The Art and Psychology of Being Single
Research review and discussion of attachment-based paths to singlehood.
Posted Aug 30, 2018
"I would be married, but I'd have no wife, I would be married to a single life." —Charles Bukowski
"Single life is so overrated." —Rihanna
The Art of Being Single
Singlehood is on the rise. According to U.S. Census Bureau data (as reported in the study reviewed below), between 1970 and 2010, rates of being single rose from 28 percent to 44 percent. The reasons for this are unclear. Are people having more difficulty partnering successfully? Are more people finding satisfying lifestyles remaining single? Are cultural and societal changes, related to economics, gender, and sexuality, for example, making it more likely for people to be single? Is the reality of long-term partnership approaching a singularity of radical transformation?
The Shifting Stigma of Being Single
Although views are evolving, being single is still stigmatized. From the stereotypical “When are you going to settle down and get married?” and “When are you going to make me a grandmother?” to cultural assumptions that a monogamous, long-term relationship is the path everyone should follow, to the judgments of one's family and peers, to the easier prospect of having children if partnered, often with the assumption that everyone ought to want to have children, to research on couples suggesting that strong relationships are associated with increased health for the individuals involved — the message is clear. Being partnered is generally seen as better than being single, and those who are single are often viewed with suspicion, especially if they say it is on purpose. Critique from others can make personal insecurities even worse, adding fuel to the fire.
Yet who chooses to be single and is most satisfied with that choice, and who is single while longing for and suffering without a relationship?
Because research on the causes of singlehood is incomplete, and more work has been done on partnered, long-term relationships, both in terms of factors contributing to partner choice, the elements of satisfying relationships, and approaches to improving relationship satisfaction, it is unclear what is the real story with singlehood.
To begin to fill this gap, researchers reviewed the literature on singlehood with a focus on attachment theory, proposing three pathways to being single (Pepping et al., 2018). The literature, they report, identifies two basic considerations: chosen, or voluntary, singlehood; and constrained, or involuntary, singlehood.
Attachment style is an important factor contributing to constrained singlehood. Across many research studies, insecure attachment is associated with greater odds of being single, or if partnered, of being in unsatisfying relationships. And, not surprisingly, people who report troubled relationships with their parents tend to have more difficulty in adult relationships.
Along related lines, secure attachment is associated with a greater chance of being partnered, and if partnered, of enjoying a satisfying relationship. Taking it a step further, they report that anxious attachment and avoidant attachment predispose people to singlehood via different paths than does secure attachment. Accordingly, the third model they discuss is singlehood stemming from secure attachment, a conscious choice. This is the least understood, least researched, and least established form of singlehood.
Attachment Style: Deactivation and Hyperactivation
The attachment system is an innate neurobiological system which drives the need for belonging and closeness common in human beings (and many other mammals). Those with avoidant attachment are generally seen as having suppressed attachment-based activity, responding to intimacy as something which requires a deactivation of the attachment system. Those with anxious attachment are viewed as responding to the possibility of intimacy with a hyperactivation of the attachment system. There are mental and behavioral patterns going along with both anxious and avoidant attachment, summarized in the table below. Secure singlehood does not involve problematic attachment, representing an autonomous and deliberate choice to live without a long-term, romantic relationship.
Three Models for Singlehood
Anxious and activated
For people seeking intimacy in long-term relationships, an anxious, preoccupied attachment style presents challenges. Due to a hyperactivation of the attachment system, as anxiously attached people become more intimate with others, a variety of feelings, thoughts, and behaviors become over-activated, interfering with the intimacy they seek. In relationships, this attachment style is associated with heightened anxieties, worried thoughts, mistrust, and preoccupations which tend, paradoxically, to drive others away.
These individuals experience fear of rejection, an increased tendency to become jealous due to expectations of being abandoned, and challenges in communicating and dealing with conflict effectively. Research also suggests that people with an anxious attachment style remain too connected with past romantic partners, making them less available in their current relationships.
Anxious attachment leads to a tendency to jump into relationships, becoming sexually intimate before emotional intimacy develops, potentially leading to bonding with an incompatible partner. Such factors are associated with unstable long-term relationships, leading to greater chances of remaining and/or becoming single.
Here's how the anxiously avoidant model of singlehood looks:
Avoidant, with one foot out the door
People with an avoidant attachment style manage feelings of vulnerability associated with interpersonal closeness by maintaining their distance from others via a range of behaviors, feelings, and thoughts, which help to decrease the activation of the attachment system. This varies depending on whether they show dismissive versus fearful avoidance. Avoidant attachment style may be associated with a reduced need for intimacy or may prevent awareness of the need for intimacy. In either case, the basic assumption folks with an avoidant attachment style make is that relationships will end in pain and failure.
Given such adverse expectations, it makes sense from the avoidant point of view to steer clear of relationships, diminishing the activation of the unpleasant reactions associated with intimacy. As a result, people with an avoidant attachment style tend to be aloof, emotionally flat, and less affectionate. People with an avoidant attachment style tend to share less of themselves, leading relationships to wither on the vine as closeness fails to develop the way one would hope and expect it to in a healthy relationship. Unlike anxious attachment, where people may jump right into the next relationship before the smoke has cleared after the last relationship ended, people with an avoidant attachment style tend to be gun-shy and end up staying away from new relationships.
Misguided self-reliance may lead avoidantly attached people to engage in more frequent uncommitted sex and masturbation, further leading to increased chances of remaining single, or if in relationships, a lower likelihood that those relationships will work out as sexual energy is shunted away from the relationship.
The self-fulfilling prophecy of avoidant attachment is that the behaviors and attitudes geared for protection against pain and loss create the circumstances under which those same experiences are more likely to occur, while keeping recognition of this pattern out of awareness.
Here's what the model of singlehood looks like in avoidant attachment:
Single, secure, and satisfied
Finally, Pepping and colleagues identify a third pathway to being single, noting that “long-term singlehood may not reflect difficulties in relationships but may instead be a secure personal choice whereby attachment needs are met in relationships other than romantic pair-bonds.” Relational needs are met in non-romantic relationships, and both research and clinical experience back up the notion that people can be, and are, both single and satisfied. Sexual needs, when present, are met outside of long-term, monogamous relationships.
As with other needs, sexual behaviors are satisfying and consistent with a secure attachment style in that they are part of stable pattern of relationships with oneself and others. People may choose to remain single for various reasons, personal and professional, spiritual and religious, out of preference for solitude, and/or reduced needs for the regular company of a specific romantic partner.
Securely single people chose to do so with eyes wide open, and not out of insecure attachment, unresolved childhood trauma, or connected difficulties in their relationships with their parents growing up.
It's important to recognize why one is single, whether being single is a choice or arises from unconscious factors (and if so what those factors are likely to be), to what extent social influence plays a role in relationship status, and, if partnered, whether one is genuinely interested in being in a relationship. As stigma about singlehood decreases, more people will end up being single, more people will choose being single out of a secure attachment style, and (hopefully) fewer people will be partnered or single for the wrong reasons. Models of secure singlehood will become more defined socially, better understood psychologically, and happy single people will be able to live openly, without having to deal with bias.
Other paths to singlehood may exist, as well. Two possibilities come to mind, variations on the attachment theme. First, disorganized attachment is likely to predispose one to be single, combining anxious and avoidant components along with factors unique to disorganized attachment, including an unstable, fragmented, and/or empty sense of self, as well as more pronounced problematic interpersonal and self-regulatory behaviors which make it difficult for others to stay in relationships with them.
The other possibility, following on the psycho-therapeutic concept of "earned secure attachment" would include people who, through personal development work (psychotherapy or otherwise), have shifted from an insecure attachment style to a secure attachment style. While factors present with insecure attachment influence the choice to be single, childhood developmental issues would be part of an intentional decision-making process, rather than working behind the scenes to undermine desired relationships. Someone with this pattern of singlehood might have come to terms with being single, and worked to develop fulfilling compensatory mechanisms if, for example, the benefit of staying in a long-term romantic relationship is not worth the cost.
As a parting thought, might we consider people who are technically partnered but romantically disengaged to be single, too? Such relationships have been characterized as "distressed" rather than "satisfied," and oftentimes partners find co-parenting the best source of being together. Yet at the same time, if they do not have relationships outside of their marriage, and if they do not engage in sexual and/or emotional infidelity, they may experience loneliness, personal dissatisfaction, physical health problems, and mental health strain, which can lead to depression or worse.
On the other hand, being a "partnered single" could also be a secure and satisfying solution to many of the issues which being solely single may create, determining to what extent this would be a compromise (e.g., to conform to norms, versus a more individualistic choice).
Please send me any questions, topics or themes you'd like me to possibly address in future blogs via my PT bio page.
Pepping CA, MacDonald G & Davis PJ. Toward a Psychology of Singlehood: An Attachment-Theory Perspective on Long-Term Singlehood. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 1-8, August 23, 2018.
Schachner, D. A., Shaver, P. R., & Gillath, O. (2008). Attachment style and long-term singlehood. Personal Relationships, 15, 479–491.