Unafraid of Being Single? You Handle Breakups Better

One more superpower to add to the profile of people unafraid of being single

Posted Nov 23, 2019

Some people have a very hard time with romantic breakups. They feel despair when a romantic relationship ends. They pine for their ex. They keep trying to get back together. Some become so obsessed that their ex, out of exasperation, cuts off all contact completely.

Other people are much less troubled by breakups. You won’t hear them going on and on about how they are still so in love with their ex. They are not constantly texting them and calling them. They are better at moving on.

There are probably a lot of psychological characteristics that distinguish those who keep longing for their ex and those who seem better adjusted, psychologically, after a breakup. From a set of studies, we now know that one of those characteristics is a person’s attitude about being single. People who are psychologically resilient after breakups are unafraid of being single. The hangers-on are more likely to be afraid of being single.

Psychology professor Stephanie Spielmann and her colleagues assessed people’s attitudes with a measure they created, the Fear of Being Single scale. It includes items such as:

  • “It scares me to think there might not be anyone out there for me.”
  • “I feel anxious when I think about being single forever.”
  • “If I end up alone in life, I will probably feel that there is something wrong with me.”

People who are unafraid of being single are less likely to agree with those items.

The researchers conducted two studies to learn how people respond to romantic breakups, depending on the degree to which they are afraid or unafraid of being single. The first study was fine. The second was even better.

Study 1: Recalling Past Breakups, Those Unafraid of Being Single Expressed Less Longing for Their Ex

In the first study, the researchers recruited 229 single people who had previously experienced a romantic breakup to participate in an online study. They ranged in age from 18 to 78, with an average age of 31.

The participants answered questions about their breakup, such as when it happened and who initiated it. They answered four items assessing the degree to which they were still pining for their partner; for example, “I am still in love with him/her.” They completed the Fear of Being Single scale. They also answered a questionnaire measuring anxious attachment, so the researchers could demonstrate that fear of being single was something different from that.

The results were straightforward: People who were unafraid of being single were less likely to be still pining for their partner.

The people who were unafraid of being single were doing better than those who were afraid of being single, regardless of who initiated the breakup. Even after the researchers took into account people’s anxiety about attachment, the amount of time that had passed since the breakup, and the amount of time the romantic relationship had lasted, they still found the same thing. People who were afraid of being single tended to be the ones who were still longing for their ex.

Study 2: Day by Day, People Unafraid of Being Single Did Better After a Breakup

In the second study, the researchers recruited undergraduates who were in a romantic relationship and waited for them to break up. Once they did, they were invited to report on their experiences every day for the next 27 days. Of the 226 who had broken up, 135 agreed to do so.

All the participants had completed the Fear of Being Single scale and the Anxious Attachment scale at the beginning of the study. Then, after their breakup, they answered questions every day for a month about their current fear of being single, the degree to which they were still pining for their ex, and whether they had tried to renew their relationship with their ex that day (“I tried to get back together with my ex-partner”).

On average, participants reported greater fear of being single after they had broken up than they had at the beginning of the study when they were still in their romantic relationship. That was true regardless of who had initiated the relationship.

Paralleling the findings of the first study, on any given day, people who were feeling unafraid of being single were less likely to be pining for their ex. They were also less likely to be trying to get back together with their ex.

What made this second study even better than the first was that the participants’ experiences were tracked over time. That meant it was possible to find out whether, for example, people who felt particularly fearful of being single one day were especially likely to try to renew contact with their partner the next. They were. They were also especially likely to experience longing for their ex. It was the opposite for those who felt particularly unafraid of being single on a specific day. The next day, they were especially unlikely to try to get back together with their ex or to be pining for that person.

People’s fears, or lack of fears, about being single seemed to drive their reactions to their breakups. In contrast, marinating in the stew of their past romantic relationship (pining for their ex, trying to renew contact) on any given day did not seem to result in feeling any less afraid of being single the next day.

The authors wondered about something they could not answer with the data they collected. Was that “continued longing for ex-partners… more about the search for any relationship rather than for a relationship with the ex-partner per se”?

Maybe what the fearful ones want is not any particular relationship, but any relationship at all. Other relevant research showed that people who are afraid of being single do not have the high standards or the good judgment of people who are unafraid. For example, they are more interested in online dating partners who are selfish, they give out their contact information to more people in speed-dating events, and they stay in unsatisfying romantic relationships longer.

Single at Heart: They Are Not Just Unafraid of Being Single; They Embrace Single Life

Spielmann and her colleagues think that the field of relationship studies “would benefit from an increased focus on how people are motivated by concerns about not being in a relationship.” That’s why they focus on the “fear of being single.” I am much more intrigued by the people who are unafraid of being single. It is already clear that they have an admirable profile of personality traits and resiliences.

In my work, I’ve taken this a step further in studying people who are “single at heart.” They are not just unafraid of being single; they embrace the single life. It is, for them, their best, most fulfilling, and most meaningful life. One of the characteristics of people who are single at heart is that they often feel relief after a romantic relationship has ended, even if it wasn’t a bad relationship.

What’s more, many people who are single at heart are just not at all interested in searching for a long-term romantic partner. When they think about the joys of single life, they say to themselves, “That sounds great!”

Maybe more relationship scholars should study that.