Kris Marsh returns to Solo to talk to Peter McGraw about 1) her research on how singles are not a monolithic group, 2) the reaction to her new book, The Love Jones Cohort, and 3) advice for Peter about dealing with the “haters” who will surface with the launch of his book, Solo-Building a Remarkable Life of Your Own.
Listen to Episode #202 here
A ‘Family Of One’ With Kris Marsh
Our guest has been in the show before. She’s an Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Maryland. Welcome back, Kris Marsh.
Peter, it’s such a pleasure to be here with you again. Thank you for having me.
I know this is long overdue. I follow your professional and personal life on various forms of social media. We’re going to talk about your book, but before we do that, I want to talk about an academic paper that you published with Elyakim Kislev. He is a fellow sociologist. He’s the author of Happy Singlehood. Is he at Hebrew University
I believe so, yes.
We’re going to nerd out here for a while. The Solo community can handle that. They’re used to it. There are intellectuals among them. The title of this paper is Intersectionality in Studying and Theorizing Singlehood. It was published in the Journal of Family Theory and Review. For the reader, Kris publishes so many papers that it’s hard for her to keep track of them all.
Yes. That’s the story that we’ll go with. Fine.
There’s this growing field of singlehood research and it’s growing. It’s not big. You probably know everybody doing research on it.
Right, but growing.
How small it is is illustrated by the name of this journal, the Journal of Family Theory and Review. Do you care to comment?
It’s funny because this dovetails nicely into some of the conversations I hope that we might be able to have around the book. The book came out in February 2023. People have asked if I’ve gotten any pushback or what the general reception is around the book. One of the arguments that I make in the book and a lot of people give me pushback on is that I argue for a family of one. If you’re single and living alone, you should be identified as a family and a family of one. We think of the Census Bureau as a gold standard for definitions. The census finds a family is someone that you’re related to by blood, marriage, or adoption.
I don’t have any of those factors, so I don’t show up in the census data as a family. I show up in the census data as a household. I argue that I want to be defined as a family of one. It’s not so much that I want to be defined as a family of one, but people who are single and living alone should get the benefits of a family. I don’t care about the title per se. I do care about the benefits and it crosses all household types, families, or whatever it may be, especially for those who are single and living alone. When people often ask me what I mean by benefits, I usually give a benign example and a more egregious example.
If we think about it in a benign way, I want the Marsh family discount on my one cell phone. Think about going on vacation. I don’t want to pay more for single occupancy than double occupancy. The egregious one that most readers are going to shake their heads to or nod to is the tax structure. We know there’s a singlehood penalty built into the tax structure, and because of that, I should be able to be defined as a family, submit my taxes as the Marsh family, and get that discount.
A lot of people have pushed back against the term family. When a journal comes up talking about the Journal of Married Family and Theory Review, whatever it is, I don’t think that it’s taken into consideration those who are single and living alone or those who should be a family of one. After the article that Elyakim and I wrote, maybe people are way more inclined to think about family in more nuanced ways.
Amen to that, Kris. I am a family of one also and I talk about this world built for two. I’m also anticipating some pushback. It sounds like yours has been relatively mild. I’m expecting mine to be vitriolic at times.
I don’t know if I would say mild, but it’s been pretty consistent. I do get emails quite often. I think what happens more often than not is that people clearly look at the title of my book and think what my argument is. They go to the University of Maryland, they scroll down to the SS for the Department of Sociology. They scroll all the way down to the M’s and then write me a five-paragraph nastygram about how I’m bad for Black America in particular because I’m talking about people who are single and living low in the Black middle class.
“This is why we have broken homes. This is why we have such a high singlehood parenthood rate.” I was like, “I don’t talk about any of that.” Unfortunately, what happens is you read the title and I think that they think I’m arguing, “Black women don’t need a Black man. We could do this on our own.” That’s not the argument that I’m making at all. People see the title and then jump to conclusions.
It is funny you say this because I got interviewed for the Daily Mail. That article have come out long before people read this. This journalist was excellent. First of all, he was a great listener. He let me wax poetic about single identity and soloness and the relationship escalator, all things that are familiar to you, me, and the readers. In the end, he gave me a chance. He said, “Is there something that people might misinterpret about your contention?” I said, “Thank you so much for that question. Yes, people will listen to this, read it, hear this, or learn of this and they’ll think I’m anti-marriage.”
I’m not pro-marriage, but I’m not anti-marriage. I think that it’s over-prescribed. It’s a wonderful institution for some people at some point in their life. I’m not trying to dissuade people from doing it. I want them to truly choose it and to know that there is an alternative that is just as good if it’s a match for them. However, when people see the title of the book, they will go to the University of Colorado website. They’ll scroll down and send a five-paragraph email, nastygram. I also think that you almost can’t write a good book in this space without some people getting their feathers ruffled and without a certain contingent of people thinking that you are bad for society.
When I wrote the book, actually, in the preface of the book, I believe, I say I’m not anti-marriage. I think love is a good thing if it’s done right and everything. As sure as my name is Kris Marsh, in most places that I go, people question me or think I had some horrible relationship. I was brutally abused or something. I’m like, “Really? Do we have to go there?”
It’s one thing to write an academic article and not everybody has access to the academic articles. There are paywalls and everything. The book is a different platform. I had a bit of a panic attack, anxiety attack, whatever attack you want to call it, right before the book was going to come out. I had approved the copy edits and they were going to print.
There’s no turning back.
I was typing an email to the publisher. I called one of my dearest girlfriends who’s a statistician at Georgetown. I said, “Help me craft this email. I don’t want them to publish the book. I want to pull it.” She said, “What?” I was like, “Yes.” She was like, “Get off email, go golfing, and you will be fine.” I’m so happy I called her because I could’ve easily sent that email.
I feel as if as writers, our words are very intimate. You’re reading my intimate thoughts. I was like, “People are not going to agree with me. People are going to challenge me.” I had to come to grips with the idea that, first of all, not everybody’s going to buy what I’m saying in the book. Any conversation and discussion is a good conversation because it moves the entire conversation forward. I had a moment. I was like, “I don’t want to do this.”
I also can appreciate not wanting the nastygrams, not wanting the brain damage of being a polarizing figure even though you’re doing good and this is important for the world. I get that.
One of the arguments I make and the nastygrams are like, “You’re not thinking about Black love and you’re bad for Black community and Black love.” I was like, “I’m trying to be more inclusive.” Family and Black love has a very heteronormative ideology wrapped around it. I’m saying, “Let’s think about how different household types can be definitions of Black love as well.” I’m trying to be more inclusive, but because they read the title, they make a certain set of assumptions and then have the gall and the audacity to email me and tell me how bad I am.
They ought to read the book. If you’re going to critique it, you actually need to invest in understanding the arguments and the nuance and not make assumptions. As you were talking about pulling the book, I would say my second book, this one in particular, I wanted more time on it. I feel like if you give me an extra month, I would’ve taken an extra month.
If you gave me an extra 6 months, I would’ve taken an extra 6 months. If you gave me an extra year, I would take an extra year because, as you said, these are my words. They’re going to live on past me. I haven’t done this yet, but if I do write another book, I want to write a book that’s as good 100 years from now and feels right 100 years from now.
I can appreciate that desire to want it right and want it to feel celebrated. I think often that is difficult to do when you’re blazing a new path. That’s what you’re doing. You’re turning convention on its head, making this argument that a path to a remarkable life for some people in this community is to go it alone as a household, but not go it alone as a person. You, like me, advocate for the importance of community, connection, friends, family, and love more broadly. That goes against convention. You’re going to get some very conventional folks upset.
The book came out in February 2023 and the audiobook came out in August 2023. Consistently, there are two things that I have heard from most readers that I’ve read the book in every space that I go in. One is they say, “Thank you. I’ve finally been heard,” and they say, “I’ve learned something.” That’s the biggest compliment you can give an author when they say that you’ve learned something. I’ve had people who are Black, White, pinstripe, and purple say they’ve learned something from the book. I do think the book will stand the test of time. I do think that when people pick it up, whether now or 100 years from now, they will learn something.
I think that’s great. What I hope is the case, for both yours and mine, is 100 years from now, after we’re long gone, is that people read it and think it’s horribly out of date. Maybe a better way to frame it is, “These two geniuses predicted what the world was going to look like and be normal.” They’ll read it and they see no controversy.
That, to me, would be an ideal scenario where 100 years from now, single living is equal to married living. It’s a style of relationship that you move between them as needed, neither to be celebrated nor commiserated. One is equally as good as the other and one just as beneficial as the other from a government standpoint. I want to ask you. My book is going to be coming out around the time that this episode launches. I want your advice. I now count as a singlehood. I’m more of an advocate than a researcher, but I collect data so I fit.
Can we say scholar?
Yes. It sounds so much better. I’m a singlehood scholar now and I have very little experience in this space. What would you say to me to prepare me for the good, bad, and ugly of the launch? By the way, the worst thing, even worse than getting the nastygrams, is getting nothing. That means no one’s reading it. No one’s buying it. No one cares. Let’s assume that enough people care, good, bad and ugly. What should I expect? What should I be ready for? What advice would you give me?
I want to give you probably three pieces of advice. Two for sure. Maybe a third. First and foremost, please be prepared that when you start doing your book talks and having conversations, if it’s not going to be the first question, it’ll definitely be within the first five questions, “Are you in a relationship or are you interested in being in a relationship?” I have gotten that question in most places that I have been. I’m like, “Have you not read the book yet?” That’s so annoying.
You’re like, “See page fourteen.”
Paragraph 5, line 7, please. Thank you. The other thing is that I’ve done a lot of podcasts. I’ve done a lot of academic talks. Let me tell you what you have to be prepared for. Sometimes people will not have read the book and they’ll ask you questions that have nothing to do with the book whatsoever or they have it prepared and they haven’t read the book.
I’m not asking you to read the whole entire book, but in my book, I clearly say within the first chapter that this is about both Black men and women. I did not exclude men from the conversation, although women dominate. They’re like, “You interviewed women across the country?” I was like, “That’s not the book that I wrote.” Be prepared for that and be prepared to learn how to pivot quickly.
That would be a great study, and I hope someone does that, “My study more so looks at this.” Be prepared for that. The last thing I’m going to say is that you should absolutely enjoy the process. There are so many people that want to hear from you. There are so many people who are so thankful. There are so many people who are happy that you’ve written this book and they’ll definitely come up to you and let you know and be like, “Thank you.” That never gets old. While you have somebody else saying you’re bad for the world and, “Don’t you believe in Adam and Eve?” I’m like, “You’ve got to be kidding me.” There are people who are grateful.
I am on a collision course with a fellow sociologist of yours, Brad Wilcox, who I suspect you know. Brad has a book coming out two weeks after mine called Get Married. It’s ripe for a debate or for that balanced view being presented. I can’t say I’m looking forward to that, but it’s going to be necessary in part to get people to say thank you because if they only get, which is what they’ve been getting a lot of, get married messaging, if you don’t provide a counterpoint, people can feel adrift.
I agree with you. When I get an email thanking me for the show, it’s what fuels me. It keeps me coming back, knowing that I’m not shouting into the wind. There are people who are pumping their fists and saying, “Hallelujah,” and feeling seen, heard, and empowered because they’re hearing from folks like you who are living remarkable single lives. They’re living unapologetically unattached. They see themselves as a family of one, and they see how important it is societally to do that. I think that’s great.
The one other thing I want to caution you about is that I’ve been in spaces where I talk about the book. My aunt always says this statement and I don’t even understand what it means, but sometimes, it’s so quiet in the room that you can hear a rat pissing on cotton. It’s so quiet. If I was new at this, I would go home thinking like, “I totally bombed. Nobody had anything to say that it sat there quietly.” However, I’ve been doing this for a while and I’ve been a professor for a while. It happens with my students a lot.
When people sit there so quietly, it’s not because they don’t have anything to say but because you have literally disrupted their thinking. They are sitting there in awe, challenging themselves, thinking through all these ideas that they had about singles or certain assumptions and biases they had about singles. Sometimes, it’ll be complete silence. You will hear a rat pissing on cotton because it’s that quiet. It is because you’ve disrupted their thinking and their whole entire existence. You have snatched them. Now they’re like, “What just happened?” Be prepared for that. Don’t misinterpret it like, “I failed. I bombed.” You absolutely did not. You did exactly what the book was supposed to do.
I have one more question about the book. When we last spoke about it, you were writing it. You have written about it academically. Did your thinking change or evolve? You make this argument that is a provocative argument. Contrary to the assumptions and some data that suggest that family living, coupling up is a way out of poverty. There’s an alternative way out of poverty and that’s going it alone. Reduce your costs, invest in your education, and invest in your economic opportunities. As you say, especially for women in the African American community, that obviously stands out. That is the thesis of the book. Was there anything like your perspective changed and the way you made the argument, something that evolved as a result of writing this big piece of writing?
I’m not sure that my perspective changed per se, but one of the things I wanted to be clear about and I want to slowly walk this for the readers. It’s important that we understand singlehood and the scholarship around singlehood. There are a lot of people that are single by choice. In fact, Bella DePaulo has a book called Single at Heart. The argument is people were never meant to be married. They weren’t meant to be partnered. They meant to be by themselves and always knew they were going to be single. That’s an important and necessary conversation. Getting back to the article that Elyakim and I wrote, I also want to be clear that there’s an individual perspective, but there’s also a structural perspective. Sometimes, that gets lost in the sauce.
One of the things I wanted to be clear, deliberate, and intentional about in the book is when I talked about The Love Jones Cohort, I asked them whether or not they were single by choice, single by circumstance, or an amalgamation of both. Most answers were single by choice, but then they talked about how previous experiences brought them to choose to be single. It is an amalgamation.
There’s a 30-foot conversation that was missing. I say it several spaces throughout the book. We have to understand people who are single and living alone in the Black middle class in particular, whether or not they’re single by choice or by force, we have to understand how structural forces constrain their daily market before they decide to even be single by choice or by circumstance.
If I were to say that a little differently, so what I often say is that structural forces constrain our personal choices. If I were to give an example of what I mean by that, racism constraints personal choices. If I were to drill down even a little further to give an example, let’s say I, Kris Marsh, want to marry another Black male PhD who makes $250,000, owns his own home, and has estate planning. They’re simply not there. That’s how my dating choices have been constrained.
Whether or not I’m single by choice or by force, there is a dating market that’s constrained before I even decide. That part of the conversation is often under-theorized or under-discussed. I wanted to bring both a structural and an individual conversation to the book. Having written the book and as I was writing the book, I was like, “We can’t lose the conversation about how structure plays into the whole entire concept, especially when we were thinking about Black singles in particular.”
I appreciate you saying that. This paper, Intersectionality in Studying and Theorizing Singlehood that was published in the Journal of Family Theory and Review, did that paper precede your thinking on the book or did the book inform your ideas in this paper?
Are the publishers on this line? I wrote the book and then Elyakim and I decided to write this paper. I some stuff got cut out of the book. I was like, “This can make its place somewhere else.” It made its way into the paper. The book came first. There was a special issue about singlehood that came out of this journal. Elyakim and I were both going to write papers. We’re like, “Why don’t we team up together and write a paper together and understand how singlehood looks differently and how we have to take an intersectional approach in real basic layman’s terms?”
If we think about intersectionality, I am both Black and a woman. You have to think about how these identities work together in my lived experiences. You can’t just say, “I’m Black,” because that disconnects me from my woman part. You can’t say that I’m a woman because it disconnects me from my Blackness. You have to think about research in a thoughtful way. You have to think about all of these intersecting identities at the same time and how they work in tandem.
If we drill down to singlehood, it might look very different for White women versus Black women. We need to be very thoughtful in how we think about singlehood and have more of an intersectional perspective when we try to analyze, theorize, and work in the singlehood scholarship. The interesting part about all of this is that sometimes, I don’t even have to show up. If I do happen to show up somewhere, people know what my argument is before I even get there. They’re like, “We know what Dr. Marsh is going to say.” I’m like, “You need to be more intersectional in your work. You absolutely do.” That’s why I’m so happy that the book is done and that this article has also pushed scholars to think about an intersectional perspective.
The first line of the abstract says, “This article underscores the importance of recognizing the diversity and intricacies of singlehood and transcending a simplistic view of singles as a monolithic group.” That’s so well said because my version of this, Kris, is I say knowing whether someone is single or married tells you almost nothing about them. It tells you almost nothing about who they are, how happy they are, what they do, or what their goals are.
It’s this notion that we are more than our relationship status. You and me have different experiences. We’re about the same age, so we share that. We have regional differences. We live in different parts of the country, so we’re different there, but we have different genders and different races. As a result, our singleness is different. The questions that people ask us, the assumptions that we have, and the opportunities that are there for us end up being different. This article does a very nice job laying out these other ways to think within singlehood about people’s experiences.
This needs to be done. I’m not putting value judgment on whether or not you’re single by choice or you’re single by force. I think that there’s a larger conversation and we have to have the larger kind of conversation. A lot of Black women have been single. A lot of Black women, in particular, have shown the singlehood movement how to do it and how to do it in an efficient way, whether or not it’s an adaptation because they couldn’t find partners. Clearly, Black women have done it and have done it very well and they’re leading the way. I don’t want them to get lost in the scholarship, either. I’m dating myself, and some readers will know what I’m talking about.
I feel like when we think about like single parents, it was pathologized because you had a lot of Black women that were single parents, but then Murphy Brown, for those that don’t know, Google it, once Murphy Brown became the single parent, it was hot and sexy. It was the in-vogue thing to do. In some of the singlehood scholarship, it feels like a lot of the scholarship has a total White gaze and a White face. I’m like, “Black women, whether or not it’s an adaptation, have been doing this for years.” I want to make sure that Black women, in particular, don’t get lost in the whole conversation.
As an aside, I am friends with the director of Murphy Brown. He’s now a professor at USC.
Black women have been single parents for a while. Murphy Brown was played by the actress Candace Bergen. Here’s the interesting part. Talk to the director because when you think about how Black women were pathologized, how they were dragged through every media source because they were single parents but then you have the actress who was Murphy Brown and it becomes hot, sexy, and in-vogue.
I think that we need to challenge ourselves to think about singlehood in a different way, depending on who the single person is. I’m trying to get us to think more thoughtfully about how we think about singlehood and how structure plays into it. Do we look at certain singles a certain way versus a different set of singles? There’s so much variation in the group, and we need to take that into consideration.
It’s part of the reason I had these solo love letters put in the book to give voices to different people and different experiences rather than just mine, which is limited. The other thing that’s interesting about singlehood and the media, one of the things that I think you see is, as culture changes, the media picks up on it, but then the media also accelerates cultural change.
Will and Grace, for example. We started having a lot of television representing gay and lesbian lifestyles in a positive way, not as the butt of a joke like Three’s Company. One of the things that is very interesting is it’s sometimes hard to find pro-single media. The other difference that I come into contact with is that no one ever questions whether you won’t be Black anymore or whether you won’t be a woman anymore, but people will question whether you won’t be single anymore.
Even though it’s part of your identity, it’s part of your lifestyle, and it’s who you are, especially for those single at heart people that Bella talks about, the world doesn’t recognize that that is their fixed state of the world and is waiting that George Clooney bachelorhood story. It’s waiting for him to find love and then he does. Everybody’s happy about it like, “We don’t have to worry about George anymore.”
That brings up a great conversation to consider. Should singlehood be like an identity? If we think of my racial identity, you check off White, Black, etc., should we have a singlehood identity where that talks about single by choice, single by force, or single at heart? Should we have an identity that we think about as it relates to singlehood? It’s a great conversation. That’s something we should definitely consider.
I’m eager to move past relationship status because it tells you so little about what a person is and wants, but it does help to have an alternative label and understanding of these things. I’ve done this through the different types of singles, The Some Days, Just Mays, No Ways, and New Ways as a way to talk about people’s goals and how they feel about the pursuit of those goals.
A couple of other quick things. I’m going to pitch some research ideas to you here in a moment. We talked about some of these intersections. We talked about gender, race, and ethnicity. I mentioned one a moment ago, sexual orientation. Age is one. The difference between a young person singlehood and an older person singlehood and the difference between an older Black woman singlehood and an older White man singlehood is very different too. You mentioned others in the paper. Income, I want to ask about that. Also, religion. I want to ask about that. Essentially, the difference between an upper-middle-class and a lower-middle-class single person is that they have different experiences.
We need to take that into consideration. Similar to religion. If you think of someone like the large religions, if you’re a Christian, maybe if you’re a Muslim, you’re taught in a certain way. If you have one of those smaller religions, they think about your identity. They interact together at the same time. It might be more challenging for you to be a single Muslim than it is for you to be a single Christian or something. Those are the identities we need to consider because we don’t live in a vacuum and we can’t take these identities on and off. They shape who we are and our experiences and they need to be thoughtfully considered when we think about singlehood.
My family was Catholic but not overly religious. It was there. It was present, but it wasn’t dominant. Part of the reason I was able to emerge comfortable with my singlehood is that my single mother never pushed me to get married. She wasn’t like, “Is there anyone special?” It was always like, “How’s school? How’s work? How’s your health?” She cared about my health and wellbeing and she did a good job developing a young man who could take care of himself and didn’t need a woman to do that.
That helped me. I never felt pressure from my family to do this. If we were Mormon and I had these feelings that singlehood wasn’t right for me, I could see how, first of all, personally challenged that would be because my whole life, I’ve been told that marriage is a path to heaven. Now I’m risking getting left out of heaven doing this. I might not know anyone who is accepting and encouraging of a different path. Your point, going from Catholic to Mormonism in the same country can be wildly different.
One of the things that people have challenged me a bit in a respectful way with the book is regional differences. I’m right here in the DMV, the DC, Maryland, and Virginia area where you have a large percentage of people that are single. What about if you were in the Deep South, in the Bible Belt? What about if you were in different parts of the country? Would singlehood be so easily able to navigate and be accepted? That’s one of the soft spots in the book because I am in the DMV. It may be a selection bias. It’d be great for graduate students or scholars to pick up the conversation and carry it forward and see how it is to be and live a single lifestyle in the South, especially in the Bible Belt.
That can be challenging. I’ve had this conversation. One of the things that’s great about the media is you look out your window and everybody’s the same. Everybody shares the same perspective. You might not know any happy single people of middle age, but you look into your phone and you can find them or you can find them on the Solo podcast, Spinsterhood Reimagined, or Solo Powered. We are starting to have these podcasts that are emerging and then you can find it now in books at your bookstore like The Love Jones Cohort, Bella DePaulo’s book, and so on. That suddenly opens up a possibility beyond your backyard. That’s a very exciting thing because people could feel very guilty, strange, and scared to go against the grain in their culture.
MSNBC asked me to do an op-ed piece. Side note, I did not know that an op-ed meant Opposite the Editorial page. That is what it means. I thought it meant an Opinion Editorial. It means opposite the editorial page. I had no clue. I wrote a whole op-ed piece on Tim Scott, the Senator in South Carolina who’s running for the office of the president. People are dragging him through the mud because he’s single.
Somewhere in that conversation, they also think that he might be a part of the LGBTQIA+ community. There’s no way you can be single, gay, and Black to be president. They’re using the mask of, “He’s single.” Why does that matter? I don’t care how you feel about Tim Scott and his politics but think about how they bastardized this man simply because he’s single. We need to think about these biases that absolutely exist against single people. They think he’s the weird, creepy dude at the end of the block.
There’s these conversations like, “Would his chances be better?” He allegedly has this girlfriend and people are like, “Is he making her up?” The fact is, whether he’s married or not has nothing to do with his qualities and qualifications. If you wanted to, you could argue he could dedicate more time to service because he’s single.
What have these married presidents given us? If you get a chance, read the piece because I came in hot on that one. I was in a bad mood. They caught me in a bad mood. I came in hot.
I love it. I had a conversation about being a single woman in India. A digression in that conversation was that in some places in India, being single and working in the government is a feature, not a bug, for the very reasons that we discussed, which is that you can dedicate yourself to service rather than being dedicated to a family and government service. There’s a cultural element to whether your politician should be married or not. There’s a movie, The American President, and they worked that one through. They made him a widow.
That’s what qualifies you. You have to have been exposed to the stimuli being marriage to be able to be president. It’s ridiculous.
It sounds like you are talking about your research in this area a little bit in the past tense. You said, “I hope young researchers go and do this work.”
Yes, I’m done. That’s one of the questions that I’ve gotten, like, “Is this it?” I do think that this is it. I do think that in some ways, the book is the closing salutation to the work that I’ve been doing for years around this. I want to do other work. I honestly want to write a book about golf. I was supposed to be working on that, but I have not. I want to write a book about golf and the sociological implications of golf. People who are not golfers can learn something from the golf book. People who are sociologists, it can help solidify some of these abstract terms that they might be thinking about. I think this might be it unless you ask me otherwise.
You’re not going to get any pushback from me. I’m the man who went from doing traditional behavioral economics work to studying humor to studying singlehood. I want to live a life where I study everything. I don’t want to spend my entire life drilled deeply down. I’ve even talked about how the Solo Project is a ten-year project. At some point, I’m going to sunset it and I’ll probably work on something else. Who knows? Knowing that you’re moving on, I’m still pitching you some ideas and maybe I’ll have to call Elyakim instead because he’s probably still hot to do this work. I have one idea that I talk about in my book that I’m not aware of any data and not aware of any writing about it.
Forgive me if I missed it. I talk about the many reasons for the rise of singles. We’re seeing, for example, the educational and economic opportunities of women make marrying increasingly optional for them worldwide. Longevity is contributing. You essentially have women who outlive men and some of them live a long time. People delay marriage. Even things like immigration can introduce a rise of singles because immigrants tend to be more likely to be single and so on and so forth.
I added one that hadn’t been covered in the research and it’s this. I alluded to it already. I say that singles beget singles, or to be more clear, happy singles beget singles. The idea being when I grew up in my neighborhood, there was one bachelor. His name was George and he grew weed in his backyard and drove a Trans Am. People thought he was weird, like, “What’s going on with that guy?”
If you live in a place like New York City and you look around and you have all these thriving singles, these people doing interesting things with their careers, living vibrant lives, engaging in the arts and culture, and seemingly living their best life into their 50s, 60s, 70s and beyond, you now have role models in a way. There’s some work. I know it’s controversial about how divorces are contagious. Your friend gets divorced and you go, “If he did it, I can do it too,” kind of thing. I think that this is a very real thing that the world says being single is bad.
It’s very easy for people to believe that if they don’t know any single people who are thriving. If you start hearing about them on a podcast, reading about them in books, seeing them on sitcoms, and hearing about how great singlehood is in movies and songs, you can then go, “This might work for me.” Thus, the rise of singles gives further rise to singles, and so on and so forth. However, I’m a psychologist. I don’t have the skills to write this paper. Do you want to write it with me?
Anything you ask me to do, Peter, you know I’m going to say yes.
Is it a good idea? That is my question. Do you think I’m right?
Yes, I absolutely think that the data would bear that out. It’s like you need a role model. You need a trailblazer. You need a pioneer. Would you say that it is doing it and doing it successfully then? It makes it much easier for you. It gives you another avenue to consider.
I have a lot of readers who tell me like, “My Aunt Peggy never married and she was a badass. She worked when no women were working and she used to travel the world alone before there were even cell phones. She thinks she had some lovers who were these interesting men, but she always lived alone. Having her in my life made me realize that I can do this too.”
You get to a point where there’s so much momentum that marriage starts to truly be seen as optional and not the default anymore. We’re not there yet, but you’d be able to find evidence for this in surveys and perhaps other secondary data. I’m not sure. I’m not a sociologist, so I don’t know how I would go about the data side of things, but I’m pitching this seriously.
It makes sense to me. You’re talking about the contagiousness of divorce. You use that same model and overlay it with singles, same thing. The argument seems clear to me. Also, as you were talking, I was also thinking about what’s called the contact hypothesis. It comes out of the social psychology literature. One of the things that they argue is that the more contact you have with someone in an intimate way, the less likely you are to think about them in biased or stereotypical ways.
It’s like if you see the weird single dude, the bachelor at the end of the block, it’s like, “Ugh,” but if you interact with him and see he’s normal, living his best life and enjoying a remarkable life, then you’re less likely to think about him in stereotypical ways. I would argue you then see it as a viable option for you to consider.
Let me pitch my other one, if you don’t mind.
What’s your other one?
This one I feel strongly about. I’m going to hold off on the thesis. I’m going to set the stage with this one. We’re going to talk about the mathematics of relationships and of the escalator. One of the norms or one of the rules of the escalator is that you merge your lives with your partner. You live with them, you merge your identity and you merge your lifestyle. Moreover, this relationship is to be the most important adult relationship in your life. It has then the propensity to crowd out other relationships. Anybody who’s ever had a friend disappear on them when they fall in love knows this experience. Anybody who says, “Kris, I’m going away this weekend. Do you want to come with me?” Kris says, “Let me ask my husband,” or “No, my wife wouldn’t let me do that.”
The expectation to be home to spend time with this person, there are costs associated with it. It takes time and energy to pursue an escalator. We singles have extra time and energy because we’re not dedicating it to nurturing this relationship. As a result, we can dedicate that time and energy to other things. Pew Research has this amazing statistic that half of American singles are not interested in dating or a relationship at the moment.
About 40% of them say, “That’s because I’m doing more important things. I have other more pressing priorities. I’m building a career. I’m moving to a new city. I’m investing in my PhD,” whatever that may be. What I want to say is that single people disproportionately drive culture. They drive innovation, they drive the arts, they drive science. My argument is they simply have more time and energy to focus on those endeavors because they’re not busy with a family of 2, 3, 4, 5, or 12. I know that’s a spicier one.
It’s a spicier one, but I’m not sure that I buy the argument with all due respect and love, Peter. Part of the reason why I say I don’t think I buy the argument is because based on some of the responses that I got from respondents, I’m not sure that I would say that they have more time. One of the things that the cohort members have consistently said is that their time and their checkbook become extended family time and checkbook.
They have to take the grandmother to the podiatrist because they aren’t partnered, because they aren’t married, because they don’t have children. For example, it’s okay to ask me to take my grandmother to the podiatrist as opposed to somebody else who is married and does have children because they’re dealing with their family of two or whatever it may possibly be.
I don’t know that, in general, singles would argue that they have a lot of extra time. With that being said, singles put a lot of emphasis and a lot of time and effort into their friends. I’m not cultivating romantic relationships, but I’m cultivating a lot of my non-romantic nurturing relationships. It might be more challenging for us to drive culture because we are busy building those urban tribes, as Ethan Waters calls it. I might push back a bit about the extra time and that’s the assumption. People always assume single folks have better to do with their time. Bull crap.
I’m saying when they choose to use that time, they can choose it for art, science, entrepreneurship, or business. I think that there is evidence that entrepreneurs are more likely to be single because they can take risks. This is my personal experience. If I was married, especially if I was married with kids, there was zero chance my book would get written. I had a tight deadline and could say to my friends, “I will see you in three months.” I could not say to a wife, “Honey, I’ll see you in three months. Good luck with the kids.” I get it.
You could be divorced.
That is a more provocative idea, but in some ways, it’s actually easier to find the data on that. Control for age. Use relationship status as a predictor. You look at particular fields and you see do singles have an advantage in terms of innovation and that kind of stuff.
I do think that you can’t ignore a race conversation. I’m not sure if that plays out for all racial and ethnic groups the same.
That’s probably true. That is certainly fitting, given the work that you’re doing, that those opportunities are not evenly distributed across race, gender, region, and so on. I appreciate you listening to my pet ideas. I have waded into lots of different domains of research outside of psychology. I’ve learned a lot, but I am still a novice. These probably feel like second-year PhD sociology ideas.
They sound fantastic.
Kris, this is wonderful. As always, I love speaking to you. I congratulate you on your success with the book. It’s wonderful that you’re working on a new project about golf. Here’s why. Kris, you can do anything you want.
Absolutely, I can, Peter, and I shall. The next project is going to be about golf.
That’s great. I also love this idea of making a project that’s about golf, but it’s much more than about golf.
People who aren’t interested in golf will pick up the book and learn something about golf as well as sociology.
That’s wonderful. As a non-golfer, I may not be as quick to read the book, but I still will.
Thank you so much. Cheers.
- Kris Marsh
- Happy Singlehood
- Intersectionality in Studying and Theorizing Singlehood -Article
- Get Married
- Single at Heart
- The Love Jones Cohort
- Meet The Love Jones Cohort – Past Episode
- Kris Marsh – Google Scholar
About Kris Marsh
Kris Marsh is a Professor of Sociology at the University of Maryland. A Fullbright Scholar, her research focuses on the Black middle class, demography, racial residential segregation, and education. She is a contributor to CNN in America, the Associated Press, NBC Washington, and Al Jazeera America and is frequently asked to contribute to the Washington Post. She is the author of The Love Jones Cohort: Single and Living Alone in the Black Middle Class.