[Bella’s intro: Just weeks before my next book, How We Live Now: Redefining Home and Family in the 21st Century, was about to launch, I received a review of my first non-academic book, Singled Out: How Singles Are Stereotyped, Stigmatized, and Ignored, and Still Live Happily Ever After, from Joe Walker, someone I don’t know but now greatly admire! I guess you could call that a biased opinion. Singled Out was first published in hardcover in 2006. Now, nine years later, here is the review I always wished someone would write. Joe Walker sent it to me in the form of a letter. I asked if I could publish it here and he agreed. Thanks, Joe!]
Review of Singled Out
Reviewed by Joe Walker
In ancient Greece, among the many famous discussions that took place among their philosophers, two in particular stand out over time: (1) What is the best way to live and (2) Is love a virtue or, as Plato said, “a divine madness”? The first discussion more or less concluded, at least in that age, with Plato’s dictum that “the unexamined life is not worth living.” No definitive conclusion was reached on the second question. Of course, neither discussion has ever been or is likely to ever be fully resolved.
Fortunately for us, you have re-examined the good life here in America (and actually most elsewhere) today, and you have found it to be flawed in a dimension that most of us rarely think about – to wit, the conventional image of that good life over the last several decades has been to go to school, get a job, get married, have kids, and retire. You understand the school, job, and retirement part. You’re fine with the kids part if that’s what people want to do. What bothers you is the marriage part. Why do that, you ask. Why go to the courthouse, get the legal piece of paper, merge all your assets and liabilities, go through all the self-serving drama of a ceremony (preferably on a beach), and then form a little isolationist family at the expense of other friendships, past and present? And also why do that in the face of the high odds of divorce with its high emotional and financial costs?
Beyond that, however, is your broader question as to why people who don’t go through all that nonsense are then the ones stereotyped, stigmatized, and ignored by society. You call that bias “singlism”, and you say it consists of two parts: (1) a discrimination part and (2) matrimania, or the over-hyping of marriage and coupling. Your answer, in short, is that single people, especially happy single people, threaten that comfortable world view of marrieds. They give the lie to the unexamined premise that all they have to do is find a soulmate who will meet all their needs and love and care for them forever. Then, having placed outlandish expectations and legal duties upon each other; and, thinking they can do and say things to each other they would never do as just friends, they wonder why the romance fades. Next, and even worse, the couples then blame themselves and their partners (especially the latter), not the institution of marriage, when it fails. Finally, they wonder why their single friends are so happy! Happy singles show that getting married is not the only or even the best way to live, and they show that there is no reason for the irrational superiority that married people feel over singles. Your contribution is to show how these issues are part of a long-standing and still current issue of social injustice which inhibits the attainment of the good life.
While you do not explicitly cite the Greeks debates, you examine how the quest for stability and safety has led people to yearn for that good life by having “No arguments about the components of a good and worthy life (your words) in the culture at large or in our own individual families.” Yet, you say, as a result of the over-focus on marriage at the expense of our other relationships, “We seem to have lost perspective on ways to live a good and meaningful life.” In your Chapter 4, you even find the modern work of Ethan Waters’ book Urban Tribes: A Generation Redefines Friendship, Family, and Commitment as one of the few examples where that author is also specifically asking what makes a life valuable, worthwhile, and moral.
In regard to the second great Greek issue, what is love, we need to remember that the Greeks recognized many kinds of love beside eros (sexual passion) such as, philia (deep friendship and love of children), ludus (playful, flirting love), agape (love for mankind), pragma (long-standing love, understanding, patience and toleration), and philautia (compassionate love for oneself, as opposed to narcissism).
You seem to really understand, more than anyone else I have ever read, the value of the many different relationships (or Greek loves) we form in our lives; and you urge that these other treasured relationships not be denigrated due to marriage or due to the special care for one’s family. You think we should hold dear those bonds of (original) family and friendship that in all likelihood have lasted and will continue to outlast the bonds of a marriage, which in reality usually only constitute an interlude (or several interludes) in our lives, not the other way around. In other words, you argue for the neglected valuation of other relationships in our lives and what a central role they can and should play for our basic psychological health and for the deep satisfaction and meaning they give to our lives.
What you also see is the much bigger picture in wanting singles to not fall prey to the myths of marriage and family and to “disown everything that lies beyond the family circle.” You want them to be proud of their work and respectful of the larger community in which they live. In short, you argue against (insular) “family worship”, especially when it disengages us from our wider circle of important relationships. You also see that more important than the idea of family is who the members of your family really are, what they value, and also who are the other people in your life, your “friendship” family. On this point, I love the quote in Richard Bach’s Illusions that “The bond that links your “true” family is not one of blood, but of respect and joy in each other’s life.” Finally, I love your positive views of the world, especially the one that single parents can and do see raising kids a joy and not the burden the critics claim it to be. On a personal note, I raised a daughter mostly solo myself and loved my role in that – it was one of the happiest times in my life.
With careful scientific and statistical analysis of extensive data on these issues, you reveal how the major 10 denigrating myths of singles’ lives are just that – myths, or false views of what singles and single life is like. After reviewing the essentials of good research design needed to answer questions about these issues, in Chapter 2 you set up the “hypothetical” example (it turns out to be real) of a severely flawed drug study as an analogy to much of the current social research on marriage. As a former university academic, I would have been glad to have used your example in my honors classes. Your research reveals an honest and open inquiry into marriage outcomes, as many of the results surprise even you. Almost every one of your claims is backed up by references to the existing research for against your theses, usually going to original sources for added rigor. You take apart some of the most popular but poorly-researched and biased books and articles by prominent people in the field. You also explain the more subtle but more widespread media bias towards the alleged benefits of marriage.
You then proceed to refute the charges about how married people “know better” than singles, how singles are only interested in getting coupled or married, how singles are lonely and lead tragic lives, how singles are self-centered and immature, how singles are portrayed as overly neat or slovenly or promiscuous or not able to form relationships, how kids with single parents are doomed to lesser accomplishment and psychological health, how singles are “incomplete” without a partner, how singles grow old and die alone, and how “family values” justify economic discrimination against singles.
The obvious damage done by these myths lies in the economic harm done to singles by discrimination in government and businesses policies, but the worse damage, ironically, is done to the marrieds themselves in overly focusing on their coupled relationships to the exclusion of other equal or even more valuable relationships in their lives. Fortunately, there seems to be little or no damage done to the happiness of singles as they do (almost have to) recognize the unheralded value of more extensive and diversified relationships – they don’t buy into the modern and flawed version of the “good life” but harken back to the ancient Greek emphasis on the value of different kinds of love for the various people in their lives.
In so doing, they put the proper emphasis on the profundity of friendships and relationships while dismantling the infantile obsession with the superficial rites and mythical infantile appeals of marriage. In fact, as I said before, your discussion is ultimately concerned with how to live the “good life,” reminding us of the classical Greek discussions of that very concept versus the neurotic and over-simplistic longing of finding a fictitious one-and-only-ever “soulmate” to make one “complete.”
One of your very best culminating insights in this book is to realize that government should get out of the marriage business! To that end, you cite Michael Kinsley’s essay (Slate, 2003) idea on private versions of marriage which keep church separate from state (no more religious vows at the courthouse!).
In summary, this is not just a good book, it is a great book. Actually, it is more than just a book, it is a carefully researched, thorough, and brilliantly argued treatise on a terribly neglected and insidious social issue — marriage — that most people, as you say, rarely think about, much less question, except for the recent public discussions and the latest U.S. Supreme Court rulings on gay marriage. If people did think about what marriage really means, in even broader and deeper terms, most people, you predict (and I agree) would probably find your revelations threatening to their own world view of a falsely-based “good and moral life” to which they are consciously, unconsciously, emotionally and often religiously attached.
Yet, you have done us all a tremendous favor by examining a prejudice long held and rarely scrutinized or analyzed – that getting married transforms us into better people and confers wide-ranging financial, emotional, health, and societal benefits. It is all, you argue, an illusion which does enormous harm on a personal, cultural, and even economic level. In short, you find that the traditional view of marriage does not live up to the benefits we have all been led to believe it confers. You see that marriage is positively harmful in the myths it promotes and then frequently betrays; and it is further harmful in its resultant discrimination against single people. Furthermore, the latter is not just an accumulation of petty social snubs, but is formally incorporated into economic bias in government regulations and in many common business practices.
As a writer, you come across as the “happy warrior”, in love with your subject. You take on the issues head first, tearing apart the fallacious arguments given to support them. Yet you respond to your opponents’ fallacious arguments in favor of marriage while sympathizing with and understanding how the system has conditioned their thinking all their lives. You fully understand the difficulty of breaking with long-standing prejudices and injustices comparable to the difficulties the country experienced transforming its biases in adjusting to the major civil rights issues over these last few decades, especially in the civil rights and gay movements.
One has to admire your courage to write this book, your honesty, your conviction, and how graciously you respond to the most inane criticisms and insults. Furthermore, you have pointed to constructive, practical, and even innovative ways to meet the changes you propose.
I admire your honesty about the relative importance of your subject, straightforwardly admitting it does not merit the importance of say, the issues of racism or sexism. Still, singlism is there, it is harmful in a major way, and relatively few voices and judicial decisions have yet to join you in this controversy. It is, as you say, the problem that has no name, until now, thanks to your insights and efforts. Where I think you have succeeded most spectacularly is in bringing the issue with no name (singlism) to public awareness. Cultural change must happen first before political changes can occur, and you’ve given that a tremendous boost, not only with your books, but with your public blogs and lectures and correspondence.
Your writing style is lively, easy to understand, and humorous. Yet you do not skimp on the rigor of research to buttress your points,
On your internet videos, your almost gleeful style of talking reminds me of the late giant in economics, Milton Friedman, who with a twinkle in his eye, used constant mirth and utmost sympathy with his opponents and still presented the most rigorous logic and data to demolish the most illogical arguments of some the most prestigious and arrogant opponents of individual freedom in his day.
In the same vein, you exalt individualism over the inherent collectivism of families (the smallest unit of communism, as I have facetiously said for years!). In so doing, you argue for not only individual rights to be free of formal discrimination (in the tax code and in Social Security policies, for example), but also you encourage all of us to find ourselves and to find what makes us truly happy and to not allow ourselves to be socially bullied into the seductive institution of traditional legal marriage. You clearly see the necessity and moral grandeur of individuality!
I personally am so grateful for your work and perspective and insight on the inanity of marriage. I have never really believed in marriage, but I could not put my beliefs into words or bring so much research to bear on my beliefs besides the old cliché (however true) that “it’s only a piece of paper.” So, let me personally thank you for everything you’ve done on this subject, the examination of marriage and love and relationships in general – it means so much to me to find the intelligence and rationality on this subject in a world thoroughly dominated so much by the opposite.
About the author:
Joe Walker, now 68, retired from teaching finance in the Collat School of Business at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) in August of 2014 after 27 years. Before that he taught economics for 10 years at the University of Montevallo, also in Alabama. He co-parented his two sons, and mostly raised his daughter solo. He remembers the period with children at home as one of the best in his life. All three are now grown, happy, and very successful in their lives and careers. Though all are coupled, none are married! And neither is Joe, having found a more balanced and rational life without drama amidst a wealth of interests in friendships, writing, music, and travel, to name a few. He found Bella DePaulo’s writings on the internet by searching for arguments against marriage, and he has been her loyal fan ever since.