Smug Couples Patronize Singles to Feel Better About Themselves

By Guest Blogger | January 7, 2014 11:01 am

By Samantha Joel, University of Toronto

engagement ring

People tend to see their own lifestyle as being the ideal lifestyle. A single person may question why anyone would choose to shackle themselves to one partner rather than live it up with the single life. Then there is that smug married couple who pushes for other couples to also tie the knot, so they can similarly bask in wedded bliss.

This phenomenon is called “normative idealization”, which is the tendency to idealize one’s own lifestyle and believe others would benefit from it too.

Where does such insufferable behavior come from? It has been suggested that people might idealize their own relationship status not because they are actually confident that it is ideal, but rather because they are trying to feel better about their own lives.

Psychologists at Stanford University and the University of Waterloo tested whether people were more judgmental of others’ lifestyles when they felt threatened regarding their own. Their results are published in the journal Psychological Science.

From Stuck to Smug

In the first study, the researchers measured participants’ perceived stability of their current relationship status, and then measured the bias people have against those with an opposing relationship status. For single people, they measured how difficult single participants thought it would be to find a romantic partner. For romantically attached people, they measured how difficult they thought it would be to leave their current relationships. The more “stuck” one feels with their current lifestyle, the more threatened one should feel by the idea of people happily enjoying the opposing lifestyle.

As predicted, when people in romantic relationships felt it would be difficult to end those relationships, they were more likely to endorse statements such as “Individuals who are in long-term romantic relationships generally have more meaningful, fulfilling lives than those who are not.” Similarly, when single people felt it would be difficult to enter a romantic relationship, they were more likely to endorse statements such as “Although many people feel pressured to find a long-term romantic relationship partner, many people would prefer to be independent.”

Temporarily Permanent

This study provided the first preliminary evidence that people look down on other lifestyles to make themselves feel better about their own. However, an alternative hypothesis is that people who prefer a particular lifestyle are more likely to do things that actually make that lifestyle more permanent. To rule this out, the researchers conducted an experiment where some participants were temporarily made to feel their relationship status was more permanent. They asked how long they expected their current relationship status to continue, and then manipulating how they answered that question.

People who were asked to rate the question on a scale from “now” to “the end of my lifetime” subsequently felt that their current relationship status was considerably more permanent than if they rated the question on a scale from “now” to “the end of this year”.

Next, participants evaluated a hypothetical job candidate who was either single or in a romantic relationship. The researchers found that when people were made to feel like their current lifestyle was more permanent, they made more negative evaluations of the job candidate who had the opposite relationship status.

Stemming Bias

So if people like to idealize their own relationship status, and if couplehood is the dominant relationship status, this may help to explain why our society is so geared toward couples. This might also explain the prejudice against singletons.

It seems then that people look down on people with opposing relationship statuses as a way to feel better about their own. This kind of judgement is really a form of defensiveness. A person who has taken a different path in life can threaten our confidence in our own lifestyle, particularly if we feel that our own lifestyle is not easily changed. A good way to combat that sense of threat is to convince ourselves that our way is the only right way. So the next time you catch yourself looking down on someone else’s lifestyle … ask yourself if it is possible that you are actually a little bit envious.

The Conversation

This article was originally published at The Conversation. Read the original article.

Image by wavebreakmedia / Shutterstock

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Mind & Brain, Top Posts
MORE ABOUT: psychology
  • sestamibi

    As Joni Mitchell once said, “I’ve looked at life from both sides now”, having tied the knot far later in life than I wanted and having spent a great deal of time into early middle age single.
    While I was single, I can only remember one time when I was actually shamed in the “what’s wrong with you” sense–and that by some stupid bitch at a party whom I never saw again, not by anyone I was ever close to.
    On the other hand, right after I got married (at age 46) my wife got pregnant, I lost my job and I got a new one elsewhere, so we moved to Dallas. I met a woman about my age from my home town while commuting to work on the bus. She had never been married, and after I non-judgmentally told her my story, she bit her lip, shook her head, and said “But what about your freedom?” So there’s a bit of smugness among singles too.
    Problem is, “Patty” and the Eric Klinenborgs of the world notwithstanding, that biology and all our better instincts don’t want us to be single. Those who choose it remove themselves from the gene pool.

    • Marta Fernandes

      One doesn’t really have to be in a couple to stay in the gene pool.

    • laurele

      Sestamibi, what a disappointment. Why do you end by saying it has to be your way? My biology and all my better instincts DO want me to be single and have wanted that as long as I can remember. Please stop promoting one way above all others. Many people don’t give a damn about being in the gene pool. With 7.2 billion people in the world, we cannot even afford to have everyone reproduce. I never wanted to do so, and I never will.

      • Don’t Even Try It!


  • laurele

    There is NEVER any justification for discrimination against singles. Couplehood is NOT the dominant relationship status in spite of the fact that some people need it to be so. We live in a very diverse society with many different relationship statuses, and none is better than any other. It’s all about “different strokes for different folks.” People who are really happy with their lives don’t try to evangelize and force their way on others just to feel validated.

    • Don’t Even Try It!

      6.487″ stroke is about right at 48 to 55 SPM 😉

    • Don’t Even Try It!

      Seriously though, I tend to agree with a lot of your post.

  • Don’t Even Try It!

    Misery loves company!

  • Mobeen Azhar

    Interesting article – even more interesting articles which seem to provide a validation of the article :)

  • redconvoy

    I always felt this way. If I found someone great. If not, it wasn’t the end of the world. I don’t envy a married couple, but if they are happy together, that’s great. Marriage and relationships are not for everyone and there are not a male for every female, male for every male, etc. on this planet.


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