Single yet happy? It's still a revolutionary concept.
A social psychologist ponders both the stigmatization of singles and the increasing adulation of the couple.
In her new book on single people – a topic that author Bella DePaulo confesses is both an intellectual passion and a subject near to her single heart – the social psychologist unpacks a series of assumptions about coupling, marriage, and single life.
They're a widely held set of beliefs that taken together, she argues, have marginalized the single person.
But it's an unexpected corollary to her primary point that's actually most fascinating. As much as societal adulation of the couple discriminates against single people, Singled Out suggests that it can also undermine marriage.
This book could hardly have come at a better time, arriving on the heels of a Census Bureau survey showing that married couples now make up a minority of US households. Which means, of course, that there are more people than ever to feel heartened by its subtitle: "How Singles are Stereotyped, Stigmatized, and Ignored, and Still Live Happily Ever After."
The book opens in an arresting way. By upending a series of accepted statements about singles, DePaulo crafts a set of laughably absurd statements about married people. Imagine, she writes, "When you tell people you are married, they tilt their heads and say things like ... 'Don't worry, honey, your turn to divorce will come'." Or, "When you browse the bookstores, you see shelves bursting with titles such as ... How to Ditch Your Husband After 35 Using What I learned at Harvard Business School."
It's effective. But after so entertaining a start, the book stalls in the second chapter when DePaulo takes on studies and writings she believes have propagated marriage myths. (A later chapter includes that now famous – and famously wrong – pre-9/11 statistic that a college-educated woman who wasn't married by 40 was more likely to be killed by a terrorist than to wed.) It's a useful, if technical, demonstration of the way research can be interpreted to fit a particular argument – and one I'd have been happy to take at her word.
Still, this metasurvey leads to one of the book's best insights: "If you are not already a happy person, don't count on marriage to transform you into one. If you are already happy, don't expect marriage to make you even happier," she writes. "Finally, if you are single and happy, do not fret that you will descend into despair if you dare to stay single."
There's nothing novel here. We should already know that marriage doesn't fundamentally change one's character. And yet, at this moment – when weddings are fetishized, when, by their final episodes, the "Friends" and "Sex and the City" women were paired off – it can be easy to forget.
According to DePaulo, only in the past decade have personal circles shrunk to squeeze out all but a soul mate. "Where once the tendrils of love and affection reached out to family, friends, and community..." she writes, "now they surround and squeeze just one person – sometimes to the point of asphyxiation."
While the chapter on science feels too technical, the rest of the book errs on the side of subjectivity. Much of the discrimination that DePaulo and her single friends and colleagues have endured is well documented and undeniable. But the tone is overly sensitive, like a wounded friend who perceives a slight when none was intended.
In an early example, DePaulo writes about waiting in line at a garage. The cashier rings up another customer ahead of her, explaining that the man's wife is having a birthday and waiting at home. DePaulo interprets this as an instance of the elevation of marital status. Rather than flagrantly promoting marriage, though, I thought the cashier was simply being gracious – and might have done the same if the customer were rushing home to his mother or best friend. Such heightened sensitivity undermines DePaulo's work.
There is something wonderfully seductive about the idea of marriage as a sort of life elixir. Of all the dreams and fairy tales, marriage offers the sweetest happily ever after. Yet it's also a delicate and vulnerable institution, one that may actually benefit from a dose of DePaulo's frank reality.
I wonder if, because I've focused on marriage in this review, DePaulo would say I missed her point. Or perhaps I've simply helped her to prove it.
• Teresa Méndez is a Monitor staff writer.