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Why So Many Struggle to Find and Keep a Partner

The involuntarily single may lack key relationship skills.

Key points

  • Almost half of people struggle starting relationships.
  • The mating skills that humans have acquired through evolution may not work in modern times.
  • New research surveyed 14 countries and found considerable deficits in mating performance.
  • Deficits in mating performance are related to singlehood, specifically being involuntarily single.
Source: SyrotkinStudio/Shutterstock

Is it easy for you to start a romantic relationship? Once in a relationship, is it easy for you to hold on to it? Perhaps you have a strong set of relationship skills, but for some people, entering and keeping a romantic relationship feels like an unattainable goal. If you feel mystified by the dating game, or if you want a romantic partner but can't seem to find and keep one, new research suggests you're among a surprisingly large group (Apostolou et al., 2023).

Modern Society May Impede Relationship Skills

The term mating performance refers to the ability to find and secure a partner (Apostolou et al., 2023). From an evolutionary perspective, these relationship skills seem like they should be universal: After all, our species' survival depends upon our general success at mating performance, suggesting that such skill would be a highly selected-for trait. Our ancestors who successfully attracted a partner and secured sexual access were the ones to pass along their genes. Further, those who had skills at maintaining a co-parenting relationship enhanced the possibility that any offspring survive into adulthood (when they can pass along their genes). Thus, the relationship skills that define mating performance seem like they should be nearly universal.

The problem, as discussed in a paper by Apostolou and colleagues (2023), is that evolution may have built mating performance into the human brain, but modern society is quite different from the way our ancestors lived, generation upon generation, while our brains were evolving. So, adaptations that might have worked for our ancestors may not work well in contemporary society. If this is true, then we would see people struggling with relationship forming and building, despite the key role of these skills in reproduction. This mating performance deficit might be reflected in modern-day singlehood.

For Many, Low Mating Performance Is a Reality

In an impressive cross-cultural study, Apostolou and colleagues (2023) asked over 7000 individuals from 14 different countries a set of mate-performance questions (as part of a larger study). These questions had been validated in prior research to correspond with qualities that move people toward success in obtaining a romantic partner—behaviors like skills in flirting and emotional intelligence (Apostolou, Papadopoulou, et al., 2019; Apostolou, Paphiti, et al., 2019). Among the questions asked were also details about relationship status, including, when applicable, whether participants' singlehood is voluntary or involuntary.

Results show that forming and maintaining a relationship is not easy for a surprisingly large portion of the population (Apostolou et al., 2023). In fact, about half of the participants (48 percent) confessed that initiating a relationship is challenging for them. Further, once in a relationship, over 30 percent of people said they found it difficult or don't do well in these relationships. Taking a different look at the data, the researchers determined that 1 out of every 4 people report problems in mate performance. Further, finding a partner is harder than keeping one (Apostolou et al., 2023).

Singles Suffer From Skill Deficits, but Not Always

About 13 percent of the sample reported involuntary singlehood, meaning they would rather be in a relationship than alone, and 15 percent reported being voluntarily single (Apostolou et al., 2023). In general, findings indicated that poor mating performance was associated with singlehood. One point higher in mate performance predicted a 254 percent increase in the likelihood that a person would be in a relationship as compared to being involuntarily single. That's substantial. Indeed, poor mating performance was especially predictive of involuntary singlehood, highlighting the important distinction of desiring, or not desiring, to be single.

Critically, however, there's variation in the link between relationship skill and relationship status: Some people in relationships reported low mate performance and some single people reported strong mating skills. Plus, despite the commonality of poor mating performance, most people reported being in a relationship or married (Apostolou et al., 2023). This suggests that subjective judgments of poor skill often, but not always, translate into involuntary singlehood. Alternatively, it could be that people's skill levels change over time. In the current study, being younger was associated with poorer mating performance (Apostolou et al., 2023). Perhaps, with age, people acquire ways to adjust for some of their challenges with relationships. This gives hope in our current mismatch between what evolution has prepared us for, and how our modern world approaches dating.

Facebook image: Diego Cervo/Shutterstock


Apostolou, M., Sullman, M., Birkás, B., Błachnio, A., Bushina, E., Calvo, F., ... & Font-Mayolas, S. (2023). Mating Performance and Singlehood Across 14 Nations. Evolutionary Psychology, 21(1), 14747049221150169.

Apostolou, M., Papadopoulou, I., Christofi, M., & Vrontis, D. (2019). Mating performance: Assessing flirting skills, mate signal-detection ability, and shyness effects. Evolutionary Psychology, 17(3), 1474704919872416.

Apostolou, M., Paphiti, C., Neza, E., Damianou, M., & Georgiadou, P. (2019). Mating performance: exploring emotional intelligence, the dark triad, jealousy and attachment effects. Journal of Relationships Research, 10, e1.

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