Men and women would rather settle for an unhappy relationship than face being alone.

Posted by: on Dec 6, 2013 | One Comment



Fear of being single is a meaningful predictor of settling for less in relationships among both men and women, a new University of Toronto (U of T) study has found. The results are published in the December edition of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

“Those with stronger fears about being single are willing to settle for less in their relationships,” says lead author Stephanie Spielmann, postdoctoral researcher in the University of Toronto’s Department of Psychology. “Sometimes they stay in relationships they aren’t happy in, and sometimes they want to date people who aren’t very good for them.” She adds, “Now we understand that people’s anxieties about being single seem to play a key role in these types of unhealthy relationship behaviors.”

Investigators surveyed several samples of North American adults, consisting of University of Toronto undergraduates and community members from Canada and the U.S. The samples included a wide range of ages.

“In our results we see men and women having similar concerns about being single, which lead to similar coping behaviors, contradicting the idea that only women struggle with a fear of being single,” says co-author, Professor Geoff MacDonald of the University of Toronto’s Department of Psychology. “Loneliness is a painful experience for both men and women, so it’s not surprising that the fear of being single seems not to discriminate on the basis of gender.”


Settling for Less Out of Fear of Being Single
Stephanie S. Spielmann, Geoff MacDonald, Jessica A. Maxwell, Samantha Joel, Diana Peragine, Amy Muise, and Emily A. Impett
University of Toronto


Single women lead lonely, depressing, and incomplete lives. Their unhappiness increases exponentially with each passing birthday, because past a certain age a woman is “used up.” All women are desperate to marry or remarry because marriage is their only real chance for security and happiness. (Anderson & Stewart, 1994, p. 64).

Anderson and Stewart discuss the subtle yet destructive myths about singlehood that are arguably as common today as they were 20 years ago. The myth is that singles (particularly women) yearn for a relationship and they suffer or lack without it. Indeed, Western society maintains an ideology that the romantic relationship is the most important social relationship (Day, Kay, Holmes, & Napier, 2011; DePaulo & Morris, 2005). Such beliefs appear to promote fears about the consequences of not finding a romantic partner. How do people’s concerns about ending up single influence how they seek out and maintain relationships?

The present research explores the usefulness of fear of being single as a construct for understanding relationship attitudes and behaviors. We construe fear of being single as entailing concern, anxiety, or distress regarding the current or prospective experience of being without a romantic partner. This fear may manifest as an immediate concern about one’s current relationship status or anxiety about the prospect of being single in the future. In this sense, even people who are currently involved in romantic relationships may be affected by fear of being single. Our goal in the present research is, first and foremost, to establish fear of being single as a unique and psychometrically validated construct. Furthermore, we aim to explore the implications of fear of being single in important relationship domains. In particular, distress about not having a romantic relationship may promote an approach that any relationship is better than no relationship at all. An important consequence of fear of being single may be, therefore, to settle for less in relationships in order to gain and maintain a relationship.

Choosing whether to initiate, maintain, or dissolve romantic relationships involves complex decision making, such that individuals often weigh their options and rely heavily on heuristics and
emotions to make these decisions (see review by Joel, MacDonald, & Plaks, in press). To the extent that one fears being single, daily relationship decisions may be driven by a desire to have or maintain
relationships over other factors that typically predict commitment and romantic stability, such as high satisfaction or relationship quality (e.g., Le, Dove, Agnew, Korn, & Mutso, 2010; Rusbult, Martz, & Agnew, 1998). We demonstrate in the present research that fear of being single predicts the tendency to make decisions that seem to prioritize relationship status over relationship quality, which we colloquially refer to as “settling for less.”

To better understand how a deep desire to be involved in a relationship may lead to lower quality mate selection, one should first understand normative desires for relationships.

Normative Desires for Relationships

Desire for intimate relationships and concern about the status of one’s relationships is a normative human experience. Because of the importance of social connection to survival and reproduction in their evolutionary past (Caporael, 2001; Foley, 1995), humans require meaningful and persisting associations with others for both physical and psychological well-being (Baumeister & Leary, 1995). A lack of social connection is associated with negative emotional states (Blackhart, Nelson, Knowles, & Baumeister, 2009), impairments in self-regulation (Baumeister, DeWall, Ciarocco, & Twenge, 2005), hostility and aggression (Leary, Twenge, & Quinlivan, 2006), and negative health outcomes such as increased risk of contracting illnesses and greater risk of mortality (Cohen, Doyle, Skoner, Rabin, & Gwaltney, 1997; House, Landis, & Umberson, 1988). Beyond focusing on a broad need for social connection, attachment theory specifically highlights the need for close bonds with trusted attachment figures (Bowlby, 1969; Mikulincer & Shaver, 2007). The attachment system is rooted in infant– caregiver connections and is activated in response to distress and threat in order to prompt individuals to seek security and comfort from caregivers (Ainsworth & Bell, 1970; Bowlby, 1969). The attachment system extends beyond the infant–parent relationship, such that youths
and adults form attachments with close others and construe them as attachment figures (Fraley, Brumbaugh, & Marks, 2005; Hazan & Shaver, 1987). It is therefore a natural part of human development to desire someone who can serve as a secure base from which to explore freely and securely and a safe haven to provide comfort and security in times of distress (Mikulincer & Shaver, 2007). People thus have deeply rooted, intrinsic motivations to gain and maintain close social connections. These basic biological and psychological pressures for social connection may contribute to fear of being single.

Fear of Being Single Quotes

“I don’t fear being alone . . . . Having company is not the same as being fulfilled as a person. I believe that part of fulfillment is knowing you are capable to function on your own.” (female, single, 29 years old)

“I worry what my future will be. Will I just end up another old lady forgotten and alone?” (female, single, 58 years old)

“I am very family oriented and have life-long friends; thus, I will never be truly alone. However, the thought of being single without a romantic partner somewhat bothers me. I also strongly feel that having a romantic relationship with a partner is tiresome and involves too much work. So, sometimes I am bothered by being alone but also feel relief.” (female, single, 23 years old)

“I tend to not worry so much about whether I am alone or single at the moment but do have a fear of being alone when I am old. Singleness at 25 years old does not sound so bad, but to be single forever sounds terrible.” (female, dating, 25 years old)

“I fear that there will be no one there that I can share intimacy with like cuddling, hugs, and kisses and the fact that there is somebody that is ready to do anything or go anywhere with you.” (female, dating, 23 years old)

“I do sometimes fear the possibility that something will happen to my husband, such as a grave illness or an accident . . . . I can’t imagine the thought of experiencing something joyful and not being able to share it with him. Our domestic rhythms revolve around each other, and if I have to spend the evening alone, time seems to pass more slowly, and the night seems shapeless and devoid of routine.” (female, married, 28 years old)

“I fear being alone because I keep thinking how awful it would be to be alone as an elderly person.” (male, dating, 47 years old)

“I fear not having someone means I’ll miss out on great parts of life: marriage, children, family.” (female, dating, 27 years old)

“Being alone to me means being a failure, unlovable, and never being loved” (female, dating, 57 years old)

“Although every relationship has its costs and benefits, romantic relationships seem to possess a unique set of benefits that can’t be achieved through other types of interactions.” (female, dating, 23 years old)

“There seems to be a societal expectation, and no doubt an extended family expectation, that an attractive woman such as myself should not remain unattached indefinitely. The ‘old spinster’ cliché comes to mind.” (female, single, age not reported)

“I really miss making love! Just because you get older, it does not mean that passion takes a backseat.” (female, single, 49 years old)

“My biggest fear is that I will not be able to support myself financially.” (female, dating, 48 years old)

“I think being with someone (in a relationship) is worth whatever else comes along with it.” (male, dating, 38 years old)

“Regardless if I have a significant other or not in the future, I will always have people who love me and who I love.” (female, dating, 18 years old)

“I have grown enough emotionally and psychologically to know that I would rather be on my own than be a part of another unhealthy relationship.” (female, single, 35 years old)

“In the past, I have relied on men to make me happy, and when they have let me down, I felt no control over myself . . . . Upon doing a lot of soul-searching, I have come to realize that my state of happiness depends on me. I am responsible for finding peace within myself so I’m no longer dependent on someone else to make me happy or make me feel worthy.” (female, dating, 27 years old)

“I never feel alone because God is always there.” (female, married, 29 years old)


1 Comment

  1. D. A. Wolf
    December 8, 2013

    Some of us have lived this. Most of us have observed it, whether we admit it or not. We aren’t talking simply loneliness, but stigma – and social and professional perceptions that can affect every aspect of life.

    I’m reminded of the late 1970s movie, An Unmarried Woman, which struck such a chord in part because the main character, following an unwanted divorce, felt no need to become part of a couple again.

Leave a Reply