The Rhetoric of Singleness
Being single and being lonely are not the same thing—but our culture insists on conflating them.
In John T. Cacioppo and William Patrick’s recent study Loneliness we are reminded, yet again, of scientific “findings” that make you want to run to the nearest available partner and pop the question:
Social isolation has an impact on health comparable to the effect of high blood pressure, lack of exercise, obesity, or smoking. Our research in the past decade or so demonstrates that the culprit behind these dire statistics is not usually literally being alone, but subjective experience of loneliness. Whether you are at home with your family, working in an office crowded with bright and attractive people, touring Disneyland, or sitting alone in a fleabag hotel on the working side of town, chronic feelings of loneliness can drive a cascade of physiological events that actually accelerates the aging process. Loneliness not only alters behavior but shows up in measurements of stress hormones, immune function, and cardiovascular function. Over time, these changes in physiology are compounded in ways that may be hastening millions of people to an early grave.
Reading these writers, I can’t help but think of a scene in Bridget Jones’ Diary in which Bridget, asked why so many women are still single “these days,” offers this famous response: “Because we may seem normal to you but underneath our clothes we’re covered in scales.” Now’s not the time to quibble with the rhetoric and findings of these researchers, especially since they’ve been finding their conclusions for so long. And I give them credit: they’re careful to make sure that we understand that loneliness is not the same thing as aloneness; they’re right to soon point out that “being miserably lonely in a marriage has been a literary staple from Madame Bovary to The Sopranos” (actually a literary staple for much, much longer than that).
But they can’t resist prefacing their remarks with a prevailing notion that is considered axiomatic: “Married people, on average, are less lonely than unmarried people.” Maybe that’s true. Maybe it’s not. The truth doesn’t matter because what we’re rhetorically left with is a sense that social connection is absolutely necessary; that a menacing, debilitating feeling of loneliness lurks everywhere; and that, despite examples to the contrary, married people might be experiencing social connection more regularly, more healthfully. In the quickest of phrases, by describing marriage as an average, if not the average, experience of social connection, the researchers highlight the unmarried—and here I think Cacioppo and Patrick mean “single” rather than those who can’t or won’t be married even if they’re coupled—as a heightened instance of alienation. And they recast marriage and coupledom, however obliquely, as kinds of relations that offer the greater chance of escape from the early grave of loneliness, a loneliness that is crowding us each time we look at our smart phones.
They’re hardly alone in this assessment. Despite all the novelty of new social networks, there’s still a very old-fashioned sense of what grounds people as social actors. For all the inventiveness of technology, it’s strikingly hard to imagine the smooth functioning, if not the goods, of the social world without imagining the couple. This imagination, in turn, presents a powerful, if not compulsory, logic that dominates the manner in which we begin to even consider social interaction and connection, in any of its public forms (in old and new media; online or in physical, less virtual spaces where people gather). Moreover, this logic’s corrosive effects play out in realms quite beyond the physiological or psychological impact at the level of the individual. Being single is not merely an individual’s psychological or physical plight. There are huge political, social, and cultural stakes in dividing people up into those who are single and those who are not.
Those stakes belong to what is currently a very familiar terrain of family politics. I wrote a book on the religious right and homophobic hate speech in the mid-2000s, so the nebulous category of “values voters” has been on my mind for some time. The cause of these voters was even further strengthened by the controversy and outrage over same-sex marriage—the plea for participation in state-sanctioned coupledom. “Values voters” are, for the most part, conservative Christians or political opportunists (even if they are not named as such) who profit, in many senses of the term, from patrolling and excluding those who can enter into official and state-sanctioned forms of intimate couple relating. Marriage, and same-sex marriage in particular, is serious political and cultural business, along with the other “values votes” issues that continue to have substantial clout in the United States (under any presidency, Democratic or Republican)—abortion, stem-cell research, affirmative action, health care reform. These are not wedge issues but central biopolitical concerns that ferociously animate our present and future politics.
Michael Cobb is Professor of English at the University of Toronto. He is the author of God Hates Fags: The Rhetorics of Religious Violence, published by New York University Press.