Adrienne A. Williams, Ph.D.
After accepting an offer for my first job after post-doctoral fellowship, I moved to a new city where I experienced a form of discrimination that I did not yet know how to name. This was not the first time I had moved to a new city on my own, but it was the first time that I had to seek health care soon after moving. I met with a doctor who explained I would need a small procedure the following week, and because I may not have full control of my legs after the procedure, I would need someone to come with me to drive. I explained to him that I was new in town and did not have someone local who would be able to come with me, but that I could take a taxi so that I would not need to drive. He agreed that this plan would work.
The next week I arrived at the clinic on my own. When I went to check in at the front desk, the receptionist asked who I brought with me to drive. I informed her that the doctor and I had discussed the risks of the procedure and that he had approved of me taking a taxi and had told me that I did not need to bring anyone. She told me it was clinic policy that I had to have someone with me like a spouse or family member. I explained that I had just moved to the city, and, like many single people, I had moved on my own so I did not have any family in the area. I had not yet established a broad social network and, while I did have some friends already, they could only take time off of work to take family members to the doctor. Since a person only needed to be with me because of the risks of driving I would be fine taking a cab – which the doctor had approved.
She told me that they could not allow me to take a cab because I would be somewhat incapacitated after the procedure, and that a cab driver might try to abuse me, so they couldn’t allow that. I tried to tell her that if I had shown up to any doctor’s office drunk they would have been encouraging me to take a taxi home, so taxis were a reasonable option for transportation when unable to drive on one’s own. Additionally, if I was to be the victim of abuse, the most likely perpetrator would be a husband or significant other, and I didn’t think they were screening people for domestic violence before allowing their spouse to drive them home while they were incapacitated.
So I had the doctor on my side – he had approved me taking a taxi – and I had logic on my side – I had a reasonable solution for transportation, and there was less than 1% chance that I might experience harm by a taxi driver after the procedure, but a 100% chance that I would experience harm if I did not get this procedure for a condition that I did actually have. Despite this, the receptionist still refused to check me in and I was not able to get the procedure.
I left the clinic feeling angry and powerless. Their clinic policy accounted for some traditional life pathways – those where people stay in their hometown where their family lives, or maybe move to a new town with their spouse after they get married. But their policy did not account for the many single adults who often move to a new place on their own. It didn’t take into account that most people are not able to take sick time off of work for a friend’s medical care, as time off of work is reserved for medical care of self or family. As a result, their clinic policy was preventing me from getting the medical care that I needed.
I later learned the name for what I had experienced: singlism. Singlism is the stereotyping and discrimination that unmarried people often face. I had been denied medical care due to policies that did not account for single people’s lives. I now recognize how often and in how many ways I experience singlism in a variety of contexts – medical, financial, occupational, social – and how that intersects with my experiences as a minority and a female.
As the Society for Health Psychology increases its focus on diversity and disparities, I invited Dr. Bella De Paulo, the pioneer of singlism research, and Dr. Joan DelFattore, who has written specifically about singlism in health care, to contribute to this issue. Their article, “Singlism in American Medicine: Patients Without Partners Face Stereotyping and Discrimination” also includes links to their TEDx Talks on singlism.
As always, if you have comments, questions, or ideas for future columns, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.