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Personality

How Someone's Personality Can Keep Them from Having a Relationship

New research on the unhappily single.

Key points

  • The Big Five model of personality predicts many behaviors and life outcomes.
  • Both extraversion and openness predict whether you’re coupled or single but in unexpected ways.
  • Most people, regardless of their personality, eventually find an intimate partner.

Most people believe that the ideal situation for an adult is to be in an exclusive intimate relationship. Those in one often make considerable sacrifices to maintain it, and many people stay in problematic relationships because they view their situation as better than being alone. Likewise, those currently single often spend significant amounts of time and money searching for someone special to share their life with.

Why do some people just seem to be lucky at love, while others pine away year after year in their loneliness, never able to find someone special? In an article recently published in the journal Personality and Individual Differences, University of Nicosia (Cyprus) psychologists Menelaos Apostolou and Stavri Tsangari pondered this question. In particular, they wondered if certain personality traits might predict whether someone will be coupled or single.

The Big Five

For this study, Apostolou and Tsangari recruited over 1400 adults who took a personality test and answered questions about their relationship status. In this study, the researchers relied on the Big Five Inventory, which assesses personality on five dimensions. The Big Five personality factors are easily remembered with the acronym OCEAN:

  • Openness to new experience: How much you enjoy trying new things versus a preference for the familiar.
  • Conscientiousness: How neat and orderly you like to keep your environment and how dependable you are in your commitments to others.
  • Extraversion: How outgoing and sociable you are. The opposite end of this spectrum is “introversion.”
  • Agreeableness: How trusting you are of others and how easily you get along with people. (Note that this is different from extraversion. Being outgoing and easy to get along with are two different things.)
  • Neuroticism: How susceptible you are to experiencing emotional disturbances, with the opposite end of this spectrum being “emotional stability.”

The Big Five is the generally accepted model of personality in psychology. It’s been used in hundreds of studies and found to reliably predict a wide range of behaviors and life outcomes.

Personality and Singlehood

When we consider the Big Five model, we can easily generate hypotheses about which personality factors might influence how easy or difficult it is for you to find a compatible partner. For instance, it’s not hard to imagine that people high in Extraversion are more likely to be in a relationship since they have more social encounters in life and are more likely to find a suitable mate.

In contrast, we might think that people high in Neuroticism may drive away potential partners with their mood swings and tendency to depression and anxiety. Ponder these five personality factors and think about how they might affect people’s ability to find and hold on to an intimate partner.

When Apostolou and Tsangari analyzed their data, they found expected and unexpected results. First, as hypothesized, people who were low in extraversion—or highly introverted—reported difficulty finding an intimate companion. These people were involuntarily single, living without an intimate partner not because they wanted to but rather because they just hadn’t found anyone suitable.

Second, another personality factor identified a different type of single person. Namely, voluntarily single people—those who preferred not to be committed to a single partner—tended to be high in openness. In hindsight, this makes perfect sense. After all, people high in openness enjoy going on adventures and trying new things. Especially when combined with high extraversion, these people enjoyed their single life of varied friendships and casual sexual encounters.

Personality and Intimacy

Finally, it came as a surprise that none of the other personality factors predicted whether a person would be coupled or single. Conscientiousness didn’t matter, suggesting that both dependable and unreliable people can find mates.

Likewise, agreeableness wasn’t an issue, indicating that both easy-going people and those difficult to get along with have no major issues with finding an intimate partner.

The same was true for those high in neuroticism. Plenty of research shows that people high in this personality factor tend to have difficulties in their relationships, which can often be stormy. However, emotional instability isn’t necessarily a deal-breaker when looking for a romantic partner. Indeed, the emotional roller coaster may even be exhilarating for some, at least at the beginning of the relationship.

The Big Five personality factors are quite stable across adulthood. Many introverted people do eventually find intimate partners, but it takes them longer than their extroverted counterparts. Likewise, if they find themselves single again in midlife due to divorce or widowhood, they’ll once again take more time to find someone new.

In the end, however, personality is not destiny. It is possible to change your personality. Introverts can learn social skills that help them behave in a more extroverted manner. Or, more accurately, you can learn to act in ways that are not natural to you.

So, if you’re involuntarily single, there’s no reason to give up hope. The solution is straightforward, although it will take effort. Like an actor in a play, assume the persona of someone outgoing and people-oriented. Go out into the world and meet as many people as you can, and show that you’re genuinely interested in them. It’s the only way to find someone with whom you’ll want to share your life.

Facebook image: Nitiphonphat/Shutterstock

References

Apostolou, M. & Tsangari, S. (2022). Why people are single: The big five as predictors of involuntary singlehood. Personality and Individual Differences. Advance online publication. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.paid.2021.111375

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