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First, Do No Harm: Marital Status At the Doctor’s December 14, 2010

Posted by Onely in As If!, Everyday Happenings, Food for Thought.

I walk up to the grandmotherly office manager and explain that I have a 9:30 new patient appointment.  Betty finds my file on the computer and makes last-minute adjustments before checking me in. She looks up and asks,

“Are you married or single?”

Nine-thirty in the morning is not my best time of the day. I stare at Betty through raggedy, unwashed bangs. I’m here to see a specialist for a (knock wood) non-fatal chronic illness that is nonetheless kicking my ass, and so I’m nervous and cranky, and I really want to just answer her question and go see the doctor. But because I write a blog deconstructing single stereotypes and marriage mythology, I feel obligated to engage Betty further on this topic.

Such is my dedication to you, dear Copious Readers.

“Can I ask why you ask if I’m married or single?” I say. I’m nice. I smile.

“Oh, everyone in the medical field asks that,” Betty says. She is nice. She smiles too.

“Oh yes, I know.” I say. (It’s true–I’ve been asked this question at several other doctor’s offices.) “I was just wondering why.”

“Well–I actually don’t know.” She looks surprised, perhaps at my question, or perhaps at her own ignorance.

“I was just curious,” I say. “It’s ok.” She is kind, after all, and it’s not even 10 a.m., far too early for forcing people to rethink entrenched paradigms such as the relevance of marital status. Or is it?

She wants to reassure me, also. “It’s just something we like to know about you.”

All my instincts tell me not to antagonize the office manager at my first appointment. If this doctor is the one who can help me, then I will need Betty on my side too. But I can’t help asking again, “But why?”

Slight irritation in her voice. “It’s just part of your demographic.”

Yes, I think, a small part. My demographic comprises my age, income, sex, race, socioeconomic status, education, cultural background, religion, and other traits, including, yes, my marital status. So why aren’t doctors’ offices asking me, “Are you Buddhist or Pagan?” or “Did you go to college?”

Answer: They don’t ask those questions because those questions are irrelevant and none of their business. Yet no one questions whether marital status is relevant and is their business. This is just another sign of the arbitrary worship attached to marriage, a privileging that would never fly if applied to any other element of a demographic. Can you imagine over a thousand federal laws based on religious status, the way over a thousand laws are based on marital status (and largely discriminate against singles)?

I hate singlism, but I hate mornings more. I stare at Betty, the stare of the exhausted, the confused, the inarticulate.

Betty gives me a concerned look and says,

It doesn’t mean a whole lot one way or the other.

OH SNAP. Copious Readers, what would you have said here? Remember, you’re in a position of unpower because you can’t piss off the intermediary between you and the doctor who may be able to stop the stabbing pains.

“Single,” I sigh.

Betty thinks my face is red and my lips clenched because I’m agitated about my appointment.  “I know you’re probably scared because you’re going to a specialist,” she says. That’s not untrue, and she means well, so I decide to let her live.

“It’ll be ok,” she says,  “Just have a seat.” So I do.


Photo credit: Cindy Woods


1. downfromtheledge - December 12, 2010

“why do you ask?” or “oh, i was just curious what the heck that has to do with my health!” seem appropriate. criminy. i got grilled about my sex and relationship history by my doctor last week, too! what in the WORLD that had to do with her making an accurate diagnosis (which i had no faith would happen to begin with since she was *Googling* “piriformis syndrome” – my suspected condition – and spelling it wrong!) i don’t know….

WORSE, however, was being asked in a job interview (last week, also), “Sooo, what’s your story: married? kids?”

last i checked that was still ILLEGAL (any inquiry about marital status: married, single, separated, divorced, and engaged; children; pregnancy or child care plans)…

but once the inappropriate ? is out there, you’re trapped, despite the fact that it’s none of their damn business. because if YOU question THEM, you’re made out as the a-whole like, “gee, why are they being so defensive about it?”

basically, i think trying to change others’ moronic behavior is a lost cause.

Lauri - December 15, 2010

downfromtheledge- it’s actually illegal to ask about marriage and kids in a job interview!

2. Josie - December 12, 2010

OMG, I have that exact same issue. What business is it of theirs? And now I’m a widow I’m always stumped what to say, it means admitting a bunch of information that is none of their business! Do I say single? Do I say widow, and then have to field the inevitable, “You’re young to be a widow.”. . .Yuck!

3. Alan - December 12, 2010

You’d think that, if they were really interested in demographic information, they’d provide more categories than “married” or “single”.

Was thinking about the “it doesn’t mean a whole lot” comment and I’ve decided that this may be a positive sign. A real matrimaniac would have said something like “marriage is important to health”.

4. Arlene - December 15, 2010

Well, I was once asked for the details of the “Head of the family…:0”
Its all a bit strange, but we knew that already, right?

Rachel - December 15, 2010

Wow! That reminds me of the intake question about the health insurance: What is your husband’s name? I was flabbergasted: First, can’t a woman have her own insurance? And then, why the heck do you think I am married?!?

5. Lauri - December 15, 2010

Christina, hope you feel better soon and the new doc works out.

I hope that I would have had the balls the answer “married” though! that would be awesome, just to see what happened.

I saw a new dermatologist last year, and the *third* question on the new patient form, after name and birthdate was marital status. I wrote “irrelevant” on the line. Neither the doctor nor the admin person called me on it. I posted about it on facebook and asked “what does my marital status have to do with my skin?” Some friends in medical professions suggested that it is only there so the doctor has something to make small talk about, and if that’s true, that’s just plain stupid. However, how could personal information that is only used for generating small talk possibly be the *third* most important question on a medical form after name and date of birth? And, as you say, if it’s to make small talk, there are hoards of other questions that would make for better small talk! When I started grad school, I had to locate my medical records from my pediatrician I stopped seeing sometime in college. Scrawled and underlined across one of the last entries was the name of my college. Obviously that the doctor had noted it for small talk purposes. Something like that makes way more sense, it’s like those “tell us something interesting about yourself” icebreakers. If the marital status question on the doctor’s form were for small talk purposes as some claim, wouldn’t it be more useful to add the line (after family history, medications currently taking, allergies, past surgeries, insurance company, and you know other medical information) “tell us something interesting about yourself.”

Onely - December 18, 2010

HA. Lauri I always love your comments! I wish I had even *thought* to answer “married.” Or maybe “divorced, five times.” Now *that* would make for some fun small talk!

6. Tessa - December 17, 2010

I think the marital status question might be a holdover from the days when women were regarded as children and husbands were supposed to act as protective guardians over their wives. If heroic onelies like Christina keep questioning its relevance, it will eventually disappear.

But on a personal level, I kind of enjoy checking “single” whenever this question appears on a form. It makes me feel happy, free, independent, and proud of everything I’ve achieved on my own. I look at the married box and feel thankful I’m not in that category. Seriously, the whole idea of marriage gives me the same sense of horror I get when I think about being buried alive. Brrr!

7. angelabpa - December 18, 2010

The reason we ask about marital status and sexual history is not to make people feel bad or inadequate. We can get information about possible domestic abuse, caregiver status (if one partner is ill or if the patient is a single person caring for an elderly parent). If a person is recently widowed or divorced, we can address their grief and refer them to appropriate counseling and support groups and remind them about taking care of themselves while they heal emotionally. Information about sexual habits is important for preventative medicine advice.

Just because the receptionist isn’t aware of the reason for the question, doesn’t mean it isn’t important.

On a side note, as a single health care provider I’m always asked why I’m not married. I just smile and say I haven’t found anyone who can keep up.

Tessa - December 18, 2010

I appreciate your explanation, but this reasoning just reinforces my belief that marital status questions should be discarded. A better way to determine if someone has suffered domestic abuse, what their caregiver status is, or their psychological state might be to ask them directly, and only in connection with whatever health problem they are seeking advice about, rather than assuming that they are at risk of developing certain conditions because of their marital status. Some divorced people, for example, might see being liberated from an unhappy marriage as cause for celebration and not need much in the way of grief counseling.

8. Josie - December 18, 2010

On reading the last reply I starting seeing red flags waving at me. Not sure why because I already had my say. Perhaps it’s because I’m a recent (1 year) widow, and since then have had to check my marital status on at least 2 forms at doctors, one at a hospital. No one has offered me any sort of counselling, in fact, I had lots of support from the doctor I saw while my husband was sick and don’t need guidance from another doctor or hospital. It feels invasive and unnecessary to ask me this. Surely the doctor can ask me if they think it is necessary.
My experience has been that (some) doctors do not necessarily have the insight, empathy, or experience themselves to offer me anything.
In fact, how is my marital status at all relevant to anyone when visiting a hospital for a broken hand? In fact, i ticked ‘widow” and I believe the doctor didn’t even read this information and was surprised when I became slightly distressed mainly due to being back in a hospital where I had endured so many chemo sessions with my husband.
I also resent the Occupation Therapists knowing I’m widowed.
Next time I will be much smarter, as some people have and not check anything. Who was it who wrote “irrelevent”? I best remember that!

9. Eric Francis Coppolino - December 23, 2010

Well, the truth is, you don’t have to answer and you don’t have to say why. It’s not a life-threatening situation, and even then, your spouse may not be the one who is your medical whatever you call it who decides if they pull the plug. You can resist, and you can also say, n/a

10. Brasco - December 25, 2010

I’m a nice person. I’m also good looking, thin and female. People treat me really well which I consider to be a privilege. But I get asked stupid questions too that make me angry. I have one resolution for 2011: No more nice. The Bettys of the world are going to get slammed hard and fast, so maybe we can see a few position changes.

11. Eric Francis Coppolino - December 25, 2010

Um, the person to talk to is the owner of the business – the doctor who is one of the partners in the professional corporation or partnership — not the grunt at the desk.

12. dr chan alarice - December 27, 2010

As another single health care provider, I usually don’t ask the marital status question for the same reasons. In Ob/Gyn, most of my patients are young and healthy. Life changes quickly, though, and many young healthy people don’t expect to have a stroke or hemorrhage etc. that renders them incapable of making decisions. As such, most also don’t have a living will, proxy, or advanced directive prepared. If someone is married, the care provider may still not know what the patient would have wanted, but we have a legal starting point (remember Terry Schiavo?). Ignore the question or refuse to answer if you choose–just PLEASE designate someone to speak for you if something happens 🙂

Onely - January 26, 2011

Great advice for our readers — thanks Dr. Alarice!

— Lisa

13. Amanda - January 11, 2011

Try being a single mother at the pediatricians office. Despite the fact that in 2007, 40% of babies born were born to unwed mothers, they insist on asking about my husband on every visit. I was even asked my maiden name. I can’t believe anyone uses that term anymore.

14. Anonymous - January 26, 2011

I am happily single and loving it, too.

However, how can you assume that “Betty” isn’t a smart, thoughtful young woman herself? How lofty of you to think that you have the ability to “force people to rethink entrenched paradigms”….and all before ten am, too boot!

15. partime - March 26, 2011

A dr. asked my marital status and when I replied single, he asked if I “like boys or girls”. I was stunned at the disrespect. I’m not gay (not that there’s anything wrong it)and I wanted to put him through the wall.

Onely - March 28, 2011

WOW. That is really over the top. Wow. I’m sure he/she thought they had a good reason for asking, but I have no idea what it might be. = )

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