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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.
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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. (more…)

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