No Attachment Issues Among Single People (Part II): How to Make Even Good Findings Sound Bad

Good findings about singles described as bad: Attachment example

Posted Jan 09, 2009

Or, how to make lemons out of lemonade.

In my last post, I described the results of a recently published study showing that long-term single people are not any more likely than coupled people to have issues with attachment. They are not more anxious about rejection or more avoidant of intimacy, and they have no fewer people in their lives who serve as safe havens and sources of support in times of duress. (For more about attachment theory, see this recent post by fellow PT blogger, Jay Belsky.)

I also said that the authors seemed to be resisting their own singles-friendly findings throughout their article, and promised to say more about that in this post.

I'm using my analysis of this particular article as an example of a bigger point about what is still happening in academic psychology, and of course, well beyond the gates of academe. Even among very smart and accomplished people (and one of the authors of the article is a leading researcher and theorist in the study of adult attachment), unwitting singlism runs rampant. We as a society simply have little practice thinking about single people as anything but flawed. I don't think that these researchers (or the many others who talk about singles in similar ways) mean to exclude positive perspectives on singles - my guess is that those ways of thinking just don't occur to them.

Think about the examples in this post as practice in decoding the puzzles of singlism. I hope that what you will get out of reading it is not just the aha! experience of seeing a solution but also a broadened way of thinking that carries over to new examples you notice in your own lives.

I'm offering my debunking of this article as an emotional and intellectual inoculation. Maybe the next time you are faced with singlism, you can recognize it for what it is - not a true statement of what's "wrong" with you as a single person, but a reflection of what the practitioners of singlism have not yet figured out.

How the Authors Fought Their Own Findings, as Rendered in a Series of Tongue-in-Cheek Paraphrases

My Playful Paraphrase #1.
Let's Start by Stipulating That Single People Can't Possibly Do Better Than Coupled People

When, in the beginning of their article, the authors spell out their expectations for how their results might turn out, they come up with three possible hypotheses: (1) single people are more avoidant in their attachment styles than coupled people are; (2) single people are more anxious in their attachments than coupled people are, maybe because "they have been rejected by relationship partners who would not accept their anxiety, clinginess, and intrusiveness;" and (3) single and coupled people are similar in their attachment experiences.

Recognize that it is a step forward for the authors to concede that maybe the singles will not look worse than the coupled people. But also notice what is missing. There is no acknowledgment whatsoever that single people could have more secure attachment styles than coupled people.

The results showed that attachment was the same for the singles and the couples; I'm not arguing with that. But when scientists generate hypotheses, they should be open to many possibilities. Maybe, for instance, singles would be more secure because they don't place all of their relationship eggs into the one soul-mate basket. Maybe their attachments are to friends, and there are fewer anxiety-creating jealousies in friendships. I'm not saying that's so - I'm saying that scientists are supposed to have open minds and at least consider the possibilities.

Also notice the implication that only single people, and not anyone currently coupled, could have had the experience of having been "rejected by relationship partners who would not accept their anxiety, clinginess, and intrusiveness." Because, you know, only single people are ever clingy.

My Playful Paraphrase #2.
Let's Treat Singlehood as a Disease

The authors' main question was whether single and coupled people differed in their attachment styles. But that was just part of their framework. They had a whole childhood-to-singlehood model worked out. First, they thought the single people would describe more screwed-up childhood relationships with their parents. Single people's messed-up childhoods would then result in insecure attachments (or maybe no adult attachment figures at all). Those insecure or missing attachments would then result in a life of long-term singlehood.

This strikes me as a disease model of singlehood. The authors are trying to explain singlehood in terms of what got screwed up in single people's lives. Of course, that falls apart when the key link just isn't there - singles do not have attachment issues.

My Playful Paraphrase #3.
Here Are Some Other Things Wrong with Single People. Let's Take Them Seriously Even Though They Do Not Explain What They Were Supposed to - and, Oh, Let's Ignore Other Studies with Different Findings

Because the authors expected single people to have screwed-up childhoods, they asked their participants about their childhoods. They also looked at other bad things that might be ascribed to single people, such as loneliness, depression, general anxiety (different from attachment anxiety), and sexual dissatisfaction. In the abstract (summary) of their article, they claim to have found that, sure enough, all of these things are more of a problem for single people than for coupled people.

I have two responses to this. (A) Really? Are you sure about that? And (B), Okay, so suppose you are right that singles are screwed up in all these ways. Then how come they are just fine when it comes to attachment?

(A) All those bad things about single people: Are they really true?

Let's start with the "troubled childhood" hypothesis. The authors included 9 measures of the participants' retrospective reports of their relationships with their mothers and fathers. (Actually, there were 11, but they only report the results of 9 of them.) On 7 of the 9 measures, the single and coupled participants score about the same. On the other two, the single people report more negative experiences.

I could say about this finding - as well as the main finding of no differences between singles and couples in attachment issues - that the sample was unrepresentative (the singles were recruited by newspaper ads and the couples were recommended by the singles) and so we need to be cautious. That's true, and 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.

I'm giving the authors a pass on that problem because (so far as I know) this is the first study of childhood experiences of single and coupled people, so even a flawed study adds something important to our knowledge base. Plus, it is quite a challenge to try to get a large representative sample of single and coupled people, or to study people over time as they become coupled. (The report of another study showing no differences in attachment between single and married people, mentioned in my previous post, adds a bit more credence to the attachment results of this study, but we still need to learn more.)

With regard to loneliness or depression or sexual satisfaction, though, the state of the literature is entirely different. For example, the authors noted that the singles in their convenience sample reported greater depression than the coupled people, but they do not mention these results from a longitudinal study out of Stanford: "Depression during adolescence was found to predict higher rates of marriage among younger women and subsequent marital dissatisfaction."

The authors reported that the singles in their convenience sample reporter less sexual satisfaction than the coupled people. But they did not mention the results of a nationally representative sample, in which the findings were not at all as straightforward as "married = sexually satisfied; single = sexually dissatisfied." (See Chapter 2 of Singled Out for an account of what the findings really did show.)

After reading in the abstract that the singles were lonelier than the coupled people, I was surprised to find in the results section that on the standardized measure of loneliness, the UCLA Loneliness Scale, there was actually no significant difference between the singles and the couples. What's that about? In the face-to-face interviews, single people said the word "lonely" more often than coupled people did. I think that's why the authors declared them lonelier, even though the standardized instrument demurred.

I wonder whether the authors are familiar with studies showing extraordinarily low levels of loneliness among lifelong single women, at a time when they are expected to be most lonely - in later life (also described in Singled Out). They don't mention those studies.

(B) Suppose singles really are screwed up in all those ways. Then why are they doing just fine when it comes to attachment?

The main point of the study was to examine differences in attachment between single and coupled people. There were none. The other variables were supposed to help explain the process.

The authors did find, for example, that people who were more depressed (whether single or coupled) were more anxious about attachments. They also found that in their convenience sample, the singles were more depressed than the coupled people. So doesn't that raise another question: So why didn't the single people have more attachment issues than the coupled people?

Here's one possibility: Maybe in their quest to document a sequence of sad and bad life experiences resulting in a long-term single status, the authors neglected to consider or measure what might be good and meaningful and rewarding in the lives of people who are single. What are their passions? What do they care about? If you only look for bad things, that's all you are going to find.

Here's another possibility: The authors seemed to assume that the couples would do better on attachment because they were coupled and the singles were not. But maybe this "sugar and spice and everything nice" view of couples and their attachment styles was overly optimistic. Why not hypothesize that some coupled people cling to their partners because they are insecure, and that some single people are secure enough not to cave to the pressure to couple when they are perfectly happy with their single lives? I'm just asking.

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.

My Playful Paraphrase #4.
Sure, Our Study Says Nothing about Causality, But That's Just an Aside

When studies show that currently married people are less lonely or depressed or happier than currently single people, readers and journalists (and sometimes the researchers themselves) sometimes jump to the conclusion that the married people look better because they are married, and that if the single people would marry, then they would live happily ever after, too. As I've explained in previous posts (and in Chapter 2 of Singled Out), that's totally bogus. People who got married, hated it, and then divorced, are not included in the currently married group. You can't say that getting married makes people less lonely or depressed (or anything else) if you don't count all the people who got married and did not get any less lonely or depressed. That's just cheating.

The attachment hypothesis in the study I've been describing is different. There, attachment (and childhood experiences) are used to explain how people end up single. The ideal study, methodologically, is one that cannot be conducted: Randomly assign newborns to good or bad childhood experiences, then see if that predicts who ends up single or coupled. Short of that, longitudinal research (following lives over time) is the next best thing.

The authors acknowledge the causality issue in the last point of the last section of their paper, almost as an aside. But it is not an aside. It is critical. (I would say this even if all of the results had favored the single people; science first.)

My Playful Paraphrase #5.
How's This Suggestion for Future Research: Find Something Bad about Single People

Journal articles in psychology almost always include suggestions for further research. Think about this paragraph from the authors:

"Future studies should more directly examine the determinants of long-term singlehood because adult attachment measures did not indicate that a particular form of insecurity is largely responsible (although this may be due to the reluctance of extremely avoidant people to get involved in our study, which required self-selection rather than random sampling among all adults). The hints in the data that single people experienced more troubled childhood relationships with parents compared to coupled people suggest that some aspect of relationships with parents might be partially responsible for long-term singlehood in later life." They then go on to add that insights from future research "should prove useful for clinical work with single adults and for those adults' own self-understanding."

The authors wanted to know what was responsible for long-term singlehood. They guessed it was insecurity. It wasn't.

Now what? Now they try to salvage their insecurity hypothesis by suggesting that maybe the really screwed up single people did not sign up for their study. If they had, then single people would in fact have had insecure attachments, just like they expected.

It is fine for the authors to offer such a speculation, except for one thing: They do not apply the same standards to the coupled people. Apparently, it never occurred to them that maybe the really screwed up coupled people did not sign up for their study. This is not an even-handed inquiry. It is a "let's see if we can find something wrong with single people" study. (And still, singles' attachment looks just fine.)

Next, the authors move on to the "troubled childhood" hypothesis. See the previous sections for my comments on that.

My Playful Paraphrase #6.
Note to Single People - Get Help!

About those insights needed for "clinical work with single adults": I don't think anyone should be reluctant to get into therapy. Still, in a study in which single and coupled people were statistically indistinguishable in their attachments, why are the authors talking only about help for single people and not couples?

My Playful Paraphrase #7.
Bella's Book on Singles is Just a Bunch of Smiley-Faced Opinions

I admit my bias about this point. (I couldn't hide it if I wanted to.) I don't like the way the authors refer to my book, Singled Out. When they find something supposedly negative about single people, they say that their finding is "contrary to the tone" of my book. They refer to my "suggestions," but nowhere do they indicate that my book is based on data. I realize that many of the readers of this "Living Single" blog have read Singled Out, so you know what I'm saying. For others: Especially in chapter 2 (but also elsewhere), I describe studies of the implications of marital status, and explain in some detail what can and cannot be concluded from them. (The authors also belittle the importance of the prejudice and discrimination faced by single people - a topic I've addressed in other posts here.)

My Playful Paraphrase #8.
We Found that Singles Have Attachments; Now Let's Pretend They Don't

Here are two sentences from the article. See if you can pick out the one word that suggests that the authors are fighting their own findings. (This may be too easy for "Living Single" readers but none of the authors or reviewers caught it.)

"as people pass through adolescence and enter early adulthood, many transfer their primary sense of attachment from parents to romantic or marital partners. But not everyone does this (and many who do later find themselves alone after a romantic relationship breakup, a divorce, or the loss of a partner to death)."

The word, of course, is "alone." The authors have shown in their very own study that single people are not alone. They are securely attached to friends, siblings, and others. But in the matrimaniacal world of contemporary relationship research, anyone who does not have a romantic partner is, by definition, alone.

Final Word

The authors expected to find something damning about long-term single people - that they have issues with attachment. Instead, they found no differences at all between the attachment styles of single and coupled people. Still, they never seriously entertained the possibility that their original model was wrong, and that perhaps for many people, living single is a meaningful, productive, healthy experience, filled with secure attachments to the important people in their lives.

It is not just the three authors of the article in question who seemed smitten by singlism and matrimania. Papers in peer-reviewed journals undergo rigorous assessment, typically by the journal editor and two or more additional scholars. The disease model of singlehood made it through all of those layers of scrutiny.

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