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Changing the Language of Singlehood

When actor John Cusack was asked why he never married, he replied, “Society doesn’t tell me what to do.” While there is a great deal of writing for and about single women, there is a dearth of literature that validates the experience of male singletons. If men are going to be as comfortable with their single status as Cusack is, this gap needs to be filled.

Scholar Bella DePaulo coined the terms singlism and matrimania. The former describes the stigma society places on single adults, and the latter is society’s overhyping and obsession with marriage and weddings. Such examples include the following:

  • Your pesky cousin asks, “When are you going to settle down and get married?”

  • Having to pay full price when a couple gets a discount for a gym membership.

  • You’re made to work less desired shifts than someone with a spouse or partner.

Most people would have a hard time not internalizing this singlism. However, women may be generally better at overcoming it because society encourages them to discuss their emotions with others. Men are often not given such encouragement; it’s seen as masculine to hold in one’s emotions.

Single women are definitely subject to harsher stigma than single men are, but the latter group does face prejudice, which is why I wrote How to be a Happy Bachelor. Chapter Eight of DePaulo’s Singled Out describes the stereotypes as “horny, slovenly, and irresponsible… scary criminals… fastidious, frivolous, and gay.” Men may internalize some of these stereotypes, leading them to act out; such feelings have potentially contributed to the growth of hate groups like the Incels and the Men Going Their Own Way (MGTOW) movement.

But what happens when men bottle emotions such as anger? Research shows that men have more of a tendency to engage in unhealthy behaviors, such as smoking and drinking, than women, which can lead to a host of medical problems. So it might make sense that a woman will “settle” a man down.

However, the answer may be more complex than that. Certainly, there are single men who engage in unhealthy practices, such as excessive smoking and drinking, and there are those who feel incomplete without a partner in their lives. But there are also women who engage in those behaviors and those who share the same feelings.

A lot of the language we use when we talk about marriage or singlehood can be a contributing factor to such behaviors, no matter what pronouns you use, because the words we use can affect how we perceive ourselves and the world around us. Below is an altered excerpt from my book in which I list some of the phrases we should move away from using when we discuss singlehood:

  • “Still” single: The “still” part implies that singlehood is a problem, something to be fixed, or a temporary state, rather than something that can be a valid long-term life choice.

  • “Family man”: Politicians, businesspeople, and others use this term to make them feel relatable to others. However, the problem here is that those who do not have a spouse or children are excluded by this type of language. And merely having a spouse or children does not make someone more “relatable,” nor does it mean that person has stronger values or is more capable of doing a particular job. Moreover, I’d love politicians to start using the word “people” instead of “families” when they’re indicating who they serve. In a wonderful article entitled “Erased: Single Women, a Key Voting Bloc, Are Getting Ignored,” DePaulo explains how politicians ignore single voters when they proclaim they will help “working families.” As a rhetorician and singlehood advocate, I’m inclined to agree.

  • “Failed relationship” or “failed marriage”: There’s no such thing. Relationships run their course. It’s like the old saying, “People come into our lives for a reason, a season, or a lifetime.” The relationship that may have only lasted a month, a year, five years—that may have simply been its shelf life.

  • “Other half”: Does this imply that I’m not a whole person because I do not have a significant other?

  • “Just friends”: The word “just” rears its ugly head again here. Is this to imply that platonic friendship is less important than romance? Poppycock, I say!

  • Conflating “alone” with “lonely”: We give the word “alone” negative connotations. When a person is alone, they may enjoy their solitude. When a person is lonely, she is feeling sad due to feeling isolated or abandoned, which can happen in any surroundings, even around other people. Plenty of married or coupled people feel lonely.

  • Using a phrase like “that’s why you’re still single” to preach, condescend, or insult: This is a form of single-shaming. It presents singlehood as a problem, which it isn’t.

  • “When you get married” or “when you have children”: Many parents say those words to their children to start some point they’re about to make. Traditional arrangements are changing. It may just not happen for a lot of people, and the statistics are showing that it’s happening less than ever before.

As more and more people are staying single throughout the world and may continue to do so, there’s a strong likelihood that policies that discriminate against singles will become extinct. However, in order to make that happen, we need to transform the way we think about singlehood. In an interview, actress Emma Watson referred to herself as “self-partnered.” Her use of that language is a good step in that direction.

This post was written by Craig Wynne, an Associate Professor of English at the University of the District of Columbia and an expert on societal perceptions of singlehood and marriage. Wynne is the author of the new book How to Be a Happy Bachelor.

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