Stop asking people whether they’re married—even as an icebreaker

Some people choose to be single.
Some people choose to be single.
Image: Reuters/Dinuka Liyanawatte
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So there you are at a crowded cocktail party, wine glass in one hand, crab puff in the other. You spot a woman standing by herself and stroll on over. “Hi,” you say. “I’m Chris.” “Alice,” she replies. You raise your glass in that awkward gesture that means, “I’d shake hands, but I don’t have one free.” “So,” she says with a smile. “How much do you weigh? How much money did you make last year?”

Well, no. But what one of you probably would say before long is, “Are you married?” It’s seen as the most natural of ice-breakers, as if it’s the first thing strangers need to know about each other. We, and dozens of people we’ve asked about this, encounter the question everywhere. Even random strangers sitting next to us in a train or plane will ask, “Are you married?”

Sometimes the questioner assumes you’re married—like the car dealer who asks if your husband is with you, or the job interviewer who says, “Do you need to talk it over with your wife?” When setting up online accounts, security questions such as “Where did you go on your honeymoon?” or “What is your maiden name?” seem inescapable. Cue the music from the Twilight Zone, because what we have here is a time warp. Today, nearly as many adults in the US are not married as married, and Americans spend more years of their adult lives not married than married.

Why do we care? Why should you?

The two of us writing this article have never married, nor ever wanted to. So, when we question this pervasive need to know if we’re married, knee-jerk matrimaniacs will jump to a predictable conclusion. Surely, they’ll assume, we must feel defensive about being forced to—as they see it—admit that we’ve never grown up and settled down, never been found worthy as soulmates, never had the life our culture insists we must want. Here’s a reality check: we’re raising this question because, as members of a growing population of Americans who happily define ourselves in terms of relationships, activities, and accomplishments other than marriage, we believe that the time has come to draw attention to a relic of the past so deeply entrenched that most people don’t even stop to think about it.

What do you really need to know? That’s what you should ask

Of course, sometimes the marital status question is perfectly reasonable. When census takers come knocking, or social scientists invite us to their labs, we want to be counted and understood. And if someone is selling a house in a community-property state like California, the buyer has a genuine need to know if there’s a spouse or ex-spouse with a legal interest in the proceeds.

More often, though, questions about marital status are really getting at something else—like whether anyone else is going to guarantee payment for a debt or have a say in a decision. Those are the questions that should be asked.

Bella DePaulo had a relevant experience recently when she was called for jury duty in a case of driving under the influence.

All prospective jurors were asked if they had a spouse or significant other. When my turn came, I asked the judge why he wanted to know. He said that relationship status could be relevant to potential biases if, for instance, a spouse had been arrested for DUI. I answered that I had many people who were significant to me, such as close friends, family members, and mentors. But since I wasn’t having sex with any of them, I guessed that they didn’t count.

While it’s true that the opinions and experiences of a spouse or romantic partner can inject bias into a process that is supposed to be unbiased, the same can be said of other people who are important to us. A better question would invite potential jurors to decide for themselves who matters.

And if we’re not married? What happens then?

Often, being asked about a spouse or romantic partner is merely annoying. Sometimes, though, it can have real, measurable consequences. It all depends on what’s going to be different if you say Yes, or if you say No.

Last year, Vassar College sent their alumnae an elegant invitation to a day of lectures and lunch, with the request that attendees limit their one guest to a spouse or partner. And at this year’s G20 Summit, the festivities included a “couples-only” dinner. What is there about a lecture series or a G20 summit that demands a presumed sexual relationship between participants and their guests?

Questions about marital status become more serious, and certainly more expensive, when answering No bars single people from desirable financial options. Amazingly, more than 1,000 federal laws, including those governing Social Security, benefit only the legally married. It happens in the workplace, too. Answer “single” to the marital status question, and you may be expected to work extra weekends and holidays, while being barred from adding anyone to your health insurance, or taking time off under the Family and Medical Leave Act to care for someone as significant to you as a spouse is to a married person. (And, no such person can take time off to care for you.)

That’s not to say that only unmarried people suffer. The reason federal regulations discourage questions about marital status in job interviews is that married women might be rejected because of their (presumed) focus on family obligations. The question isn’t illegal, though—and good luck proving that your answer to “Are you married?” was the reason you didn’t get the job.

Housing is another area where answering No to “Are you married?” can have serious consequences, as, for example, when landlords and real estate agents prefer to rent or sell to married couples. Frustratingly, the federal Fair Housing Act, which protects cohabiting couples and single parents with children, does nothing for single residents or groups of friends. The laws of many states, though, do prohibit property owners from refusing to rent or sell to qualified applicants, including single individuals and unrelated pairs or groups of adults.

Sometimes, what’s at stake isn’t only your money, but your life

Here’s Joan DelFattore’s story of an all-too-typical medical encounter:

I was in an oncologist’s office to talk about chemotherapy, knowing that the standard treatment was a combination of a very strong drug and a milder one. After going over my test results, he asked if I’m married. No, I said. Sons or daughters? No. Sisters or brothers? No. When I mentioned cousins and friends, he talked right over me. Then he proposed to give me only the milder drug. Why? I asked. Because, he replied, he wouldn’t risk the side effects of the stronger one.

That’s not a freak occurrence. In a national survey by University of Chicago psychologist John Cacioppo, physicians reported that they might not provide the same care to patients they perceive as socially isolated as to those surrounded by family. Although that survey didn’t address the reasons for disparate care, articles in medical journals offer a clue, as they routinely conflate being married with having the help necessary to handle medical treatment. As Bella De Paulo has repeatedly pointed out, such studies are misleading when, for instance, they fail to acknowledge other sources of social support. The consequences cut both ways, as well-supported single patients are denied treatment they could handle, while someone with a spouse is assumed to have adequate help when she really doesn’t.

Let’s match the questions we ask with the way we live now

Questions about marital status are rarely motivated by malice. They are just unthinkingly out of step with how we live now. The marital status question no longer does the work it was intended to do. The opening conversational gambit, “are you married?”, may be meant to foster a cordial connection, but is instead likely to result in awkwardness if, as is increasingly likely, the answer is no. In other instances, people ask about marital status when what they really want to know is something else. In the worst cases, marital status is an unearned ticket to special treatment.

So next time you are tempted to ask, “Are you married?” ask yourself why you want to know. And if you are the person who is asked that question, perhaps your best response is, “Why do you ask?”