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The Dark Side of Singles’ Advocacy: Ignoring Institutionalized Singlism May 26, 2020

Posted by Onely in Food for Thought, Marital Status Discrimination.
Tags: , , , , , ,

Welcome to the first installment in our new series, The Dark Side of Singles’ Advocacy. By dark, we mostly mean “unrecognized”. An updated and more personal version of this post was published on Bella DePaulo’s column at Psychology Today

The singles advocacy community consists (pretty much) of progressive people who are in favor of equal rights and opportunities for everyone regardless of lifestyle, but sometimes we act in regressive ways that do harm to ourselves and our cause. Or sometimes, we just miss a big part of the picture.

Today’s installment of The Dark Side is about the gigantic chasm between our movement against socio-cultural singlism and our movement against institutionalized singlism. Relatively few people in the community for singles’ rights pay attention to institutionalized singlism. That’s a problem. That needs to change. Now. While I appreciate memes and media pieces that tout singleness as a valid–or even preferable–lifestyle (socio-cultural), I want more discussion about how marital status discrimination is written into laws (institutionalized). All the rah-rah-singledom rhetoric in the world isn’t going to help a single mother who is paying more taxes then her married coworker, or a disabled person who can’t use their close friend’s health insurance because the two of them aren’t having regular government-sanctioned sex.

Maybe I need to take breath, back up, and give some definitions: By socio-cultural singlism, I mean relationship status discrimination (RSD) that is informal. An example is not being offered a plus-one to a wedding, if you’re not married or dating someone seriously. Another example is the wedding shower–there is no equivalent gift-grab for people who don’t get married. By institutionalized singlism, I mean RSD that is formally codified in our federal and state laws, which largely means marital status discrimination (MSD). MSD  filters into other large commercial and financial institutions. Problematic examples include: retirement account laws, estate tax laws, income tax laws, health insurance policies, and social security policies. (See here for examples from Onely via The Atlantic and from Dr. Bella DePaulo via the nonprofit advocacy site Unmarried Equality.)

When people become involved in advocacy against RSD/MSD/singlism, they usually progress through various levels of awareness, like leveling-up to different belts in Tae Kwon Do.  I myself was in my thirties before I even recognized singlism was a thing. It happened after a particularly mind-bending breakup. At the time, I didn’t even have my white belt in singles’ advocacy and was feeling sorry for my single self. Then my soon-to-be-coblogger and master rhetoric scholar Lisa asked me,

Have you noticed that all articles about being single and happy say ‘you need to be happy with yourself before you find a partner’? Well, why can’t we just be happy with ourselves without the ultimate goal being a relationship?

My brain went boom, and Onely was born. That was over ten years ago. Nowadays it’s a lot easier to find cultural think pieces, films, and books with the message “you don’t need a partner to be complete”.  However, much of that media stops at white-belt or yellow-belt level advocacy. To say, “I love being single, because I appreciate the privilege of living alone and not needing to clean up the cat hair unless I start choking on it” is yellow-belt-level. It’s fine, and certainly we’ve made our share of such comments on Onely, but that rhetoric doesn’t really rise to a force that bruises the System’s shins. For that, we need black-belt singles’ advocacy–this means we need talk that challenges the laws and corporate policies that privilege married people over singles. This discussion becomes complex, as it’s tied to the worlds of commerce, law, and finance, which have specialized rules and vocabulary, where the average advocate may struggle to articulate the problems and offer solutions.

I can easily count on one hand the singles’ rights advocates who have written at brown-to-black-belt level about institutionalized singlism and called out the U.S. government (or others) for blatant discrimination based on marital status.

Thumb: Of course there’s Bella DePaulo, whose seminal work Singled Out brought relationship status discrimination to the attention of me and Lisa (and many other people), thereby raising our awareness from yellow to green belt.

Index Finger: Lily Kahng wrote “The Single Taxpayer in a Joint Return World” where she noted that a single person always pays more on the same income than a married couple filing jointly. This astonishing lesson did not go viral, except for DePaulo’s efforts to spread it. According to DePaulo, quoting Kahng: “The US is one of the few developed countries to retain the joint income tax return, available to heterosexual married couples only” (now for gay couples too–but again, they must be married).

Third Finger: Vicki Larson, author of The New I Do: Reshaping Marriage for Skeptics, Realists and Rebels, wrote in Aeon about how marriage should not come with social privileges.

Fourth Finger: Elyakim Kislev‘s highly readable Happy Singlehood is “a call to action. It calls for researchers and policy makers, who are not used to thinking of singles as a disadvantaged minority, to focus more on their growing numbers  and the numerous obstacles they tackle.”  Kislev’s book includes thoughtful and hard-core statistical analysis on the lives of single people, tackling both socio-cultural and institutionalized singlism.

Copious Readers, if you know of other people who have explicitely and extensively called out institutionalized marital status discrimination, please let me know. I’m sure I must be missing some, but my ultimate point remains: there are not many black-belt singles’ advocates out there doing the logistically challenging legal/financial analysis. With your help, I plan to make a page on Onely with links to important discussions about IMSD. (And if anyone has better acronyms for any of these terms, please please let me know that too.)

Meanwhile, on the Pinkie Finger I’ll put me and Lisa, for our 2013 Atlantic article about marital status discrimination in the U.S. federal government. In the article, we calculated that a single person in the U.S. could easily pay at least one million more dollars more over their lifetime compared to their married peer, based on discriminatory policies in the federal government. It was a Herculean effort for two non-math, non-law, non-social-science majors, but we struggled through the interminable Skype sessions because we hoped that our article would eventually encourage other progressive (and less math-phobic) singles’ rights people to crunch more numbers to expose more discrimination. Seven years later, no one has. Seven years later, Lisa and I and the advocates listed above are still just one small fist of writers, shaking itself at the last remaining legal “Ism” in the U.S.

Our hope is that yellow-belt singles’ rights advocates will use their indignation about socio-cultural microaggressions (for example, “Why are you still single?” or “Don’t worry, you’ll find someone one day”) to fuel new efforts to educate themselves and others about the arguably grittier and more insidious issues of tax inequality, retirement, and health inequality. You don’t need to look at institutionalized RSD from a macro perspective, either, like the people I linked to above. Joan DelFattore, for example, focuses mainly on singlism in the healthcare industry, from both a socio-cultural and institutional perspective. Copious Readers, do you have an area of expertise you could dig into from an anti-singlism perspective?


P.S. I also can’t decide if it’s “Singles’ Advocacy” or “Singles Advocacy” and have ended up splitting the difference. Fellow grammar nerds, please help!

Photo credit: Creative Commons from Pxfuel.com



1. Dale Nyhus - May 31, 2020


Thank you for such a well-written article. Please visit FamilialStatus.org for an in-depth look at singlism in the military. I would love for you to link to my website on Onely.

Best Regards,
Dale Nyhus
24-year military veteran & creator of FamilialStatus.org

Onely - May 31, 2020

Thanks Dale! I believe it was you who commented on Onely previously about FamilialStatus.org, and I did put it on our blog roll (“We like these blogs too”) after receiving your comment. I should have thought to put you in the post as well, sorry about that. I appreciate your taking on that complex topic.

Separately, just today someone in the Facebook group “Fairness for Single People” posted this link about discriminatory military policies, which might interest you:


The poster does not that the reporters take a shaming position in relation to the soldiers gaming the system…. booooo

2. Skipper - May 31, 2020

I just found this blog and I am so happy I did. As an asexual woman, marriage is not in the cards for me. I really like the light you’re shedding on the legalistic inequalities between married couples and unmarried individuals. The first time I heard of anything of the sort was in an episode of the Drew Carey Show where they try to form a single’s union at their place of work. It always stuck with me. Please keep up the good work!

Onely - July 16, 2020

Thank you Skipper! I am looking for that show on Youtube. . . I don’t think I’m going to find it easily, but it’s nice to know it exists out there somewhere.

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