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How Stigma Affects Our Relationship Choices

We are often afraid of choosing a relationship style due to social pressure.

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How Stigma Affects Romantic Relationships
Source: Photo by cottonbro from Pexels

The origins of the word stigma, which can be roughly translated as "blemish" or "mark," are set deep in Ancient Greek culture. Stigma referred to a tattoo, cut, blemish, or burn that was marked onto the skin of traitors, criminals, or slaves in a publicly visible place so that they could be easily identified as morally inferior or polluted individuals who ought to be avoided, shunned, or stigmatized in public.

The meaning of the word has evolved since it was first employed in Greek civilizations, with stigmata today existing in many different forms, affecting individuals for reasons varying from mental and physical disability to race and ethnicity, health, educational background, or in the case of this article, relationship status. Stigmatization can happen in almost any context: the workplace, school, or educational setting, within healthcare, the criminal justice, legal systems, and even within the family context.1

Among the first formal investigators of stigma in modern social contexts was Erving Goffman, who described in his book three types of stigma.2

  • The first type refers to overt or external deformations that include scars, physical disabilities, or other factors that make an individual clearly different from others.
  • The second type of social stigma is referred to as tribal stigmata, or when traits (imagined or otherwise) are applied to any nationality, ethnic group, or religion that deviate from the accepted and prevailing norms within society.
  • The third type of stigma refers to deviations in personality traits such as criminal behavior, addictions, economic status, educational and professional achievements, and relationship or family status. The stigmatization of singles falls within this category.

Before exploring specific ways in which some relationship styles are harmed by stigmatization, it is important to consider that in addition to the specific consequences of singles' stigmatization, there are many negative effects of stigmatization on the individual in general.

Once a stigma is affixed to an individual, people identify and label their differences until the stigmatized difference is no longer detectable. Until such a point, stigma negatively impacts the emotions and beliefs of the affected. In particular, negative psychological impacts of stigma lead to mental illness,3 reduced self-esteem,4 depression,5 not to mention the direct educational, economic, and legal consequences of the stigma, which can lead to a further reduction in socioeconomic status.

In addition, stigmata may shape the behavior of the stigmatized. For instance, the stereotyping associated with stigmatization can lead to negative emotions and beliefs about the self, resulting in a more negative self-identity, particularly in threatening situations.1

How Stigma Affects Romantic Relationships

While most of the research conducted on the effects of stigmatization involved groups of individuals who are broadly recognized as stigmatized (e.g. women, HIV-positive adults, and racial minorities), the last decade has seen increasing works investigating the stigmatization of singles and those who want relationships styles that do not conform with mainstream society. Some want to choose to be single, in polyamorous relationships, or any other form of close connection but are afraid of doing so due to social pressure and conformity.

We simply don't see how this irregular choice of ours will fit in. In particular, relationship stigmatization is still on the fringe, and many people don't think about the fact that sweet old Valentine's Day, for example, is rather an exclusive day that leaves aside the celebration of many other narratives of relationships.

Moreover, we usually don't know we are influenced by stigmatization. One researcher investigated the effects of stigma awareness on the self-esteem of singles and finds a distinct lack of awareness of singlism even among singles themselves.6 Specifically, only four percent of singles spontaneously listed singles as a stigmatized group, and when explicitly asked whether singles were stigmatized, only 30 percent of singles and 23 percent of coupled individuals agreed. By comparison, 100 percent of gay men, 90 percent of obese people, 86 percent of African-Americans (the study was conducted in the U.S.), and 72 percent of women acknowledged that their group was discriminated against.

This raises an important question of whether we enter a mainstream romantic relationship because we are not aware of stigmatizing those who are doing otherwise. Even if we want to enter a relationship, we always need to identify the style of relationship we are interested in, whether it is close, intimate relationships under one roof, or more free-style connections that give each of the partners the personal space they need.


1 Brenda Major, and Laurie T. O'Brien, 'The Social Psychology of Stigma', Annual Review of Psychology, 56 (2005), 393-421.

2 Erving Goffman, Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity (Simon and Schuster, 1963).

3 Paul Jay Fink, Stigma and Mental Illness (American Psychiatric Pub, 1992).

4 Jennifer Crocker, and Brenda Major, 'Social Stigma and Self-Esteem: The Self-Protective Properties of Stigma', Psychological review, 96 (1989), 608.

5 Bruce G Link, Elmer L Struening, Sheree Neese-Todd, Sara Asmussen, and Jo C Phelan, 'Stigma as a Barrier to Recovery: The Consequences of Stigma for the Self-Esteem of People with Mental Illnesses', Psychiatric services (2001).

6 Wendy L Morris, 'The Effect of Stigma Awareness on the Self-Esteem of Singles' (University of Virginia, 2005).

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