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Latest Survey of Singles: This Is How Stereotypes Are Perpetuated

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Have you heard about the latest survey of single people? It is based on a nationally-representative sample of more than 5,000 Americans, ages 21 to 65+, who are divorced, widowed, or have always been single. It has been all over the media, and I've gotten numerous emails about it from those who are promoting it.

I'm all for nationally representative surveys of single people. Aside from those conducted by the Pew researchers (discussed here and here), they are rare. In one of the emails I received, the survey was described as "the most comprehensive, holistic study of singles in America to date." [Emphasis is theirs.] It was designed, the email continued, "to help better learn about and understand the behaviors, interests and thoughts of today's singles in America."

The study was funded by, which should raise some red flags, but it was designed by academics and conducted by an independent survey research group. Plus, the 5,200 participants were not users (such a group would not comprise a nationally representative sample). So it was possible that the survey really would be about "the behaviors, interests and thoughts of today's singles in America" and that the survey would be "comprehensive" and not just a bunch of questions about dating.

The media reports were all about dating, mating, and procreating, and some were heralded by cringe-worthy headings such as "Single ladies, don't despair: Men do want to commit" and "Men are now from Venus, women from Mars." But maybe the reporters were just zooming in on the stereotypical singles stories, when the survey really did ask singles about the entire expanse of their lives.

I asked one of the people who pitched the survey to me in an email if I could see the complete list of questions and the original research report, since I like to make sense of the data myself, and not go by other people's summaries. She very graciously provided me with the complete questionnaire but said that the full report of the results was not being released. I could interview one of the academics who designed the study (Helen Fisher) or ask about specific questions, but that was it.

Here's What Singles Were Asked in the 25-Page Questionnaire

The survey was comprised of 128 questions; with all of the different response alternatives given to the participants, that took up 25 pages. Here are the categories of topics in the questionnaire, exactly as they appeared:

• Single lifestyle and attitudes
• Dating
• First date
• Conditional dating
• Single parents
• Relationships section
• Sex and singles
• Romantic love
• Breaking up

That's what the survey researchers consider to be a comprehensive survey of single people's "behaviors, interests and thoughts." I scrutinized the questionnaire, looking especially at those sections that may have addressed aspects of single life other than dating, mating, and procreating. I pinned my hopes on three of them - Single lifestyle and attitudes; Single parents; and Relationships section.

There actually was one question in that first section that allowed singles to say that there were aspects of their single life that they liked and that had nothing to do with becoming unsingle or becoming a parent. It asked, "What's the most empowering aspect about being single?" The response options were "making my own decisions;" "controlling my own finances;" "spending my time as I like;" "not being responsible for anyone else;" and "other (specify)."

Note the implication that if you are single, you have no responsibility for anyone else.

There was a parallel question about "the most challenging aspect about being single." The response options were "having to make difficult decisions alone;" "managing my finances alone;" "loneliness;" "not having someone to share my life with;" and "other (specify)." The underlying assumptions are clear. Many people reading this have probably already recognized the obvious omissions. There is no option to say that the most challenging aspect of being single is having less access to health insurance. There is no option to say that it is problematic to be left out of the 1,138 provisions in federal law that privilege married people. There is no opportunity to say that American society is matrimaniacal, and sometimes scholars are, too. There is no option to say that it is daunting to pay full price all the time, while subsidizing the couples who are getting discounts on everything from auto insurance to health club memberships and vacation packages.

That section also included a question about "your attitude about seeking a relationship" (with one of the response options being that you "prefer to stay unattached," because the researchers apparently believe that unless you have a romantic partner, you have no attachments). That was followed by a question about how hopeful you are about finding a committed relationship in 2011. There was also the requisite long list of qualities you might want in a mate, and other predictable inquiries.

In addition, there was a list of "things that cause stress in your life." Participants got to indicate how stressful each one was. There was no parallel question about the things in your life that bring you fulfillment.

Let's turn to the section on single parents. Maybe there, the relevant participants would have a chance to talk about the importance of friends or family members, or the parts of their lives that are meaningful to them other than parenting or mate-seeking. Here is the complete list of questions in that section:

• When would you first introduce your child/children to the person you are dating?
• What types of activities would you use to introduce your children to the person you are dating?
• Which of the following best describes the role your children play in your dating relationships?
• When you begin to date exclusively, how appropriate do you consider the following activities around your children?

One last shot. Maybe the relationships section was the open-minded part, inviting singles to mention not just their romantic relationships, but their relationships with friends, family, neighbors, mentors, and anyone else they considered important.

Nope. Not gonna happen. There were lots of questions in that section, but none evidenced an appreciation of the many kinds of relationships that might matter to people. Here are some examples of the questions:

• What are the top three benefits of a long-distance relationship?
• How concerned are you about your biological clock running out?
• Do you want to get married?
• How soon would you like to get married?

What Was Left Out of the Survey?

Except for that one question (out of 128) about the most empowering aspect about being single (with a limited and stereotypical set of response options), the survey omitted every aspect of single life that is not about dating, mating, or procreating.

Suppose that what you find most fulfilling about single life is (continue reading here).

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