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The Pain of Being Excluded Because You’re Single

Even minimal forms of neglect can hurt.

Key points

  • Many single people report being socially excluded by friends who are coupled.
  • A couple's reasons for excluding their single friends may include feelings of superiority or being enmeshed with each other.
  • Studies show that the most minimal forms of exclusion can feel devastating.

There's a topic I've addressed here before that keeps coming up again and again. Just in the past day or two, I've heard from several readers about it. A single man, for example, writes that he used to be part of a close group of single friends. Now, though, the others have become coupled and hang out together as couples; he's no longer invited. He asks, "Are other single folk experiencing this kind of exclusion? And if so what are they doing to keep their friends? I feel like a pariah. Please help. It's getting depressing losing contact like this."

Another reader, M, described how lonely it feels to be a single person among couples (during those times when she is included) and wonders whether any Living Single readers can explain that feeling (and also, I would add, how to get beyond it).

I, too, have experienced the pain of exclusion by friends who were, or became, coupled. In fact, wondering whether I was being left out because I was single motivated some of my initial interest in studying single life.

By now, I see those practices (of socializing only with other couples and neglecting single friends) as more a reflection on the practitioners than on me. At least some of those people, I suspect, really do believe that their coupled status makes them superior to single people and that socializing just with couples is more prestigious than spending time with the people you like the most, regardless of their relationship status.

Often I find that the key distinction is not whether another person is or is not coupled, but whether the coupled person enjoys having a life that is not entirely enmeshed with their partner's. I always like spending some one-on-one time with each of my friends, but if a friend is partnered with someone I like, I might also enjoy some time with the friend and the partner.

When I post about this topic, a lively debate almost always ensues. Who is ditching whom? Is the trimming of friendship circles reasonable or mean? I would love to see some rigorous research done on the topic.

Research on ostracism

There is a related topic, though, that is one of the liveliest and most important areas of research in social psychology today. That's the study of ostracism and social exclusion. The field got kicked into high gear when early studies showed that the most minimal forms of exclusion could feel devastating. In one paradigm, for instance, people play catch in cyberspace. No one can see or identify anyone else. Three people begin tossing a cyber-ball around, Person A to Person B to Person C, until, inexplicably, B and C begin tossing only to each other. How does A react? There is now a whole stack of studies addressing that question.

In a review chapter, Kip Williams said that

"Clearly, even for very brief episodes that have minimal mundane realism, ostracism plunges individuals into a temporary state of abject misery, sending signals of pain, increasing stress, threatening fundamental needs, and causing sadness and anger."

The evidence also suggests that such minimal ostracism could result in the excluded person

"becoming socially susceptible to influence and social attention [and becoming] antisocial and hostile."

As is true in all social psychological research, not everyone responds the same way or with the same intensity. Still, I think there is an interesting implication: If you find interpersonal exclusion to be deeply painful, that doesn't necessarily mean that you are overly sensitive. Ostracism—even minimal forms of it—typically is unnerving.

Now consider the kinds of interpersonal exclusions we have been discussing here. The persons doing the excluding are not impersonal avatars in cyberspace—they are people you have known, maybe for years. People you have considered to be your friends. Of course, it hurts.

OK, then, let the debate begin still again. And let me stipulate, once again, that definitive research on the dynamics of interactions between singles and couples remains to be done.

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