Are You Married?

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We’re inclined to put people in boxes, shorthand for identity. Often, though, they just don’t work. Margaret Allen has this Perspective.

When I’m asked if I’m married or single, I honestly don’t know how to answer. I’m a widow. I think my marital status might have changed the day my husband died but, really, what’s the point of the question and what does the answer tell you?

For many years, I have been teaching healthcare professionals, both in the Bay Area and overseas, how to talk to patients about their sexual lives. It’s important because, for most people, the presence or absence of sex is an integral part of their wellness and flourishing. I challenge my students to think about why they ask patients the routine question “Are you married?” Many feel it gives a helpful glimpse into the background of a patient in order to establish good care.

But is it though?

If your doctor or healthcare provider asks you if you are married, I’m telling you there is no good answer. If you say “Yes, I’m married” it is very likely that no further questions will be asked and several assumptions come into play: that you are happy, monogamous, have a good support system, that you are heterosexual, and that you have sex regularly. If you answer “No, I’m not married” the questioner may very likely assume, even subconsciously, that you are somehow inadequate, at risk for depression, perhaps gay, and either celibate or promiscuous. Assumptions are often wrong.


I grew up in post-war England. Most of my teachers were young widows and spinsters. These women, without a husband, were looked upon with pity. Socially they were a problem, and intellectually they were assumed to be dull. They were frankly forlorn. But in reality they did not conform to the bleak image foisted upon them. On the contrary, many were vibrant and engaged, spirited and energetic.

The assumptions were wrong.

With a Perspective, I’m Margaret Allen.

Margaret Allen is a physician assistant and medical educator. She lives in Palo Alto.