New York Times, The Atlantic, The Washington Post, Forbes, and many others. She’s the author of 18 books, including Singled Out, which The Washington Post called a “hilarious, superbly researched diatribe in favor of living well single.”

With more than 110 million single adults in America, comprising 45 percent of the population, we therapists need to better understand this growing population as something more than people waiting to find the right partner. In other words, we need to keep our matrimania in check.

RH: What inspired you to study the psychology of singleness?

DePaulo: For years, I kept a secret file folder of observations about what I’d later call singlism. Some of them were stories in the media. Others were my personal experiences, which at the time I didn’t know whether to attribute to the fact that I was single or to some other explanation. For example, when I started at a new job, my colleagues would invite me to lunch during the work week, but over the weekends, the couples would socialize only with other couples. Were they excluding me because I was single, or because they just didn’t want to spend more time with me? When job candidates would come to visit and my married colleagues asked me to cover the times with them that no one else wanted, were they doing that because they figured that as a single person I didn’t have a life like they did?

After a while, I started asking other single people—tentatively at first—whether they’d had experiences like mine. The first time I did this was at a social event, and I approached just one other single person. She could totally relate. Then someone else joined the conversation and had her own stories. Then another person, and then some more people stepped into the circle, and they weren’t all women. We talked for as long as the event lasted. The next morning, I opened my email and found messages that said, “Oh, and another thing!”

At the next social event, the same thing happened—then again on a trip I took to an entirely new place. That’s when I realized that this was something that resonated with lots of singles. The more I researched single life and wrote about it, the more passionate I became about getting a more affirming and balanced perspective out there.

RH: People often quote studies that point to the benefits of marriage over singleness, but you dispute their validity. Why?

DePaulo: When I decided to write Singled Out, my first book on the topic, I spent a lot of time delving into the social scientific studies on the implications of getting married. I’d never read any of the original research reports, but I was familiar with what the popular press had to say: people who marry become happier and healthier and live longer and all the rest.

Even though I didn’t think I’d be happier if I married, I thought I was the exception. Back then, my hope in collecting stacks of studies was that I’d find some wrinkles somewhere: maybe for women at a certain age, single life was just as good or even better than married life.

I was stunned when I started reading the actual research reports. The vast majority of studies were cross-sectional. They compared people who were currently married with people who were single, and if the married people were doing better, they’d say, “See, marriage makes people happier! See, if single people would only get married, they’d be happier!”

But I soon realized all the conclusions were based on correlations that didn’t tell us anything about causation. Married people might differ from the single people studied in all sorts of ways that could account for the difference. Maybe the married people weren’t happier (or healthier or whatever) because they were married, but because they had more money or because they were healthier to begin with—the possibilities are endless. Sometimes researchers try to control for this or that, but they can never control for every possibility, and they never even think of some of the most important ones, such as whether the single people want to be single.

Then I began to see more clearly a fundamental flaw in the research. By including in the married group only those people who are currently married, the researchers were ignoring all the people—probably more than 40 percent—who got married, hated it, and didn’t stay married. An apt analogy is a drug company doing a study in which 40 percent of the people in the drug condition hate the drug and refuse to keep taking it. Then, when the company submits the study for publication, it includes in the drug group only those people who stayed on it. No self-respecting journal would ever publish that.

Nevertheless, despite a methodology that gave married people an unfair advantage, sometimes those studies showed little difference between the married and the unmarried people. Some of them even found advantages for the lifelong single people.

Longitudinal studies, though still not perfect, are much better. By 2012, there were at least 18 studies of happiness in which the same people had been studied over time as they’d gone from being single to getting married. A review of those studies showed that people who’d gotten married typically hadn’t become any happier. At best, they’d experienced a brief increase in their satisfaction with life right around the time of the wedding, but then over time, their happiness had steadily decreased. And only those people who’d gotten married and stayed married enjoyed that honeymoon effect! The people who eventually divorced were already becoming less happy, rather than more so, as the day of their wedding approached. They ended up less happy than they’d been when they were single.

Some of the most recent and most sophisticated studies are even more shattering of the myths about the supposed benefits of marrying. For example, on some measures, people who get married get less healthy than they were before.

RH: Attachment theorists might say that someone who’s dedicated to remaining single may have an avoidant attachment style. How would you respond to that?

DePaulo: Statements like that are examples of why I upended my professional life to dedicate myself to the study of single people. For two decades, I studied the psychology of lying and detecting lies. I’d become a recognized expert in the field, and people would often come up to me after a presentation and say, “Interesting talk” or some such thing. But when I talk about singles, people come up to me and say, “Thank you!” More than a decade after Singled Out was published, I still get letters full of gratitude from people saying they never realized that it was okay to be single.

Sure, some single people have an avoidant attachment style, but so do many married people! A lot of these theorists may be thinking about attachment only as it relates to romantic partners. But research shows that single people often have secure attachment relationships with close friends, siblings, and parents.

To think that people who want to stay single may have an avoidant attachment style is to tell people who choose single life that sure, they may think they want to be single, but really, deep down inside, there’s something wrong with them. It’s condescending and regressive, and it pathologizes single people just for being single.

It’s important not to undercut the lifelong single people who have close relationships (including friendships that have outlasted many marriages), are doing important and engaging work, and are passionately pursuing goals. Nor should we be dismissive about the single people who may not be chasing “great achievements,” but are living the lives they choose.

RH: You coin the terms singlism and matrimania. What do they mean?

DePaulo: Singlism is the stigmatizing, marginalizing, and discrimination of people who are single. Singles are stereotyped when other people think they’re miserable, lonely, immature, self-centered, and so forth, because they’re single. Single people are marginalized in a society in which so much of social life is organized by couples. They’re discriminated against in federal laws—more than 1,000 of them—that benefit and protect only people who are legally married. Those are just a few examples.

Matrimania is the over-the-top valuing, hyping, and celebrating of marriage, couples, and weddings. My issue isn’t with the valuing of romantic couples and weddings; it’s with the overvaluing of them, to the exclusion of all the other important relationships in our lives.

RH: Why do coupled people feel so threatened by dedicated singletons?

DePaulo: Single people who are happily single, who embrace their single lives, threaten the mythology and ideology of marriage and romantic coupling: the idea that it’s the royal road to happiness and a good life. Once people recognize they can live full and happy and meaningful lives as single people, then they begin to challenge the idealized brass ring of matrimony as being a counterfeit. Many people, and not just coupled people, are very invested in the ideology of married people as somehow superior. For them, it’s not just any old set of beliefs: it’s a worldview.

Now there’s research documenting that people react much more harshly to single people who want to be single than to those who wish they were coupled. They even express more anger toward them. Research suggests that it’s people’s fundamental ideology and worldview at stake.

RH: Does being a single person yourself, who is a proponent of the single life, add or subtract from your message?

DePaulo: I’ve had journalists interview me and then, in their articles, say things like, “Of course she’s biased.” There are probably thousands of social scientists who’ve studied marriage and said positive things about it in interviews and the articles they submit to journals. As far as I know, no married researcher or writer has ever been told that they’re biased because they’re married. And the galling thing is that many of them are making causal claims that aren’t supported by the studies they’re doing or reviewing.

I just got an article published in The Atlantic, “Single People Aren’t to Blame for the Loneliness Epidemic.” A friend posted a link to it on her Facebook page, and immediately, someone commented that I was unethical and biased. Not just that she disagreed, but that somehow I was a bad person for making my case.

In contrast, sometimes my experiences give me extra credibility. When I talk about living single for your entire adult life, I’m someone who’s walked the walk. And chosen it! As a social scientist, I like to use research studies to make my points. But lots of people are much more moved by personal stories. So I do some first-person writing, too, and that’s often well received.

RH: Aren’t dual incomes, sharing responsibilities, and built-in companionship and support a desirable thing?

DePaulo: Sure, I wish I had two incomes! But if I have to be married and live with someone to get that, never mind. I love living alone. And yes, it might be nice if someone swooped in and did some of the household chores. But here’s the thing: after they cleaned up, I’d like them to leave. I like companionship and support. But I don’t like “built-in companionship” in the sense that I’m obligated to always have the same person as my plus-one, and that person always wants me to tag along to their events, whether I want to or not.

All of this does not mean that I don’t value close personal relationships. I do. I like going out to long, leisurely dinners with close friends. Sometimes I like traveling with them. Sometimes I enjoy visits from out-of-town friends or family. I have cherished friendships that have lasted decades. But I want that closeness to be balanced by delicious stretches of solitude.

People who love their single lives often prefer the DIY approach to relationships and to life. They like deciding who they’re going to spend their time with (without it having to be the same person every time), and they like the option of not spending time with anyone at all on a given day.

I think what people don’t often realize is that single people, on average, do more to create, maintain, and nurture ties with other people than married people do. That’s across all single people—not just the ones who want to be single. Studies show that single people have more friends. They stay in touch with friends, neighbors, siblings, and parents more than married people do, and they’re there for them more often when they need help. Longitudinal studies show that when couples move in together or get married, they become more insular, even if they don’t have kids.

RH: Is there ever a time where being coupled would be preferable to being single?

DePaulo: Oh my gosh, being coupled—and especially, being legally, officially married—is enormously advantageous financially. In the United States, laws build huge financial rewards right into our policies. For example, I can work side by side with a colleague for the same number of years, doing the same kind of work—I can even be doing much better work—but when she dies, her Social Security goes to her spouse, whereas the money I put into Social Security goes back into the system. I can’t give it to anyone else, and no one else can give theirs to me.

In an analysis for Atlantic magazine, two authors showed that a single woman can lose more than a million dollars over the course of a lifetime, relative to what the same women might have if she were married. It’s not just the laws: it’s also the practices. So many things are cheaper by the couple, from memberships (such as health clubs and even some professional societies), to tickets to events, to insurance rates, and much more. I think that’s wrong.

Under the Family and Medical Leave Act, any worker in an eligible workplace can take time off to care for a parent or child. But a married worker can also take time off to care for a spouse. I, as a single person, can’t take time off to care for a close friend or sibling or some other person I want to be there for, and no such person could take time off under the act to care for me.

RH: What would you recommend for a therapist whose client’s stated goal is finding someone to marry?

DePaulo: Of course, it’s entirely possible that marriage is what they really do want. The problem is that everyone knows they’re supposed to want that. What sometimes happens is that single people tell their therapists—and themselves—that they want to marry, but when it comes to doing what it would take, that ranks somewhere below cleaning out their sock drawer. There could be lots of reasons for that, but one is that they actually like their single lives, if they’re living them fully and with purpose.

If you’re old enough, you may remember when women (well, middle- and upper-class white women) were expected to want nothing more than to marry or have children. If they went to college, it was to get a Mrs., not a BA. Many didn’t even consider the possibility that they might love having a career. That’s where we are now about choosing single life: it’s not out there as a real, viable, obvious life choice. So it’s especially important for therapists to be attuned to choices that are not yet socially recognized or validated, but that may be the best choices for some people—the ones they’d choose for themselves, without needing any help, if only the common misconceptions about them were made apparent.

Ryan Howes

Ryan Howes, Ph.D., ABPP is a Pasadena, California-based psychologist, musician, and author of the “Mental Health Journal for Men.” Learn more at ryanhowes.net.