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PsychCentral It Scares Me When Therapists Have Prejudices about Marriage or Single Life and Don’t Even Realize It

  • Thread starter Bella DePaulo, Ph.D
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Bella DePaulo, Ph.D

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This article has been shared from PsychCentral. Copyright remains with the author at all times.

In my last few blog posts, I have been discussing a lengthy email sent to me by a man I don’t know, that was full of demeaning stereotypes about single people. The man thinks that single people are selfish, depressed, and anxious – and somehow, also carefree. He thinks they have no intimacy or attachments in their life, and that they are materialistic and vain. He believes that the simplest forms of connection with other humans elude single people, who, in his mind, barely qualify as human. Also, he seems to think their kids are doomed to delinquency. (I quoted him extensively in my first post in this series, if you want to see these characterizations in his own words.)

As I noted in my previous two posts, all these degrading beliefs about single people are wrong. The relevant social science research simply does not support them. In some instances, just the opposite is true.

Even though I have been studying singlism (the stereotyping, stigmatizing, and discrimination against single people) for two decades and am rarely surprised by it, I still found this particular instance particularly disturbing. For one thing, the man who holds that whole array of demeaning views of single people does not think that any of his beliefs are offensive. He made that very clear in a response to an email from me saying that I thought they were offensive.

But that’s not the worst thing either. My colleagues and I have already documented, in our research, that people are especially oblivious to singlism. They can practice it, or witness it practiced by others, without realizing that there is anything wrong with it. Other prejudices, such as racism and sexism, can be implicit, too. People can be biased in ways they don’t realize. But the most blatant forms of racism and sexism are more likely to be recognized and called out than the most blatant forms of singlism.

The most disturbing part of the episode I have been writing about is that the person who harbors such disparaging views of single people is a mental health professional. He has a doctorate in psychology, and he works in a helping profession.

Can a person who harbors such derogatory beliefs about single people be an effective helper of single people? Can he see single people with the compassion and respect that they deserve? Will he be able to see them for who they really are? Will he be able to treat them with dignity?

Because he is in a helping profession, the people he deals with in his work are in need of help. But when he is interacting with single clients, will he blame their problems on being single, without fully considering alternative explanations? For example, sometimes people are sad or anxious or lonely not because they are single but because they are human.

Is it possible for a professional with attitudes like his to be an effective and sensitive helper to people who are single at heart – people who live their best and most meaningful lives by living single? Or will he think that they are just fooling themselves, and deep down inside, they are miserable about being single and just won’t admit it?

The flip side of a prejudice against single people is a bias in favor of married people. Positive prejudices may sound fine, but they can be problematic, too. Helping professionals who believe, contrary to growing evidence, that getting married makes people healthier, for example, may nudge clients toward marriage when that may not be the best next step in their lives. Or maybe they will have lower standards than they should when evaluating the suitability of potential partners their clients are considering.

I wonder whether such professionals are also likely to be less than helpful in their counseling of married people. Is it possible, for example, that they will be less alert to signs of an abusive relationship if they believe that married life is far superior to single life?

Or maybe I’m wrong about all this, and even the most prejudiced professional can treat all their clients with equal dignity, sensitivity, compassion, and respect. I wouldn’t want to take a chance on it, and I wouldn’t want anyone else to, either.

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