Singlephobia and the Science of Settling in Relationships

Cristen Conger

Courtesy: Amazon
Courtesy: Amazon

In romantic contexts, "settling" is a negatively loaded term to put it casually. Take it from Lori Gottleib, author of the 2010 Marry Him: Settling For Mr. Good Enough, a book title she told Salon's Tracy Clark-Flory "is something that to this day is upsetting to me." Although Gottleib adamantly defends the book's advice as not actually encouraging women to settle (full disclosure: I haven't read the book, though I clearly remember reading blog after blog excoriating its titular message), even the suggestion makes feminist porcupine quills stand on end. With coverture laws long banished, why would a woman settle for meh?

In 2013, University of Toronto psychologist Stephanie S. Spielmann sought to tackle one vexing answer to that question: fear of being single. After first devising and testing a Fear of Being Single Scale, Spielmann's study analyzed how people's self-reported singlephobia intersected with a variety of relationship dynamics, including ideal partner standards, relationship dependence and likelihood of breaking up. Again and again, fear of being single predicted settling for less, both in terms of perceived partner attractiveness and support as well as relationship quality and satisfaction.

Spielmann also compared correlations of settling behavior with anxious psychological attachment who generally tend to be clingier to settling driven by fear of being single. It turned out that the fear-driven motive for sticking it out was even stronger than anxious attachment. The study explains: "...the key difference may be the specificity of the attachment figure desired. Those with stronger fear of being single may specifically require a romantic attachment figure to satisfy needs for security and intimacy. In other words, anxiously attached folks can potentially divert their attachment needs toward a platonic friend or family member, whereas folks who strongly fear being single can't settle for anything less than a boyfriend or girlfriend.

Courtesy: Women on the Fence

But as the study acknowledges, this in-depth research leaves dangling the question of where that fear of being single originates. With a majority of adults eventually getting married, is it the terror of being a single person living in a couples' world? And when it comes to gender, it would be fascinating to know how strongly men and women experience it, especially considering a 1996 study finding that men "had stronger desires for marriage than women because they had weaker social support." So much of the settling panic seems to target women, but I have a hunch there are plenty of singlephobic guys looking for comforting relationship status to curl up with at night.

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