catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 8, Num 11 :: 2009.05.22 — 2009.06.05


And they lived happily ever after

On singlehood and happy endings

“And they lived happily ever after” is more than just a romantic phrase at the end of fairy tales. It is the expression of what many of us secretly or openly hope for: a happy ending. And a happy ending traditionally implies that after having overcome all the barriers and struggles, finally, the hero finds his girl, finally, the nice young man marries the beauty next door.

Under the motto “Sad books are bad books,” a couple of years ago the British Happy Endings Foundation demanded happy endings for children’s books and suggested to burn books with unhappy conclusions on the so-called “bad book bonfires.” By the time people found out that the campaign was a book marketing ploy, a public discussion had started. The marketing hoax opened the door to conversation because the idea wasn’t so far-fetched that it was unbelievable. In a BBC News Magazine article, Finlo Rohrer points out that particularly in troubled times, a process called “happyendingification” occurs, resulting in novels’ sad endings being turned into happy ones on the silver screen. So, at this point we could conclude that we prefer, like and sometimes even insist on happy endings. Eagle-eyed readers will have noticed the plural “they lived happily” at the beginning and might read this specific choice of grammar as the message that the singular does not lead to happiness.

At least, that is the way it used to be. Today, there is the cliché of the young, modern, urban, good-looking, independent, powerful, successful, wealthy and happy single. The criteria to describe single people are no longer hard facts only, such as one-person households. They do not seem sufficient to paint the picture of singles. Singlehood is presented as a modern lifestyle, as a philosophy. It is something you believe in. Singles are in the center of TV shows, movies, literature. They are everywhere and according to statistics, their number is rising. The market has reacted to this alleged trend with singles parties, singles vacations, singles cruises, singles refrigerators, singles washing machines, singles apartments, singles reality shows, blind dates, speed dating events, and the like. In short, today’s singles do not need to hide. They are a lucrative target group in marketing and an accepted part of society. So it seems.

Daredevils, careerists and singles by choice — that is how they are often portrayed in films. But if you take a closer look you might suspect that most of the time movie singles are in pursuit of Mr. or Mrs. Right. Relationships still seem to be the core beneath the surface of single mania. Besides, there is a difference between the image of the so-called “voluntary” singles presented as independent careerists and the “involuntary” ones shown as pathetic losers. The question arises of whether there is so much hype about the advantages of the single life style simply because people have to make it look positive in contrast to society’s negative attitude towards them.

Coupling up is indeed perceived as a sign of success in our society and in many business cultures. Along the lines of the saying, “Behind every successful man, there is a woman,” some companies even tell their male employees when to get married and when they should have a family. A study by Kate Antonovics and Robert Town found that marriage increases men’s wages by 27%. Married men have higher salaries than single ones and most importantly, they have no difficulties finding a woman.

Unfortunately, this does not work the other way round. While success makes men more attractive to women, it makes women less attractive to the opposite sex. According to a current study by Christina Künzle, professional success often leads to private failure. Despite the wish to have a partner, one third of women in top positions are single. These women are not singles by choice but by consequence. They are doomed to live without partners and children as long as they are successful. Findings of the Institute for Employment Research support the observation that the majority of women in top positions have no children.

Oftentimes, stereotypes and stigmatization are added to the involuntary loneliness. After sexism and ageism, the term singlism was coined to show the link between marital status and discrimination. Bella DePaulo and Wendy Morris asked undergraduates to list characteristics for married and single people and found typical stereotypes. Married people were described as mature, stable, honest, kind, loving and happy whereas singles were called immature, insecure, self-centered, lonely, ugly and unhappy. The fact that they are regarded as unhappy might explain why well-meaning people want to help by matchmaking and at the same time make singles feel like incomplete persons lacking something (or someone?).

These actions may explain the rather extreme formation of two opposing camps: pro-singles and con-singles. Pro-singles authors like Leslie Talbot say that being single is the better, more responsible and happier choice. While DePaulo calls singles’ unhappiness a widespread bias and states that being happy has more to do with the individual personality than whether somebody is married or not, some psychologists point out that as social beings, we are not destined to be alone.

Bearing that in mind, it seems even more ironic that there are 90 million single people in the United States. According to the American Community Survey, today there are more single women and unmarried couples than married ones. In addition, this trend will continue. Some people are alarmed about traditional values like marriage being undermined, whereas demographic experts say that these statistics only show that women have the freedom to choose between different life styles and to decide to marry in more advanced years. The sociologist Laszlo Vaskovics casts new light on the discussion by saying that these figures are all interpreted wrongly since the statistics usually only show a temporary status of people who are divorced, widowed or have always been single. He calls it a “singles lie” pointing out that the figures contain no information whether the people interviewed will or wish to be single for the rest of their lives. And there is also the question of how to define “single.” For example, it is not clear if a person who has a partner but lives in a one-person household is a single. The statistics, however, add to the image that more and more people are singles by choice.

By way of conclusion, we can state that there is no simple conclusion. There are many single people but probably not as many as there seem to be. They fall into categories ranging from tough careerists to pathetic losers. Often, they are faced with prejudices. At work, they earn less. Some are single by choice, while others, like successful women, by consequence. They are described as happy and unhappy. There are a great many contradictions.

Or maybe the findings aren’t that contradictory. Maybe there is no simple classification because the situations and stories of the individuals are so different. And maybe the main conclusion is that we do not need conclusions at all, that one of the biggest problems is our judgmental attitude. Maybe we should just accept single people for who they are without trying to apply a value index or ranking. They are people who happen or choose to live as singles, for a while or forever, whose lifestyle is different, not necessarily better or worse. 

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