Pining for Romance? People Who Aren't Are Doing Better

Yearning for a romantic relationship has its downsides, research suggests.

Posted Mar 23, 2019

Dean Drobot/Shutterstock
Source: Dean Drobot/Shutterstock

If you are a young adult in the U.S. and you don’t have a steady romantic partner, you are in the majority. As of 2018, 51 percent of people 18-34 years old did not have such a partner, a huge increase from 2004, when just 33 percent did not.

From the relentlessness with which romantic relationships are valued and celebrated, often in over-the-top ways (I call that “matrimania”), you might think that what all single people crave, more than anything else, is getting coupled. In fact, that’s just a myth, and I mocked it in Singled Out.

Social scientists, though, have to slow to understand this. When they study single people, they rarely try to find out whether the singles in their studies want to be single or are pining for a romantic relationship. As it turns out, that matters.

In a study published in the journal Emerging Adulthood in 2018, Jonathon J. Beckmeyer and Shannon Cromwell recruited 744 young adults, ages 18-29, who were not married, to participate in an Internet study titled “Emerging adults’ romantic experiences and health.” The researchers wanted to know how young adults who really wanted to be in a romantic relationship compared to those who didn’t much care about that. They also included young adults who were in a romantic relationship. They assessed each person’s depression, loneliness, and life satisfaction.

To find out how much the participants without romantic partners cared about having such a partner, the researchers asked them to choose from one of three answers to a question about wanting to be in a romantic relationship:

  • “No, I don’t care much about being in a romantic relationship.”
  • “I would like to be in a romantic relationship, but it’s not that important to me right now.”
  • “Yes, I would really like to be in a romantic relationship right now.”

How Many Young, Single Adults Really Want to Be in a Romantic Relationship?

I think that the distribution of answers to the question of wanting to be in a romantic relationship is itself interesting, even though it would have to be interpreted with caution. The 744 participants are not a representative national sample (they opted into an online study), and the title of the study, which mentioned romantic experiences, may have biased the kinds of people who would sign up for it.

With that in mind, here’s what the researchers found:

  • Not interested: 18 percent said no, they were not interested in being in a romantic relationship.
  • Maybe later: 49 percent said they were interested, but it wasn’t that important at the moment.
  • Pining for romance: 33 percent said they would really like to be in a romantic relationship right now.

Look at that: Only 1 in 3 young adults who are not currently in a romantic relationship said that they would really like to be in such a relationship right now. Nearly 1 in 5 said they just weren’t interested.

Unfortunately, the researchers considered the uninterested people to be too small a group to analyze separately, so they threw them in with the group I call “maybe later.” The members of the combined group were the single people who were not very interested in being in a romantic relationship.

Yearning to Be in a Romantic Relationship: Is It Linked to Depression, Loneliness, or Life Satisfaction?

Of the young adults who were not already in a romantic relationship, those who just weren’t all that interested in being in one were doing better than those who were pining for a romantic partner. They were less likely to be depressed and less likely to be lonely. (The two groups did not differ in their life satisfaction.)

The young adults who were already in a romantic relationship did better than those who were pining for a romantic relationship in every way. They were less depressed, less likely to be lonely, and more satisfied with their lives. In their depressive symptoms, they were no different from the young adults who did not care much about being in a romantic relationship. They were less likely to be lonely and more satisfied with their lives, though.

What Do the Results Mean?

I’ve often critiqued marriage studies that compare currently married people to single people at one point in time. If the two groups differ, we can never know for sure if they differ because one group got married, and the other didn’t, or for some other reason. (For example, if the currently married people are happier, we can’t know whether they were already happier before they married, and marriage had nothing to do with it; or whether they are happier, because they get many benefits and protections that single people do not get; or whether the married people look happier, because the people who got married hated it, got divorced, and were removed from the marriage group in what I call that the cheater technique.)

The current study suffers from the same problems. We can’t know for sure whether the single people who are uninterested in romance are doing better than those who are pining for romance, because of their desires. And we cannot know whether the people currently in romantic relationships are doing better in some ways, because they are in a romantic relationship.

But suppose someone's romantic relationship status and interest in being in a romantic relationship are factors that really do matter. Why would that be?

In discussing the results for the young adults who do have romantic partners, the researchers make the usual claims. Romantically coupled people, the authors proclaim, have “social support and companionship,” and, by implication, young adults without romantic partners do not. That, of course, is ridiculous. There are probably more young adults who have friends than romantic partners, and friends can be great sources of social support and companionship.

The researchers also suggest that “emerging adults in romantic relationships may perceive they have accomplished an important life task, resulting in greater life satisfaction.” That’s better. It would have been better still if the researchers recognized that romantically involved young adults are benefiting from a matrimonial culture that values and celebrates romantic relationships, while paying far less tribute to other kinds of relationships or to major life accomplishments, such as getting an education, landing a fulfilling job, or developing artistic, athletic, or literary skills.

As for the single people who don’t care about being in a romantic relationship, the authors believe they are doing better than those who really want to be in a romantic relationship, because “being single may be aligned with their current life goals.” More straightforwardly, single people who want to be single are getting what they want, whereas single people pining for romance are not. I’d give the former extra credit for staving off depression and loneliness when cultural attitudes toward them conspire to make that difficult. From other research, we know that single people who want to be single are judged more harshly than those who really want to be coupled.

The researchers deserve credit for recognizing that not all single people are the same and looking specifically at those who just aren’t interested in being in a romantic relationship. Nonetheless, they seem stuck on amatonormativity. For example, when they first described the single people who are uninterested in romantic relationships, they mentioned other life tasks, such as pursuing an education, and suggested that “some single emerging adults may purposefully avoid romantic relationships in order to first accomplish those tasks.”

Do you see what’s wrong with that? Single people can’t just be uninterested in romantic relationships, period. It’s just a temporary thing, while they pursue other goals. Also, from this perspective, single people are actively avoiding romantic relationships, rather than simply being uninterested in them.

Another example is the statement that “a significant developmental challenge for emerging adults is learning to balance romantic commitments with a desire for individual autonomy and the achievement of personal goals.” That makes the desire for romantic commitments a given, and an indication of developmental success. Cutting-edge scholars have moved beyond that way of thinking and recognize that some people just aren’t interested in romance. They are aromantic. And as the authors’ own work showed, the young adults uninterested in romantic relationships are doing better than those who are conforming to cultural norms (and researchers’ assumptions) by pining for a romantic partner.