Living Single

The truth about singles in our society.

Being Coupled Ain't All It's Cracked Up to Be

Less singlism is good for singles and couples
Jared DeFife, Ph.D.
This post is a response to Being single ain't all it's cracked up to be by Jared DeFife, Ph.D.
Thanks, Jared DeFife for your kind words about my Living Single blog. I'll even thank you for your critical words about my latest post. If you thought I was saying some of the things you suggest, then clearly I was unclear, and this gives me an opportunity to try again.

I Think We Agree
I actually think we agree in our bottom lines. We both realize that both single and coupled people can be happy and both single and coupled people can be screwed up. What I try to show in many of my posts is that popular reports, and often even scientific reports, focus on what is bad about single people and what is good about coupled people.

The title of your post, for example, was "Being single ain't all it's cracked up to be." My own title of this post is a gentle nudge at that, "Being coupled ain't all it's cracked up to be."

Did I Overgeneralize?
I try to be very careful about how I characterize the results of published studies. That's why, in the very next sentences after I make the "no attachment issues" clarification, I spell out exactly what the study showed: single people are not more anxious, not more avoidant, and have about the same number of attachment figures as coupled people. Also, the post was the second in a set. The first began with a 3-bullet-point description of the results of the study (corresponding to the first three points you make in summarizing the study). There was also a separate section in the first post, "About the Study," indicating the precise number of single (69) and coupled (73) participants and other details, including the full reference.

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Who is Being Selective?
Jared DeFife says:
"Unfortunately, looking at study findings is not like dating; you shouldn't just make eyes for the ones you like and dismiss the ones you find less personally appealing." [my emphasis]

I agree, and let me rephrase as it applies to the post of his that we are discussing. My restatement:
"Unfortunately, looking at blog quotes is not like dating; you shouldn't just make eyes for the ones you like and dismiss the ones you find less personally appealing."

In the rest of this post, I'll show how DeFife has made eyes only for certain quotes from my post. I accept some responsibility, though - my post was far too long.

I think this one section from my post addresses a number of DeFife's concerns (e.g., that I have overgeneralized; that he has attachment issues so that nixes my argument right there):

I said:
"I need to add a clarification here. I'm not saying that there are no single people who had screwed up childhoods and who therefore became insecure about attachments and therefore stayed single. There are about 93 million single people in the United States alone. Whatever your stereotypes about single people, there are going to be some out of the 93 million who fit them. What I am saying is that just because you know a screwed up single person, or just because you are a scholar who can come up with a reason to predict that singles might be screwed up, does not mean that, as a general rule, single people really are screwed up."

Did I Ignore the Not-So-Good News About Singles?

DeFife says "there's more to the story" than the non-difference between singles and couples in attachment issues. He then describes the bad stuff the study claimed to have found about singles in the section of his post titled "The Not-So-Good News."

I acknowledged those dark findings in the section of my post titled "Playful Paraphrase #3." I had two sets of responses to them. I'll add a third here.

My first set of responses to the bad stuff about singles: For two of the findings - about attachment style (the main point) and childhood experiences - the journal article was the first (so far as I know) to report on differences between singles and couples. As a first, I gave it a pass with regard to its important limitations (also described in my post). The study has the potential to tell us something despite its problems. Yet, underscoring the need for caution in generalizing from this one flawed study, I said that "maybe future studies will show that singles have less troubled childhoods than coupled people do (or even more troubled ones) or that singles really do have attachment issues."

My second set of responses to the bad stuff about singles: For other findings, such as those about loneliness, depression, and sexual satisfaction, it's a different story. That's because there are other bigger studies with more representative samples (as in the study of sexual satisfaction), or there are more methodologically impressive studies (as in the longitudinal study of depression I mentioned) or there are studies suggesting something quite different from the dark and dreary conclusions of the attachment study we are discussing (as in the literature on loneliness).

When the authors add to a large or more sophisticated literature with their small and unrepresentative sample, I don't think they can say state their findings as truths about singles without acknowledging the other, better studies - especially when those other studies suggest very different conclusions. I mentioned some of the better studies in the Playful Paraphrase #3 section of my post. I discussed those studies in more detail in Singled Out.

New point about bad stuff about singles: There were a few other findings from the study that neither of us mentioned, and one that DeFife mentioned and I did not. All of these findings were qualifications of main findings. I try to have a standard about what gets mentioned and what doesn't, to try to be fair. My standard in this case was to mention all of the qualifications of the main findings or none of them.

So I did not mention the one finding that looked better for coupled people: Among the men, for one of the three measures of attachment (anxiety), the single men reported more anxiety than the coupled men. (For the single and coupled women, the anxiety scores were nearly identical.)

Several findings looked better for singles. Although the overall number of attachment figures was about the same for single and coupled people (the main finding), single people were more likely than coupled people to describe sisters and best friends as attachment figures (the qualifications). (Couples were more likely to describe romantic partners as attachment figures, but that's a "duh" finding.) Neither of us mentioned the findings about sisters or best friends.

Here's What I Mean About the Messed Up Couples

In the title of this post (paralleling the title of DeFife's post), and in many of my other posts, I am trying to agitate for fair and equal standards for singles and couples. If there are things that are truly problematic (established fairly and scientifically) in the lives of single people, they should be acknowledged and dealt with. But the same is true of coupled people.

Take, for example, the set of studies just published under the title, "The strange case of sustained dedication to an unfulfilling relationship." Using exemplary methodology - both a longitudinal study and an experimental one - the authors showed that people with attachment anxieties continue to cling to their romantic partners, and don't break up, even when those partners are no longer fulfilling their needs. People with low attachment anxiety (either measured or experimentally manipulated) got out of coupled relationships that are thwarting their own needs for relatedness and autonomy. (Read the authors' own words here.)

This set of studies illustrates the point I have been trying to make. Just because someone is coupled does not mean that they are less likely to have attachment issues than long-term single people are. Instead, as the study suggests, they may be clinging to an unhealthy relationship just to be in a relationship.

I want to debunk singlism, in everyday life and in scientific reports, in part as an offering to the coupled people who are clinging to unfulfilling partners and relationships when they might be better off behaving otherwise. If there were less singlism in the world, that would obviously be a good thing for people who are single and like it that way. But it would also be good for people who want to be coupled, because then they would pursue coupling from a position of strength - as something positive they are seeking, rather than something to cling to in order to avoid the stigma of living single.

Keep It Coming - I Love High Standards

I'll end where I started. Thanks, Jared DeFife, for your thoughts on my post. In part because I am so often critical of other people's claims, and also because I care about serious and fair science, I try to be especially careful about what I say. (Aside: If it doesn't seem that way, maybe that's because it is so unusual to see positive takes on living single that such perspectives seem biased. See if you can find positive claims about marriage or coupling that are critiqued as biased. Doesn't happen so often.) Anyway, I hope you will continue to hold me to the highest standards, and I hope my other readers will, too.

Bella DePaulo, Ph.D., is author of Singled Out: How Singles Are Stereotyped, Stigmatized, and Ignored, and Still Live Happily Ever After. She is a visiting professor at UCSB.


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