System Justification, Singlism and the Marriage Myth

Bella DePaulo Ph.D. is a social psychologist who draws from social science data to challenge the stereotypes of people who are single. She has published more than 100 scientific papers and has written for publications such as the New York Times, Washington Post and Time magazine. DePaulo continues her research into system justification theory and singlism – discrimination against people who choose to not maintain a serious coupled relationship (i.e. marriage). 

System justification theory is based on the premise that there is a psychological motive to defend and justify the status quo.  People want to believe in the legitimacy of the way things are. The sense that the prevailing system, however flawed, is a good and fair one, lends predictability to our lives. It allows us to carry on with our daily lives with a measure of confidence and hopefulness.

Defenders of the status quo tend to be:

• People who have high needs for order, structure and closure. They don’t like ambiguity and they like to make decisions quickly and then stand by those decisions.

• People who see the world as a dangerous place.

• People who are anxious about their own mortality.

• People who are not especially curious or open to change or to new experiences.

People have a set of beliefs that offer us meaningfulness and a clear guide through a potentially confusing set of life options: If we can all just agree that getting married (or seriously coupled) makes you a happier, healthier, and maybe even morally superior person, then we all know how to construct our lives and win the approval and respect of others. The mythology creates order out of chaos.

DePaulo reveals that beliefs in myths about marriage aren’t like any old beliefs. People want to believe that they are not myths, they are truths. Not everyone is invested in all of the prevailing myths, but among those who are, the defence of them can be tenacious. Defending the prevailing myths about marriage and married people is a way of defending the status quo. The best way of clinging to those beliefs is to criticize any challenges to them.

Research from Israel, the U.S.A. and Germany supports system justification theory, indicating that an individual’s single status can often elicit hostility from married people. It suggests singles who like their single lives are challenging social norms, and people who do follow the norms don’t like this. Basically, we are rocking the boat.

Further, the research notes that the people most likely to insist that coupled people are superior are those who are insecure about their own relationship abilities. So that’s when people most embrace myths about marriage and coupling – when their own relationships are threatened.


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6 Responses to System Justification, Singlism and the Marriage Myth

  1. SamTheSociologist says:

    This system justification theory makes a lot of sense. People feel safer when they can create a distance between them and others who are not like them. What still blows my mind is how much fear is still attached to considering an open mind. There must be a lot of comfort in being part of the status-quo.
    I’ve always believed that the married people who violently reject the notion that single people can be happy are terrified that they might be forced to examine their own situation. If they really felt they had a choice, they might not have chosen to marry as they did.

  2. Jennifer says:

    I think if you were to scratch the surface, more people would prefer to remain unmarried than we realize. It’s just that some of them are afraid or don’t see any alternative. Our society expects this of them, so they go along. I have found that every time I’ve been personally attacked by someone for being happily unmarried, the attacker is a person with a seemingly perfect life who is not happy herself. They project their anger on me – where do I get off being happy when they’re the ones who followed the Rules?

    • Michael B says:

      Why so bitter, Jennifer? You probably just can’t get a man.

      • Jennifer says:

        Well, yes and no. I can get a man, I just don’t want to settle. I am often asked why I am not married when I am beautiful and smart. People actually think they are complimenting me when they say this to me. When you’re an average person with an average IQ and average looks, it is easy to find an average partner. When your IQ is higher than the average and you’re good looking, it is much more difficult to find an equal mate and hence you prefer staying single. I remember reading an article several years ago about the rise of the average marrying age for women. It said that their research found that women still single over 30 tended to be the cream of the crop.

  3. arranged marriage says:

    I have met married couples who are in arranged marriages and love each other as much as any non-arranged, ‘normal’, couple. It is human nature to love. The person who you love is the person who you could love (they check every box) who happens to be near you at the time.

  4. Me says:

    Ah, yes, the “that’s the way we’ve always done it” syndrome. This is something that is prevalent in so many ways in our society. It’s amazing how pervasive the urge to have everyone march in lockstep is about so many things in life.

    I’ve read Dr DePaulo’s book quite some time ago and it’s quite useful. Singlism affects those of us who are alone by circumstance as well as those alone by choice, too. It it no respecter of motive.

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