SHIFT: 'Couple privilege' makes it hard to be single, harder if you're a senior

Being single — in addition to intense loneliness for some and freedom for others — has some serious economical and social support downsides.

Lisa Machado 6 minute read May 14, 2022

Many grocery stores now stock ready-made meals for one — a service known as the “grocerant,” to reflect the combination of grocery and restaurant. GETTY

“It’s rubbish that my broccoli choices are either a $2.99 giant head that I can’t possibly eat all of or a $6.99 more manageable bunch of broccolette.”

This from a colleague who recently went from being the other half of a couple — a 29-year couple (!!) — to a single woman after learning her longtime partner was having an affair with their neighbour’s nanny.

For the last two weeks, she has been weaning herself off of all things big-box. From Walmart to club-size cereals to Costco — “What am I going to do with 50 rolls of paper towels?” No longer needing as much of anything is proving to be, well, not as liberating as you would think.

“I can’t finish an entire can of soup, chicken stock goes bad in a couple of days, and the milk curdles seconds after I open it, pretty much,” she said, rolling her eyes.

My mom went through a similar grocery shift when my father moved into long-term care a couple of decades ago. Someone well-known for creating massive meals on a daily basis, and maintaining a cellar of non-perishables that would put even the most savvy fallout shelter architect to shame, when she was having trouble closing her freezer door because of all the Tupperware stuffed with leftovers, my brother and I joked about how we’d have to start shopping at her house.

As she transitioned to feeding one, she also complained about how difficult it was to find food items in her size, and she’d often drop off a third of a watermelon, half a loaf of bread, or a fraction of a block of cheese.

As the years passed and the number of Canada’s singles continue to increase — as of 2016, more than 28 per cent of Canadian households (that’s almost four million) were home to one person, with that number expected to grow to five million — it seems we have got a bit better at diversifying grocery options to meet the needs of single-person households. My local grocery store now stocks ready-made meals for one — an area of the store known as the “grocerant,” a combination of the words ‘grocery’ and ‘restaurant’ — offers plastic-wrapped quarters of large fruit like watermelons and cantaloupe and just one or two saucy chicken drumsticks instead of the usual family pack.

Thank goodness, dessert has also gone solo. When you don’t want the temptation to eat a whole cake, there’s the option of grabbing just one slice. In fact, can’t decide between red velvet or peanut butter awesomeness? Then get a slice of both — because sometimes you want to have the cake, just not eat the whole thing, too.

And while smaller servings can be seen as a sign of an increasing awareness that not everyone lives with family, has family or is partnered up and, therefore, has different food volume needs, it’s a shift that’s not being driven simply by the goodness of the hearts of grocers. Like a lot of things, serving solo shoppers comes down to dollars: just yesterday, I spotted half of a watermelon shrink-wrapped tightly to a piece of white foam at the corner market for $4.99, while piled up right beside it were whole watermelons for just $5.99. Clearly, singles are helping grocers increase their margins, boosting profits for every unit sold.

But it’s more than just the providers of groceries that have to catch up to the needs of those who are not part of a larger unit. Think: the ‘dinner for two’ special at your local restaurant, the family discount at the gym only offered to people who are related, or recipes tailored to two or more. Even the discharge rule after a medical procedure that states someone must pick you up highlights the problem with “singlism.” In this Reddit post, a woman without immediate access to her partner or family members shares how she was not allowed to leave the hospital by herself after receiving medical care, even though she had arranged an Uber pickup.

In fact, spend any time in the world of singlehood, and it becomes apparent that life as one — in addition to intense loneliness for some and freedom for others — has some serious economical and social support downsides. There’s even a name for it: couple privilege.

“Why is life in this country so hostile to single people?” asks Anne Helen Petersen in a piece for Vox. She bemoans the fact that living solo in the U.S. — on purpose or regretfully — is prohibitively expensive when there isn’t another set of hands to contribute income. But even more than that, she points out that public safety net programs like pensions and health insurance coverage are cheaper and better when you have a partner. And then there are exclusive benefits like parental leave (we should think about leave that works for those without children, she suggests) and time off to care for family members, but none to care for those not considered “blood” relatives.

Similarly, in Canada, couple- and family-hood puts you in a better place when it comes to financial security — even more so if you are a senior, particularly one who has lost a partner due to divorce or death. Tax benefits like income splitting disappear, CPP payments and Old Age Security are clawed back and RSP/RIF payments result in a higher tax bill in the case of the death of one partner.

And while changing tax laws and benefits rules requires a vote, letters to MPs and a good dose of patience, your trip to the grocery store doesn’t have to be so onerous. According to FOOD52 columnist Eric Kim, there are ways to make the grocery store fit with your single needs, including stocking up on non-perishable pantry items like pasta and rice and buying main dishes like salmon or ribs, dividing them into single servings and packing them into plastic bags and freezing them.

Other foods that are good to buy fresh and freeze for later, he says, are bread, onions, peppers, and berries — even butternut squash, cauliflower and broccoli can be frozen, as long as you blanch them first. Kim is also a fan of shopping at bulk stores, where you can select as much or as little as you need. And as for staples like eggs, cheese and butter, he notes that they aren’t as perishable as you may think: eggs can keep for five weeks — they can also be frozen (outside of the shell), hard cheese like Parmesan can also last for a long time, while butter stays fresh in the fridge for six to nine months.

I passed this information to the colleague with the nanny-loving ex-husband — the one who hates broccolette. She has already tousled with a financial advisor on how to manage the shared RSP in her favour, scrambled to negotiate health benefits with her new employer (at twice the rate she was paying pre-divorce) and spent too many hours to count with Bell’s customer retention department arguing why, as a single person, she was no longer eligible to bundle her cellphone, internet and television services into one manageable fee.

“Couple privilege, you say?” she remarked, after telling me how she wished she could spend more time enjoying having the bed to herself instead of lying on ‘her’ side worrying about whether she’ll have enough money to live on once she retires. “Yup, that sounds about right.”

Lisa Machado is the executive producer of Healthing.

This story originally appeared in the Healthing Weekender. Sign-up here.

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