Meet, Catch, and Keep

A scientific look at the complexities of romantic relationships

Learning to Love, not Fear, Being Single

The fear of being single can hurt your chances for a happy romantic relationship

What’s so bad about being single?  It depends on who you ask. Kelly Clarkson asserts that it “doesn’t mean I’m lonely when I’m alone,” but many people view single women as chronically lonely, depressed, and ultimately bereft of a chance for happiness and security (Anderson & Stewart, 1994). This myth that single women universally suffer in their singlehood is deeply entrenched in the hearts and minds of many parents, co-workers, and friends.  The consequences are serious. Read on all you singletons: don’t let the fear of being single guide your romantic life.

The fear of being single reflects an anxiety and concern that you’ll never find a romantic partner (Spielmann et al., 2013).  Helping to support this fear is the idea that people typically view love and social connection as a fundamental biologically-based need (Baumeister & Leary, 1995). Further, in American culture, not only do we promote the idea that romantic relationships are central to well-being (Baumeister & Leary, 1995), but we often stigmatize single individuals (DePaulo & Morris, 2005), falsely equating being single with failure or a personality problem. In addition, navigating our social world as a single person can lose its appeal quickly when individuals are made to feel like a “third-wheel” or to endure the maitre d asking yet again if anyone will be joining them. The fear of being single is fueled by social and cultural expectations.

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How does the fear of being single affect someone’s romantic life? The finding, keeping, or leaving of a romantic relationship requires decision making, and these decisions are not always simple.  Ideally, the choice to begin or maintain a relationship might reflect a careful weighing of responses to such questions as: Does he add joy to my life? Do we share the same goals?  Will she give as much to this relationship as I will? These factors are tied to important predictors of relationship quality and stability, such as satisfaction and commitment (Rusbult, Martz, & Agnew, 1998). While relationship quality contemplations certainly factor into relationship decisions, people also rely on heuristics and emotional reasoning to make choices (Joel, MacDonald, & Plaks, 2013). This means that the fear of being single may influence individuals’ relationship decisions.

Indeed, Spielmann and colleagues (2013) uncovered some fascinating ways in which the fear of being single affects people’s love relationships. It turns out that women who are scared of being single tend to be more dependent upon unhappy romantic relationships as compared to women who are okay with the idea of being single. Moreover, the fear of being single acts like an adhesive, keeping people in relationships that they might otherwise leave. For example, if Candice and John are together but are not very happy, Candice’s fear of being single might motivate her to persist in this unhappy relationship, rather than to initiate a break-up and be alone.

When looking for love, the fear of being single has a profound influence on the types of choices people make. On one hand, evidence suggests that men and women who fear being single report maintaining high standards for those whom they might date (Spielmann et al., 2013). But what people say and what people do can be quite different.  When asked about the dating desirability of different partner profiles, women with a strong fear of being single are quite the opposite of selective. Instead, they appear to be fairly non-discriminating, perceiving less caring and less considerate dating prospects as attractive as more responsive candidates (Spielmann et al., 2013). Further, while they might say they would date only highly attractive people, the more men or women strongly fear being single the more they tend to show romantic interest in unattractive partners.  Finally, during a speed-dating scenario, people with a stronger fear of being single indicated interest in a larger number of potential partners, which was motivated by the desire to avoid being alone.

In sum, the fear of being single can lead people to settle for less ideal romantic partners and less ideal relationships (Spielmann et al., 2013).  Such settling reveals a sad paradox: those who most closely link happiness with being in a relationship may, out of a fear of being single, reduce their ability to find happiness within a romantic relationship. 

Where does this leave us? Friends, parents, and single people themselves might reflect upon their own fears of being single and re-evaluate them.  While some people are distressed by their singlehood and others experience ambivalence about it, some people have a strong and positive sense of self and feel good about being single (Cole, 1999 as cited in Spielmann et al., 2013).  Being single can confer a desirable degree of independence and come with strong and intimate friendships and family relations (Spielmann et al., 2013). Focusing on the social connections one has, developing one’s own interests and passions, and finding joy in the opportunities that come with being single, may help people embrace the many different ways people can live happy and healthy lives.

 

Anderson, C., & Stewart, S. (1994).  Flying solo: Single women in midlife. New York: W. W. Norton.

Baumeister, R. F., & Leary, M. R. (1995). The need to belong: desire for interpersonal attachments as a fundamental human motivation. Psychological Bulletin, 117, 497-529.

DePaulo, B. M., & Morris, W. L. (2006). The unrecognized stereotyping and discrimination against singles. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 15, 251-254.

Joel, S., MacDonald, G., & Plaks, J. E. (2013). Romantic relationships conceptualized as a judgment and decision-making domain. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 22, 461-465.

Rusbult, C. E., Martz, J. M., & Agnew, C. R. (1998). The investment model scale: Measuring commitment level, satisfaction level, quality of alternatives, and investment size. Personal Relationships, 5, 357-387.

Spielmann, S. S., MacDonald, G., Maxwell, J. A., Joel, S., Peragine, D., Muise, A., & Impett, E. A. (2013). Settling for less out of fear of being single. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 105, 1049-1073.

 

Theresa DiDonato, Ph.D. is a social psychologist and assistant professor at Loyola University Maryland.

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