If you're single, you'll die alone and miserable in a cramped and filthy apartment. Only the stench of your putrefying corpse will alert neighbors to your death. Once they break down the door, they'll find your desperately ravenous cats chewing on the soft tissue of your eyes and lips. There'll be no one to claim the body or your pitiful estate. Your life, in short, will have been useless; you will leave behind no works of value to the world and no lasting memories.
This vision of single life is ingrained in culture and perpetuated by studies claiming to prove that married and coupled people are naturally bound to live longer, healthier and wealthier lives. Couples, we're told, are just better people, leading unselfish lives as they go about loving each other; sending children off to college; buying consumer goods; and generally contributing to the overall well-being of the world. Singles are seen as a collective embarrassment, bitter and gloomy folk who slither at the margins of sane society with wasted lives spent in the pursuit of their own happiness. Single parents are demonized for raising children supposedly doomed to become high school dropouts, serial killers and drug addicts.
As Bella DePaulo puts it in her excellent and refreshing new book, this is pure poppycock. Singles lead lives that defy stereotypes and most are single by choice. A 2005 Pew Report revealed that 55 percent of singles are not in committed relationships and are not looking for a partner. Divorce rates are up and 51 percent of women aren't married. Even coupledom is being reconfigured; fewer couples cohabitate or share bank accounts. So why does what DePaulo wickedly calls the 'marriage mafia' remain in the grips of 'matrimania?' And, '…if married people … have so much going for them, why do they need swarms of scientists, pundits, politicians, experts, authors, reporters and entertainers making their case for them?'
In answering such questions, DePaulo combines her training as a social psychologist with wit and sharp analysis, bringing the entire 'marriage is better' argument down like a house of cards. Singled Out dismantles the common myths about singles and examines the far-reaching impact of 'singlism'—the rampant discrimination faced by singles in everyday situations. The social slights are easily recognized by anyone who's had to endure the callousness of couples. DePaulo describes people who make it clear that she's not worth inviting to an adults' night out with other couples, only inviting her to brunch when she can entertain their children. Singles face insidious forms of discrimination in the workplace when pressured to work overtime or teach night classes so that their married counterparts can have time with their families. They supposedly don't have anything better to do than make life more comfortable for couples. Singles earn less than their married colleagues because they cannot collect the benefits claimed by married people. Even death is no equalizer—a single person's social security benefits can not be claimed even by a close friend, even though she spent her work life subsiding benefits for the married. And if you've been married multiple times, you can collect the social security benefits of your richest spouse. Don't just marry—marry often.
The book is an engrossing read, and DePaulo's examples of singlism range from faux scientific surveys that expound the supposed benefits of marriage to the public shaming of singles. Take, for instance, the 2004 interview of Ralph Nader by Chris Mathews. Given his vast influence on citizens' rights and environmental matters, Nader is inarguably one of the most important figures in American public life. Yet, Mathews berated him for his lack of maturity because, unlike his opponent George Bush, he hadn't 'exactly grown up and had a family and raised them and seen them off to college.' Well, then.
Singled Out focuses on marriage as the prevailing obsession of straight society. But the book is especially relevant to queers, given our rabid and misguided emphasis on gay 'marriage equality' as an organizing principle. We seem to believe that it's impossible to be queer and single. If you're single for more than a week, pffft, your membership card goes up in a cloud of pink smoke. This might explain the relentless drive to serial monogamy among queers who keep entering the revolving door of sequential relationships. Marriage is considered critical for us so that we can access the same benefits of married straights. From a queer progressive standpoint, this approach only perpetuates inequality and benefits for the few. As DePaulo asks, 'Why should you have to be any kind of couple to qualify for … benefits that are currently available exclusively to couples who are married?' Her chapter, 'The Way We Could Be,' details the kinds of fairness that make for a truly just society—basing taxes on the earnings of individuals; ensuring that single or married people who care for children and the elderly are subsidized; and giving all employees the same benefits regardless of marital status.
Singled Out argues that we overvalue coupledom and ignore the social networks that singles create as part of what DePaulo calls 'intentional communities.' This is especially relevant to those of us, queer or otherwise, who don't define our social groups according to ties of blood or romance. The book details how singles forge long-lasting and profound networks of friendship and care; the growing importance of these might ultimately be the reason why so many are opting out of coupledom. That's not to argue that there's no place for the loner who prefers a larger degree of isolation. Ultimately, Singled Out is a funny, clear and absolutely necessary book that emphasizes the importance of maintaining our connections to ourselves.
Yasmin Nair is an academic, activist and writer who was eight when she decided she would always be single. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org .