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    Thursday, September 17, 2015

    The Problem of the Self-Loathing Single Person


    A syndicated columnist wrote an article called "The Single Life (link is external)." In it, he castigated himself for being a selfish single person obsessed with consumerism and self-indulgent choices. He sees his life as a single person as meaningless and shallow.

    He observes (correctly) that the number of single people is continuing to grow. To him, that means that "America is becoming a giant singles bar full of self-focused people."

    The columnist idolizes married people as much as he denigrates single ones. Beginning with his selfless parents and continuing through all the married people around him, this man lives in a simple world in which married people are good and virtuous and single people are bad and worthless.

    Every group has people like this columnist – people who uncritically internalize all of the cruelest stereotypes about their group. This man takes it a step farther, though, by perpetuating all the singlism (link is external) by publishing it in his nationally syndicated column.

    The writer's column should not have been titled, "The single life" (the emphasis is mine); it should have been called "My life." Perhaps he really is, personally, as shallow and materialistic and self-centered as he suggests in his column. But that doesn't mean other single people are, or that he is leading such a meaningless (in his opinion) life because he is single. Maybe he's telling us something about who he really is, at his core, and he would behave in quite the same way if he got married.

    But he believes in magical marital transformations—for example, as I said in Singled Out (link is external), "a man can walk up the aisle a homeless, alcoholic, drug-addicted, woman-groping thief, rapist, and murderer, pause at the altar long enough to say 'I do,' and return an upstanding citizen and CEO."

    The columnist seems to swallow whole every good thing he has ever heard about married people, and he thinks that those adoring claims are scientifically based. For that, I don't totally blame him. Plenty of reporters who should know better, and even social scientists (who really should know better) perpetuate the same tired old claims that are more ideological than they are factual.

    For those new to my writings, I'm a scholar who has been studying and researching single life and on the implications of marrying for nearly two decades. I've also taught graduate courses in research methods for decades. I say that to emphasize that I am not countering this columnist's opinion with just my opinion. I'm drawing from the research that I have studied very closely. But if you have read any of the critiques that I have made so many times before (of all the misleading claims about how getting married makes you a happier, healthier, longer-living, and all-round better person), you would know that you don't need any degrees or special training at all to understand that the claims are bogus.

    Do you think, as the columnist does, that getting married makes people physically and emotionally healthier? That it makes them live longer? That getting married means you will have a better sex life? That the children of single parents are doomed? That single men are irresponsible criminals and marriage civilizes them?  Many of those claims are based on what I call "cheater techniques" – ways of looking at the data that would never be deemed scientifically respectable if the topic were anything else but marriage.

    I started critiquing these claims in Singled Out (link is external) and have continued addressing every new study that comes along and gets lots of media attention. My latest and most powerful critiques are in Marriage vs. Single Life: How Science and the Media Got It So Wrong (link is external). I addressed the specific widespread pseudo-scientific condemnation of single-parent families in Single Parents and Their Children: The Good News No One Ever Tells You (link is external). You can also find critiques of individual studies here (link is external).

    The columnist believes that married people are selfless and singles are selfish. But research based on nationally representative samples, in the U.S. and the U.K., challenges that singles-shaming claim (link is external). If he is still single as his parents get older and need his help, who does he think is going to be there for them, more often and for more hours? If he has married siblings, chances are, it won't be them. Single sons and daughters consistently do more of the everyday helping and long-term caregiving of their parents, and often of other people who need serious amounts of help, too.

    The writer believes that "focusing on oneself is the natural course that single life takes," but he could not be more wrong about that. Study after study has shown that, on the average, it is married people who are insular (link is external), attending mostly to each other. In fact, research that follows the same people over time who go from being single to getting married shows that they become more focused only on each other, maintaining less contact with friends and family than they were when they were single. They seem to exchange help with them less often, too.

    This isn’t something that can be explained by having kids. People who get married give short shrift to the other people in their lives regardless of whether they have kids or not.  The columnist believes that "marriage produces stable, thriving communities," but it is single people who are more often maintaining connections with their neighbors and exchanging help with them.

    If the columnist wants to feel badly about himself because he is single, that's up to him. But it is not okay to attribute damning qualities to all or even most single people. That's just wrong. It is scientifically indefensible, and in my opinion, it is just bad form.

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     This topic brought to you from psychologytoday.com
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