- "Dysphoric singlehood" captures the emotions of those who do not want to be excluded from relationships.
- It shifts the focus away from derogatory cultural labels, such as "incel," and toward subjective experience.
- Broadening our approach to unwanted singlehood helps us investigate when it becomes a source of suffering.
I would like to introduce a new concept useful for understanding the suffering that may occur outside of relationships: "dysphoric singlehood." This is not a psychiatric condition that appears in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), but I do think the concept serves a purpose in capturing the negative emotions felt by those who feel excluded from sex and relationships. Further, I hope the idea encourages a level of analysis that doesn’t rely on short-lived cultural labels and helps draw attention to neglected sub-types of suffering within singlehood.
The definition of "dysphoria" depends on the dictionary you read or the expert you consult. Generally speaking, it's characterised by a profound state of unhappiness, uneasiness, and discontent. Dysphoria often accompanies psychiatric conditions like depression, anxiety, and maladaptive coping strategies such as substance abuse disorder, but not always. For our purposes, it acts as a useful descriptor of negative emotional experiences.
When applied as an adjective to singlehood, it reflects the fact that, for some people, being unwantedly single causes a host of intense negative emotions from anger and bitterness to hopelessness and self-loathing.
Capturing the state of mind and suffering
We already have labels for those who suffer from being single and feel isolated in some way. "Involuntary celibate," or "incel," is probably one of the most widely known. It’s a term used by a group of men who build their identity around being excluded from the mating market. Our research has shown that incels have worse mental health than non-incel single men and, if you can look past their sometimes antagonistic and misogynistic rhetoric, you’ll find a community brought together by their shared dysphoria.
But labels associated with unwanted singlehood status aren’t unique to incels, or even men. For example, "femcel" (the female equivalent of incel) has quickly become a popular, hotly debated label. Before that, you can find the use of labels to both describe and demonise those who are single for an extended period—such as spinster in Western countries and sheng nu (leftover ladies) in China.
Dysphoric singlehood shifts the focus away from labels with implicit derogatory meanings and relatively new terms that fail to capture the emotions behind the status. It places the focus on the subjective experience of those who are single and suffering.
Culture changes but the problem doesn’t
Incels didn't exist 50 years ago and won’t exist 50 years from now. That’s because incel culture is constantly changing—from the Red Pill perspective, the hopeless Black Pill and the stoic White Pill were born. And in just a few decades, the terms young men will use to describe their thoughts and feelings of exclusion will differ tremendously from those used now.
Consequently, research on the incel community that focuses on specific terminology and ideas investigates only a brief snapshot of a quickly evolving culture, and conclusions drawn from it will have a short half-life. Look just behind the cultural artefacts, however, and we see reactions to an enduring, evolutionarily relevant problem that has existed for hundreds of thousands of years.
From an evolutionary perspective, reproduction is key. Every human alive represents an unbroken ancestral chain of successful reproduction, and the desire to add new links to that chain is driven by an evolved mating psychology that compels us to seek sex and intimate relationships, and to avoid becoming evolutionary dead-ends.
In the same way, as fear demands that we avoid danger, and pain forces us to nurse an injury, the host of negative emotions associated with certain types of singlehood alert us to the fact that our genetic legacy is in peril and tries to motivate change through suffering. Evolution is kind to the genes, but not necessarily their host.
To acknowledge dysphoric singlehood is to acknowledge the ultimate functioning of uncomfortable feelings and negative emotions that are born from certain types of singlehood—an adaptive reaction to an enduring reproductive problem.
Broadening the scope
Of course, many people choose to be single because they find it pleasurable, positive, and fulfilling—more euphoric than dysphoric. But for those who don't, broadening our approach to unwanted singlehood also encourages us to expand our investigation of why and when singlehood can become a source of suffering.
For the incel community, dysphoric singlehood comes from a complete absence of sex and meaningful romantic relationships. In other groups, it might be driven by the inability to transition from short-term relationships into long-term ones and the feelings of exacerbation, bitterness, and low self-worth that accompany being used for one-night stands and nothing more.
It also extends to widows, who may suffer in their singlehood, not because they can't attract a new partner, but because they don't want to leave one behind. And single parents who put their love life on hold out of fears of unsuccessfully integrating a new long-term partner into the household might be left with negative feelings about this decision.
Dysphoric singlehood might even extend to time-lagged effects of earlier decisions. More and more people are opting to be single through choice, biding their time in the hopes of attracting the best partner possible. This choice might feel fine in the moment, but it could cause suffering later, as people deal with the realities of waiting too long—such as limited opportunities to start a family.
Research is key to diffusing singlehood dysphoria
For a long time, epidemiological research has shown that, compared to married individuals, singles have worse health and mental health outcomes on average, and recent research on the incel community confirms that this is particularly the case among those who feel hopeless about this ability to find love and intimacy. If there truly is a singlehood epidemic, then psychologists, educators, health professionals, and policy-makers should be prepared for the effects of this.
Sadly, most research on personal relationships focuses on those already established—investigating their form and function and trying to predict their trajectories. It could be argued, of course, that this research is valuable as it could help make relationships healthier and prevent breakups that could lead to dysphoric singlehood. But this is only part of the story and has limited benefits for those already experiencing it. More research on pathways away from dysphoric singlehood might provide a route to improved relationship prospects and mental health in a growing population of singles.
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Costello, W., Rolon, V., Thomas, A. G., & Schmitt, D. (2022). Levels of well-being among men who are incel (Involuntarily Celibate). Evolutionary Psychological Science, 8(4), 375-390.