The Right to Be Single

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"To be condemned to live in loneliness." The alternative to marriage is a downright depressing fate in Justice Anthony Kennedy's otherwise soaring Supreme Court decision announcing nationwide marriage equality for same-sex couples. A lot of single people, both gay and straight, with memories of their marriage-pushing Aunt Claras haunting them anew, heaved a collective sigh. "It's great that gay couples have the right to marry," they're thinking. "But what about the blessed right to be single? It's way past time in this country for unmarried equality."  

In fact, there are more than 100 million American adults who are single -- either divorced, widowed or just always content to remain blissfully uncoupled. On average, they pay more in income and estates taxes than their married counterparts, and are denied the hundreds of other perks such as spousal Social Security benefits that the state and federal governments link to marriage. Then, there are those relentless not-so-subtle pressures to marry from well-meaning friends and anxious aunts who, like Justice Kennedy, seem to equate singleness with solitary doom.

And yet, the constitutional right to marry, in Justice Kennedy's own words, is part of the liberty of individuals to define and express their own identities -- a right to personal choice, like the choices to have a child or to use birth control. So, if the right to marry "dignifies couples who wish to define themselves by their commitment to each other," then it follows that the right not to marry dignifies individuals who wish to define themselves by their independence, as they seek love and companionship -- or not -- outside of marriage.

At least in theory, this vision of married and unmarried equality is already part of our constitutional values. Putting the vision into practice requires rethinking how we structure the constellation of rights and benefits attached to marriage -- and recognizing the equal dignity of being single.

With a Perspective, I'm Clyde Wadsworth.


Clyde Wadsworth is an attorney practicing business and civil rights law.