'Single shaming': Why people jump to judge the un-partnered

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'Single shaming': Why people jump to judge the un-partnered

The number of singletons is increasing, yet people still insist on telling them they’ll find a partner soon. What’s with all the pity?

Asking why someone is ‘still’ single and assuring them they’ll ‘find their person soon’ may seem like thoughtful, even sensitive, ways to check in on single friends. However, these simple phrases constitute ‘single shaming’ – and they’re likely to be more harmful than helpful. 

Single shaming results from negative biases about people who are not partnered: they must be sad and lonely for not having a partner; they’re actively looking for one, but haven’t found a match yet; and there must be something wrong with them that’s causing to them to wind up alone. All these stereotypes are driven by pressures to conform to long-held societal standards: get the partner, shared home, 2.4 kids and dog, and a person has assembled all the ingredients they need for a happy life.

While people have been steadily re-evaluating these social norms for decades, recent research suggests single shaming is still going strong. Data from a survey by dating service Match, seen by BBC Worklife, shows 52% of 1,000 single UK adults reported experiencing single shaming “since the start of the pandemic”, likely due to the increased focus on whom people could rely on during lockdowns. And even though 59% said they were “content with their relationship status”, they still were the target of intrusive questions.


The persistence of these biases against singletons is not only demeaning, but also outdated in many countries. “Singlehood was once considered a transitional period, when people marked time until they were married or re-married,” says Bella DePaulo, author of Singled Out: How Singles are Stereotyped, Stigmatized, and Ignored, and Still Live Happily Ever After. But now, she says, Americans spend more years of their adult lives single than married. In 1970, she points out, citing US census data, 40% of US households consisted of married couples and their children, while 17% lived alone as singles. By 2012, 27% of US households consisted of singles, and just 20% were parents and children.

But even with these changing statistics, it’s clear both anecdotally and in the research that people who aren’t in romantic relationships continue to get a hard time from their coupled-up friends and family – and also from themselves. Even as singles seem to increasingly embrace and choose their relationship status, the pressure to find dates isn’t necessarily going away. But there may be at least some progress in the offing, as the growing representation of single people in the population may begin to outweigh the stigmatisation of singlehood.


The harms of single shaming

According to New York City-based psychotherapist Allison Abrams, single shaming is “negatively judging somebody for not being partnered up and not conforming to society’s expectations… of being married at a certain age”.


Shamers treat non-partnered people “differently” as a result, she says. “People tend to think that you’re bored and alone when you’re single,” adds Paris-based Ipek Kucuk, dating expert with the dating app Happn.

In the study shared by Match, researchers asked about the common “shaming phrases” single people have heard from others, and 35% said they were told “you’ll find someone soon”. Twenty-nine percent heard “you must be so lonely”, while 38% reported general pity over their relationship status.

DePaulo says myths around singletons include the idea that married couples have a special mastery of life that single people don’t; that the lives of singles are “tragic”; and that being single implies being selfish. (Indeed, some research supports that these are myths, including a 2018 German study suggesting that stereotypes around miserable singles and happy couples are not at all correct.)

The stereotypes about singles aren’t just wrong – they can also have damaging consequences. As psychotherapist Abrams says, internalised shame from societal attitudes towards singles can negatively affect self-image. Even if a single person’s friends and family aren’t shaming them for their status, not hitting big life milestones like marriage and children can take a toll – especially on someone who’s actively looking for a partner – because it’s what society tends to expect of them. 

“Many times, I've seen that play a part in depression,” says Abrams. A normalised ‘script’ for successful life can even force those who are happy being single to reconsider that attitude, and seek out something they’re fairly sure they don’t want, just so they can fit in with cultural norms.

52% of 1,000 single UK adults reported experiencing single shaming “since the start of the pandemic”

And single shaming comes from many sources beyond nosy parents and friends. Governments play a part, by offering various benefits to those who are legally married, of which single people can’t take advantage. Some people believe this sends a message about the “right way” to go about life, serving as positive reinforcement for partnered people and making it very difficult for singles not to internalise the idea that they’re getting adulthood wrong.

In the US, for example, an employee can add their spouse to their health care plan – but single people can’t do that for important people like siblings or close friends, points out DePaulo. Couples and families also get perks not available to singles in other realms, ranging from discounts on vacations to workplaces granting special allowances for those with nuclear families.

Spinster versus bachelor 

Like any cultural stigma, single shaming isn’t equally distributed. Women tend to endure the brunt of it, and certain cultures emphasise marriage and having children more than others.

First, consider the words to describe single women as opposed to men. While men are known as ‘bachelors’, women are called ‘spinsters’. In the late Middle Ages, the latter originated as a term to describe women who spun wool professionally, most of whom were unmarried. The lower-status job was easier for them to get, since more desirable jobs were generally reserved for married women – who, through their husbands, could afford the materials required to do higher-status work. ‘Bachelors’, meanwhile, are often portrayed as fun, potentially suave (if not sleazy), living their best lives and carefree – these positive connotations go all the way back to Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales.


“According to the conventional wisdom – which is neither wise nor even accurate – women care more about marriage than men do,” says DePaulo. “So, I think single women are more often subjected to the annoying sorts of questions like, ‘Are you seeing anyone?’” Anecdotally, Abrams says more of her female clients share experiences of being single-shamed than her male clients, but caveats that her overall client population skews female.

“Single men can get treated in disparaging and dismissive ways, too,” DePaulo adds, such as people perceiving them as childish, unable to care for themselves or “obsessed with sex”. 

Cultural demographics can influence the prevalence of single shaming, too. In her practice, Abrams has found clients with certain backgrounds, like those with families from Korea, China and India, tend to experience more pronounced single shaming from family members, as do some of her clients who moved to New York from the middle of the US. These cultures tend to emphasise more traditional gender roles around marriage, and not complying with these traditions can appear particularly unconventional. “I’ve heard one [client] say to me something like, [their] family feels shame for them not having a child at… 30 or even younger,” says Abrams. 

The ‘power of numbers’

What it means to be single is changing, and some experts believe the shifts, both in attitudes and demographics, could help normalise singlehood – and potentially diminish the jump to judge the unpartnered.

In recent years, influential figures on social media and traditional celebrities alike have spoken out proudly about their single status. Actor Emma Watson, for example, has publicly described herself as “self-partnered”, encouraging others to view their own lack of a romantic partner as positive, not negative. “As more people are embracing their status as a single person, I think more people feel liberated to do the same,” says Abrams.

Single women are more often subjected to the annoying sorts of questions like, ‘Are you seeing anyone?’

Dating app Bumble’s research from October 2021, seen by BBC Worklife, showed that 53% of the more than 8,500 Bumble users surveyed across Canada, France, Germany, India, Mexico, the Philippines, Australia, the UK and the US “realized that it’s okay to be alone for a while”, thanks to the pandemic. Additionally, since Covid-19, many singletons have reported positive feelings and outcomes regarding their relationship status. Per the Match survey, 42% said they “enjoyed” being single during the pandemic.

However, this statistic implies the other 58% of respondents did not; in fact, pandemic-wrought isolation affected many singles negatively, and increased shaming for some ­– Match reported 37% of singles surveyed said they got more questions from “concerned friends and family” about their love lives. Indeed, Abrams suggests single shaming is “still pretty rampant”, even as the ever-growing numbers of singles in countries like the US suggest a possible movement away from this behaviour.

Still, experts are hopeful that these changing demographics will continue to evolve judgements around singlehood. DePaulo calls this uptick in singletons “the power of numbers”, saying “just about every time the Census Bureau releases its latest statistics, the findings show that there are more single people, and a greater proportion of single people, than there were before”. 

She adds: “When whole swaths of the population are unmarried – in the US, close to half – it gets harder to insist that they all

have something wrong with them.”




‘Spinster’ has taken on even more negative connotations over time, used to disparage unmarried (and young) women in popular culture, such as in Bridget Jones’s Diary (the titular character is in her early 30s with a solid job in London, yet dwells on her ‘spinster’ status).