Good points sometimes made with heavy hand

Published 12:00 am Friday, February 8, 2008

“Singled Out: How Singles are Stereotyped, Stigmatized, and Ignored, and Still Live Happily Ever After,” by Bella DePaulo, Ph.D. St. Martin’s Press. 336 pp. $14.95.By Cynthia Murphy
For the Salisbury Post
It’s a couples’ world populated primarily by singles. And those singles are being left out of parts of society.
At least that’s the premise of “Singled Out: How Singles are Stereotyped, Stigmatized, and Ignored, and Still Live Happily Ever After,” by Bella DePaulo, Ph.D.
Her concept is interesting. A great deal of American life does revolve around couples. Many books, movies and television shows are devoted to the quest for the perfect mate.
Magazines (particularly February issues) and newspapers feature numerous stories about couples and weddings. The wedding industry itself has exploded in recent years.
We’re living in a couple-conscious society, but more than 40 percent of American adults are single. That means more than 87 million people are outsiders in this couples’ world.
DePaulo’s premise is sound. Single people are treated differently in our society. Whether it’s a restaurant host’s confusion over finding a table for one or a dinner party host’s frustration regarding an uneven seating arrangement, single people do experience numerous slights.
DePaulo calls this sort of treatment, as well as other social, legal and economic discrimination “singlism.” She coins another term, “matrimania,” to describe the favoritism toward couples.
Some of the discrimination DePaulo cites is legitimate cause for complaint. For example, when a single person dies, his or her Social Security benefits go back into the system. There is no option to name a beneficiary. When a married person dies, the surviving spouse receives the benefits.
I have no problem with DePaulo’s idea. Her book is well-researched. DePaulo includes 10 myths regarding singles and proceeds to break down each one. She includes both scholarly and pop culture examples throughout the book.
My primary complaint about “Singled Out” is DePaulo’s technique. Her stance is rather militant. At times she sounds bitter about the treatment she has received. For example, she describes going out to dinner with friends and not getting a vote regarding the pizza toppings. The incident could be interpreted in a number of ways. To an outsider, it could simply mean that she has pushy friends. However, DePaulo declares it an example of singlism. She cites this as an example of how singles are marginalized. Such examples run the risk of making her seem bitter. I don’t think DePaulo is necessarily unhappy with her life, but examples like this paint her in a negative light.
My other complaint regards the length of the book. The 10 myths regarding singles can be redundant. For example, Myth No. 3: The Dark Aura of Singlehood, and Myth No. 9: Poor Soul, could have been combined. Both myths focus on the idea that singles are miserable individuals. DePaulo effectively dispels this notion with examples of happy single people.
Another myth that could have been combined in this set is Myth No. 2: Single-minded. Through her examples, DePaulo shows that not all single people are searching for a soulmate. They are living happy, productive lives as singletons.
Part of DePaulo’s initial attack on the single-minded myth goes a bit far. I realize pop culture and advertising often focus on couples, even when there is no obvious reason for such emphasis. One of DePaulo’s more passionate arguments about this focuses on a Coldwell Banker real estate ad from 2004. After a while, her diatribe sounds like the ranting of a bitter single woman. I thought the ad was cute to the point of being silly rather than an attack on singles.
DePaulo features other examples of singlism and matrimania in everything from television shows to comic strips. At times it feels like she believes there is a matrimaniac around every corner. The pop culture examples offer only anecdotal evidence. If DePaulo cut some of these frivolous examples, her argument would be sharper. A streamlined attack would be much more effective.
Her strongest arguments appear in the passages where she focuses on scientific data. I agree with her initial premise, but I found myself getting tired of the overstated (and occasionally exaggerated) arguments.
DePaulo offers a lot of evidence of singlism and matrimania, but she never offers a practical solution. She even says singles marginalize themselves through their support of coupled friends with regards to engagements and weddings and their willingness to take on job assignments rejected by married co-workers.
I’m not sure how DePaulo wants single people to change this pattern of behavior. Are they supposed to avoid their friends’ weddings? Should they refuse job assignments that they know their married colleagues don’t want either? Neither option sounds particularly appealing or even logical.
Overall, “Singled Out” is an interesting book. It offers a passionate look at how single people are treated in today’s society. Some of DePaulo’s arguments may be flawed, but her viewpoint is fascinating.
Cynthia Murphy is a reader from Salisbury.