Sympathy for the Unhappily Unmarried

Stephen Merchant, unmarried

Stephen Merchant, unmarried

In watching a comedy special by the hilarious Stephen Merchant I was startled when he announced that his routine was about his inability to find a wife. An army of unmarried male and female comics do routines about their quest for romance or sex or a date or a boyfriend or girlfriend and a comparably sized throng of married comics regale their audience with jokes about their rotten marriage/dopey husband/nagging wife. It was strange therefore to hear a comedian define himself explicitly as unhappily unmarried.

There’s a lot of cultural space out there to be happily married, whether it’s someone rubbing people’s noses in their bliss with wedding anniversary photos on Facebook or a magazine writer managing to work an adoring, successful spouse into a profile of a famous person (particularly if the result is a vaunted “power couple”). With the arrival of gay marriage, the space for happy marriage has been expanded even further.

Unhappily married people also get their cultural due. It’s hard to count all the great novels and plays that plumb their painful existence.

As for the happily unmarried, the positive cultural image of the carefree, smiling, confirmed bachelor goes way back, and has recently been joined by you-go-girl-don’t-need-marriage types in pop culture. If you are unmarried, and a higher proportion that Americans than ever are in this state, you are now generally expected to be excited about it.

But many unmarried people aren’t excited about being unmarried, but find it hard to say so. How do most people react if someone says “I really wish I were married, but I’m not”? Too often I suspect it’s to the view the person as a failure who ought to be marketing their brand better on Match.com or as some emotional misfit who can’t fulfill their duty of joyfully embracing singlehood.

The truth is that there are enormous structural barriers to marriage these days. In communities where men have high unemployment rates and/or are in and out of the correctional system, marriage is harder to initiate and sustain. As the age of first marriage rises, a once common place to find a mate (college) comes at the wrong time in life. The decline of religiosity lessens the opportunities at another meeting ground where many of the current generation’s parents and grandparents found their life partners. There is of course on the job romance, but depending on that rules and informal norms in the workplace, that’s often an unappealing career and/or legal risk for the parties concerned.

Rather than simply expect every unhappily unmarried person to work it out on their own despite all that (and blame them if it doesn’t pan out), the rest of us could no doubt do more to support them in their quest. I used to think that “setting people up” inherently constituted annoying, Yenta-ish meddling. But my married friends who were “set up” speak glowingly about the third parties who brought them together. If done respectfully and thoughtfully, matchmaking for unhappily unmarried people is a community and personal service. Indeed, it can be a gift that lasts a lifetime (ask the Veillards).

Happy 82nd anniversary

Happy 82nd anniversary

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is a professor of psychiatry at Stanford University. He served as a senior policy advisor at the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy from 2009 to 2010.