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Single, Singlism, and the Norm of Coupling

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Being single, while it may seem like a glamorous, tension-free state of existence for some time, gradually becomes an existential question, may be not so much for ‘singles’ themselves these days, but certainly for society at large. It is not uncommon to see one’s single friends silently withdraw from gatherings dominated by couples as they no longer seem to be part of the ‘community’ where their singlehood becomes the centre of jokes or is constantly disapprovingly monitored by prying neighbours As a migrant woman from a small city who remained unmarried beyond the age of thirty, I have my own set of experiences of singlehood but this article is not to recount them. For instance, I am completely aware that it is hard for a single woman or a person from the LGBTQIA+ community to navigate everyday life. But I also do not want to assume that single cisgender men are not stereotyped or subjected to a judgmental gaze. I know from my experience of house-hunting in Mumbai that many landlords or building management committees do not allow single men as tenants while women are allowed. Building on such personal comprehensions, I am focusing on some crucial concepts, questions,and theoretical discussions that address the issues associated with singlehood and sexuality which may affect anyone across the spectrum of gender identity, sexual orientation, age, and socio-economic location.

In 2018, Mumbai-based feminist group, Majlis Legal Centre, organised a social media campaign Happily Unmarried, dedicated to celebrating singlehood. The campaign included six single women from across India talking speaking positively about being single on #SingleSeptember #singlenotalone. While it was an important initiative, it made me think about the underlying cause and the need for celebrating singlehood. There is no exaggeration in claiming that India is predominantly a heteronormative, pro-marriage society. Despite major socio-cultural debates and transformations, the subjugation of sexuality to the institution of heterosexual marriage is an accepted norm in Indian society and is constantly reinforced through popular culture as well. This is despite the fact that the number of single households is significantly large in India. Thus, any celebration of singlehood becomes a provocation and much-needed idea which needs to spread far and wide. What we, as a society need to understand is that singlehood is not a dark and lonely world of deprived souls. Rather, it needs to be seen as a lifestyle choice that an individual makes and they deserve to be respected for their right to make that choice.

In our social context, the assumed supremacy of couples in the sexual hierarchy not only stigmatises single people’s sexuality it also marginalises other forms of intimate relationships, friendships and partnerships. Viewed from the ‘sexual-moral high ground’ of couples (especially married couples), long-term singlehood is generally labelled as a deficit, a lack,or an inability to be emotionally involved in a relationship rather than being seen as a lifestyle choice. In her provocative book Singled Out: How Singles are Stereotyped, Stigmatised and Ignored, and Still Live Happily Ever After (2007) American social scientist Bella DePaulo coined the term singlism to discuss how singles are discriminated against and stereotyped in the American socio-cultural context. DePaulo maintains that singles are judged as people who are unable to find a partner, desperately seeking a partner, or are promiscuous in nature. I think it won’t be misleading if I assume that this is a common experience across India as well, where, after a certain age, one’s singlehood has to be justified with a valid and legitimate narrative. When I say a valid narrative, I am referring to widows and divorced people who manage to find some social standing in the sexual hierarchy due to their past sexual partnerships as against the never-married singles who can only present signals of hopelessness to a couple-obsessed social structure.

The centrality of coupling as the most legitimate vehicle of sexuality and identity gives birth to questions related to the legitimacy of a single person’s social identity. Here, I am not referring to identity as assigned, fixed, or a priori but as a social construct. Since the 1970s, social identity theory has established that identities are not created in a vacuum. Social identity is constantly in dialogue with the socio-cultural context in which we live, such as through factors of ethnicity, religious group, sexual orientation or economic class, which is central to the idea of who we are. Thus, identity is a contextual reality defined through socially shared meanings, roles, and relationships. If socio-cultural context is so instrumental to one’s identity then it is bound to have an impact on how an individual’s broader identity is constructed based on their orientations.

My point here is that in a society, if an individual’s social identity is seen through the lens of hierarchical superiority of heterosexual coupling, then a single person is most likely to be positioned as a subordinate social identity. This, in turn,undermines the agency of a person as the controller of their own life choices, in painting singlehood as a burden rather than a desired state of being based on well-thought-out options available to an individual.

While thinking about the supremacy of heterosexual coupling over singlehood, one cannot refrain from pondering the reasons for societal emphasis on      conjugal pairing as the most       preferred form of partnership. Evolutionary perspective explains that heterosexual pair-bonding was an adaptive strategy for reproduction and human survival. In The Evolution of Coupling (2005), Elizabeth G. Pillsworth and Martie G. Haselton state that the challenging social ecologies of homosapiens necessitated evolutionary adaptations that helped in the survival of h-     term paternal investment, in raising the child with its mother. This perhaps explains the formation of heterosexual coupling and marriage as a strategy for survival in a socially competitive environment in the complex journey of human life through the ages.

The particular reproductive role of the heterosexual couple, as explained from an evolutionary perspective might be taken as the ground for psychological adaptations of couples as the superior social unit capable of procreating. David M. Buss explains that psychological adaptation are “mechanisms of the mind that have evolved to solve specific problems of survival or reproduction”. These adaptations help increase the possibilities of survival and reproductive performance. After all, as Pillsworth and Haselton suggest reproduction is the ultimate meaning of life, for which mating is essential. When we try to see the obvious elevation of couples over singles through the lens of evolution, it becomes possible to presume that it is perhaps in this particular evolutionary role that the roots of ostracising and stereotyping singles as incapable and/or commitment-phobic human beings can be located. While evolutionary theories do not suggest the reasons behind the cultural supremacy of couples, I am compelled to think that the single person’s refusal to play their time- tested role in human society is seen as a ‘disservice’ or a potential threat to the evolutionary psychology of human development, and this is the reason for considering singlehood unacceptable and subjecting it to disdain and judgement. Thus, in order to preclude negative stereotyping and stigmatization, singlehood needs to be seen as a conscious and voluntary choice, and singles as capable of forging meaningful interpersonal relationships and a contented life not dependent on a heterosexual marital bond. What matters are positive social attitudes, support structures and the right to be true to oneself.

Cover Image: Unsplash

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