Jared DeFife Ph.D.

The Shrink Tank

Being single ain't all it's cracked up to be

Being single ain't all it's cracked up to be

Posted Feb 20, 2009

Being single ain't all it's cracked up to be...

A recent study was published which compared attachment patterns of long-term singles and coupled adults.
A quote from the abstract: "Single participants were as likely as coupled ones to exhibit attachment security and rely on attachment figures, although compared to coupled participants they reported higher levels of loneliness, depression, anxiety, sexual dissatisfaction, and troubled childhood relationships with parents."

Whoa, whoa, whoa. Higher levels of loneliness, depression, anxiety, sexual dissatisfaction?? It's enough to make a guy want to sign up for match.com right away. In two recent postings, Bella DePaulo praises the study for finding that singles and couples did not differ significantly in attachment security, but then tries to "debunk" the article as an example of insidious "singlism" at work. Unfortunately, looking at study findings is not like dating; you shouldn't just make eyes for the ones you like and dismiss the ones you find less personally appealing.

Let me say that I often find DePaulo's posts refreshing and insightful. Her efforts to identify "singlism" in the world are admirable. They encourage self-reflection for all, and offer empowerment to the masses of single people out there. That's all the more reason for me to be disappointed at the representation of the Schachner, Shaver, and Gillath study.

Would not a title by any other name smell as sweet?
First, let me start with the title of DePaulo's recent posting: "No attachment issues among single people". Ok, we're writing a blog for the popular press. As one of my readers once noted, this ain't JAMA or the New England Journal of Medicine. When we talk about research studies here, we try our best to represent the findings accurately while still keeping people awake (if science was super-thrilling and sexy, the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology might have a larger readership than People Magazine). In this format, we often write attention-grabbers to get people interested, have little space to discuss complexities, neglect nuance and make bolder claims than we might in our academic writing. I'm guilty of it (Say it ain't so, Joe! It's so.), but let's just keep that among us, k? "No attachment issues among single people" makes for a much better title than "one study shows that on a self-report measure of attachment, no significant differences in ratings of attachment security were found for a small sample of couples and single people". However, the study suggests that there are no significant DIFFERENCES in attachment issues, NOT that single people or coupled people have no attachment issues. And no attachment issues among single people?? Really? I know single people with attachment issues, so that kinda nixes the statement right there. Maybe you have attachment issues, too...I'll even go all Cosmo-style and link to a little attachment quiz.

There's more to the story...


Please consider that the study does not say "single people have no attachment issues" by any stretch (nor am I saying that all single people have attachment issues!!!). The study says a lot of complex things. From its many findings, it demonstrated that among the small group of single and coupled individuals participating:

THE GOOD NEWS...
-the single and coupled individuals overall reported similar levels of attachment security

-the single and coupled individuals both had similar attachment relationships with others

-they just had different people in their lives meeting their attachment needs

THE NOT-SO-GOOD NEWS...

-the single men had greater attachment anxiety than the coupled men

-the single individuals rated higher levels of depression and anxiety symptoms

-singles reported more casual sex partners and masturbated more, but reported lower levels of sexual satisfaction

-singles reported more problematic childhood relationships with their parents

-when interviewed about relationships, coupled individuals more often used the word "supporting", while single individuals more often used the words "lonely", "rejected", "alone", and "isolated"

The not-so-final word
DePaulo is right to point out ways in which study results get WAY overgeneralized. This happens particularly in media formats in order to make stories more lively, interesting, and relevant to peoples' lives. She is also wise to point out that there is a lot of bias and discrimination out there against singles. The fact of the matter is that people come in all stripes and sorts. There are plenty of couples who are miserable, plenty of blissful singles...and vice versa. In clinical practice, I've seen plenty of people repeat dysfunctional attachment patterns in their current dating practices, contributing to significant interpersonal distress. Also, I've seen plenty of people repeat dysfunctional attachment patterns in their romantic relationships and marriages, contributing to significant interpersonal distress. While the study suggests that singles have similar attachments as their coupled counterparts, it also suggests that, for many, being single has its drawbacks.

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Jared DeFife, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist and relationship therapist in Atlanta specializing in caring, thoughtful change for "love-stuck" couples and individuals struggling to recover from break-ups, loneliness, infidelity, dating dilemmas, conflicts, and commitment crises.

Stop on over to my website at www.dccatlanta.com for more articles, interviews, videos, and more!

Photo courtesy of Ted Szulkalski at http://www.digital-photo.com.au/.

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