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From Proposal to Privilege: The Unearned Rights of Married People February 14, 2015

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

Copious Readers: Four of us singles’ advocacy writers banded together to write about the scourge of. . . Marriage Privilege! Bella and Rachel recently published this article on the subject in TruthOut, and you can find Onely’s take below. We hope you’ll check both them out,  as well as a co-authored list version cross-posted by Rachel and Bella on their blogs. Below, skip to the More tab to read specific examples of marital privilege.

Declaration of IndependenceMillions of unmarried people in the U.S. and around the world are targets of discrimination, yet hardly anyone has noticed. It’s time for that to change.

Successful social movements upend fundamental worldviews so that what originally seemed unthinkable to a privileged majority comes to feel ordinary to almost everyone. Although many marginalized groups have still not achieved true equality – as the recent events in Ferguson highlighted for the world – many have still made considerable progress in recent history: African-Americans became property owners, businesspeople, and U.S. President. American women got the vote, and the earnings gap, which shamefully still exists, isn’t as great as it used to be. Gays and lesbians garnered more positive portrayals in popular culture and gained the right to marry in some U.S. states and other countries.

But during the transition from odd to obvious, there’s always push-back. People cling to their worldviews, beliefs that make them feel secure and rooted and right. A challenge to those views, even a gently-worded one, is scary.

Odd and scary is the idea that marriage provides invisible and unearned legal, political, and economic privileges to its participants, at the expense of unmarried people. Obviously this discrimination is not as nefarious as, for example, racism has been. But it does exist. It’s even codified: over 1,000 U.S. federal laws favor married people. This factoid becomes even stranger when you consider that today about half the adult population of the U.S. is unmarried (whether due to desire, divorce, death, discriminatory laws, or other life circumstances).

If you find yourself rolling your eyes at the above, saying to yourself that it’s not that big a deal, consider this: For a very long time, men went about their lives confident in the assumption that their ordinary experiences were just that – ordinary. Men were overwhelmingly represented on TV and in newspapers. Men were widely favored in the workplace. Men did not need to realize that women had equally valid perspectives and strengths, which were largely under-represented in dominant discourse. They were overwhelmingly represented on TV and in newspapers. They were widely favored in the workplace. They did not need to realize that women, African-Americans, and other groups had equally valid, but underrepresented, perspectives and strengths. In 1988, Peggy McIntosh, a Wellesley women’s studies scholar, took the lessons she had been teaching about male privilege and turned them on herself, as a white person. Her race, she realized, made her privileged, too.

Decades later we’ve progressed to discussions about male privilege and white privilege, and these conversations have raised our consciousness about all sorts of other unearned privileges, such as those conditional on age, social class, and sexual orientation. Yet marital privilege – a pervasive, powerful package of unearned benefits – remains largely unchallenged and rarely recognized. It is almost completely invisible to the populace at large, even across other categories that are now very visible, such as race and social class.

Yes, people know that if they marry, they get stuff, such as blenders and the option not to testify against their spouse (the narrower meaning of marital privilege). But these are seen as rights, not as privileges that disenfranchise other social groups (such as single people).

Many people are familiar with the socio-cultural aspects of what we call “marital privilege.” Perhaps the best-known example is the widespread assumption that single people will “die alone,” with no one at their death beds, croaking the words “if only I had married” to the spiderwebs on the ceiling. As single people ourselves, we have heard this warning from otherwise intelligent individuals, people who seem to forget that the world is awash with chaos like car accidents, cancers, and barracudas that could obliterate their spouse and leave the remaining partner to “die alone” (and be eaten by their pets).

If you’re part of the married half of society, you may never have questioned the social and economic benefits you automatically receive just because you tied the knot. That’s okay, because marital privilege is a stealth privilege: couples and singles alike are simply not taught to recognize it. McIntosh explained that whites are not taught to recognize their white privilege. We believe couples are especially unlikely to notice marital privilege, because the thing about privilege is that the people who have it can afford not to see it.

That’s why we’ve provided some ways to recognize if you are experiencing, or have experienced, marital (or couple) privilege in the U.S.:


You’ve experienced marital privilege if your spouse is linked to you on legal and tax documents, guaranteeing, for example, that after you die, your spouse will benefit from the Social Security fund you’ve paid into all your working life. (If you have always been single and have no kids, the benefits you have earned go back into the system; you can’t leave them to anyone and no other person can give their benefits to you.) You’ve experienced marital privilege if you’ve taken advantage of other legal benefits to improve your wealth – such as opening a spousal IRA or gifting large sums of money to your spouse without worrying about tax penalties. You enjoy marital privilege if you pay car insurance, or individual-plan health insurance, or taxes, because singles almost always pay more for these things than you do. Marital privilege means you can receive money from the military should a loved one tragically die in service of our country–but only if that loved one is your spouse. If you want to adopt a child, marital privilege says you’ll have an easier time if you have a spouse, even if they are, for example, lazy and cold-hearted. When you raise that child, marital privilege protects you from judgments such as, “Your family is at-risk/dysfunctional/delinquent,” labels often levied against single parents.

Whenever you watch a movie, TV show, or book celebrating characters who finally succeed in their desperate quest to marry, you’re watching marital privilege in action. Marital privilege means you can be pretty sure that when researchers claim getting married makes people happier or healthier than single people, no reporter is going to look too closely at the data or the study methodology to see if the claim is really justified (which, by the way, they usually aren’t).

Marital privilege lets you ask someone, “Why is a person as nice/successful/intelligent as you still single?” while a why-are-you-still-married version is unfathomable. You may also say that married people are better than singles in almost any way, and marital privilege makes it rude for anyone to reply, You’re just in denial or You only believe that because you’re married; but it’s ostensibly ok to say the converse to singles. Marital privilege offers some protection if you refuse to work overtime because you have a family to go home to. If you feel, or are treated as, someone who is happier, more mature, or more successful than your single counterpart simply because you’re married – that’s marital privilege.

Travel companies espouse marital privilege by automatically quoting customers the price for a couple. Marital privilege allows you to have lots of pets–without people assuming it’s because you don’t have any important humans in your life. You’re enjoying marital (or couple) privilege if you receive a “plus one” invitation to a celebration, because hosts often don’t offer that option to single people (and the etiquette police look the other way).

 Two words: wedding showers.

Marital privilege almost always implies that singles do not have anyone in their lives as significant to them as your spouse might be to you. We say “might” because for all we know, maybe you hate your spouse (maybe they betray you or beat you or drop cheese puffs between the couch cushions). But that doesn’t matter. These laws do not reward love–although people like to think they do. These laws reward formalized coupling between two people who are presumed to be having sex.

It’s remarkable that marital privilege slipped beneath our cultural radar even when the decades-long battles over same-sex marriage could have made it obvious. Proponents of same-sex marriage posed this reasonable question: Why should only a certain kind of couple have access to basic benefits and protections? It is just one small step to an equally reasonable but more expansive question:

Why should you have to be any kind of a couple at all in order to have access to basic benefits and protections?

So, happy Valentines’ Day!

–Lisa & Christina

Photo credit: Larry’s Tax Law


1. Check Your Marital Privilege | All Things Single (and More) - February 14, 2015

[…] previous writings, at Truthout and at Onely, we made our case in detail. Here we offer a list of items you can check off to assess your own […]

2. Check Your Marital Privilege | Single at Heart - February 14, 2015

[…] previous writings, at Truthout and at Onely, we made our case in detail. Here we offer a list of items you can check off to assess your own […]

3. Jayne - February 14, 2015

You experience marital privilege if you’re allowed to support your spouse and children on your company health benefits, while your single officemate is not allowed to support his/her brother or sister with the same benefits. This is how singles receive less compensation for the same work.

4. Check Your Marital Privilege | Rachel's Musings - February 15, 2015

[…] Christina Campbell, and Bella DePaula Authors listed alphabetically by lastname Cross-posted at Onely.org and Psychology […]

5. Lack of Imagination and Libertarian Fallacies - April 3, 2015

[…] From Proposal to Privilege: The Unearned Rights of Married People (onely.org) […]

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