Why the fear of being single can lead to bad choices

If the person next to you at work gets a big bunch of Valentine's roses today, don't be envious, especially if you're single and wish you weren't. Otherwise, you could be setting yourself up for settling for second-best.

U of T researchers surprised to discover both men and women can fear being alone

A fear of being single can lead to people settling for second-best in relationships, according to research out of the University of Toronto. (Yuya Shino/Reuters)

If the person next to you at work gets a big bunch of red roses today, don't cast an envious eye at the apparent expression of love, counsels relationship expert Kimberly Moffit, a Toronto-based psychotherapist.

That's especially true if you're single and wish you weren't.

Flowers on Valentine's Day can have many different meanings these days. But for the envious, it can also mean that you are in danger of settling for second-best in a relationship, a state of affairs that some recent research at the University of Toronto suggests is a distinct possibility for those who have an innate fear of being single.

It's an age-old fear that stems from societal pressures and expectations that have been present for generations, and it may even have wider application now that the number of single Canadians 15 and older continues to grow —  36 per cent of the population in 2011, up from 28 in 1981, according to Statistics Canada.

Skeptics might scoff at the U of T research: After all, what's new in the revelation that a fear of being single might prompt people to hook up with someone who falls short of their ideal, particularly if they are women.

"Common sense might have told us that it’s only single women who are older who have this fear," says Stephanie Spielmann, a post-doctoral researcher in the U of T's department of psychology.

"But really, once we actually look at the research, we see this is something relevant for everyone."

'Relevant for everyone'

"What we were most surprised about is actually that we saw no effects of sex," says Spielmann.  

"We also saw no effects of age, so this seems to be something that was happening whether our participants were young undergraduate students or they were in their 50s or 60s."

The U of T study grew from researchers wondering how the fear of being single might be rooted in longstanding societal messages like the fairy tales that suggest finding a Prince Charming will guarantee living happily ever after. Or even the stereotype of the older, single woman becoming the crazy cat lady.

"We were wondering how these social messages that you're supposed to be in a relationship might be affecting people if they are single, or even people in relationships, what might happen if they ended up single," says Spielmann.

And what the researchers found was that people on their own were more likely to approach relationships differently based on whether or not they were afraid of being single.

In particular, she says, "they tended to be willing to settle for less in terms of starting a relationship with someone who was maybe less desirable."

Evolutionary behaviour?

From Moffit's perspective, that's a common experience, especially if people are surrounded by others who are settling down.

"Some people experience this anxiety to a greater degree than others, depending on how important they think relationships are, their own insecurities and the pressures they feel from people in their lives," she says.

Maybe they have pushy parents looking for grandchildren right away, or younger siblings getting ready to start a family.

"Both women and men tend to feel this anxiety to a greater degree with each passing year," Moffit says, "and it's evolutionary behaviour especially for women to seek a partner sooner rather than later for the sake of having children, if that's what they desire."

'We do have an inherent fear of being alone in the world,' says clinical couples and family therapist Ashley Howe. (Shutterstock)

Moffit sees the potential for poor decision-making in relationships coming from people who are afraid of being single and who visualize a worst-case scenario. Rather than focusing on what they want in a partner, they focus on what they don't want: being lonely or pitied by others.

Ashley Howe, a clinical couples and family therapist who practises in Toronto, has also seen a fear of being single becoming one factor in people settling for less in their relationships.

"We do have an inherent fear of being alone in the world … and that applies not just to relationships," she says. "We don't want to be by ourselves. Evolutionarily speaking, that makes sense. We need people, networks and packs to keep us alive."

But the fear she talks to people most about is one of breaking up with someone, and it comes from people who feel alone even if they are in relationships.

Challenge to the emotions

"I would say that's one of the hardest feelings for humans," Howe says, because it goes against our evolutionary ideals.

"You're supposed to be better off in a pair, and you're not better off. That's actually more of a challenge to your emotions."

Howe suggests that the key to avoiding settling for second-best in a relationship lies in asking yourself if you feel the person you're with is making you better.

"If you can talk about how you seem a little brighter, you seem a little happier, more consistent, more motivated …  that is one of the best gauges.

While some unhappy singletons might feel that finding any partner at all is better than no relationship, that's not necessarily the case. 

"My best advice is to realize that not being in the wrong relationship is actually closer to happiness than being in the wrong relationship," says Moffit, noting her suggestion not to envy someone else's big Valentine's bouquet.

For her part, Howe says she is seeing a changing perception in society toward those who are on their own.

"I think the story of being single is very different, and that's going to help ease this fear people might have of being single. It used to be the spinster-type thing — 'She died an old spinster.' You don't hear that as much anymore. You might hear, 'Oh, she was a world traveller, she had boyfriends, and she did this,' " Howe says.

"It's not as scary anymore because we can have all of these great relationships even though we don't have an intimate one."