U of T news

Bad relationships and the fear of being single

Why men and women "settle for less" in relationships

Researcher Stephanie Spielmann found that those who fear being single recognize they make poor decisions about dating (photo by Johnny Guatto)

Ever wondered why your otherwise brilliant friends always seem to partner up with less-than-ideal mates? A new University of Toronto study could help explain why.

Led by Stephanie Spielmann, a postdoctoral researcher in the psychology department, the study found that the fear of being single is a meaningful predictor of settling for less in relationships among both men and women. 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 Spielmann. “Sometimes they stay in relationships they aren’t happy in, and sometimes they want to date people who aren’t very good for them.

“Now we understand that people’s anxieties about being single seem to play a key role in these types of unhealthy relationship behaviours.”

Investigators surveyed several samples of North American adults, consisting of U of T undergraduates and community members from Canada and the U.S. The average age of those sampled was around 30, but respondents varied in age from 17 to 78.

One surprising finding was that those who feared being single seemed to recognize that they were making poor decisions about who to date. When researchers, for example, asked people how much they wanted to date someone who seemed like a jerk, those who feared being single acknowledged that the person didn’t seem nice and that they would be less likely to have a successful, lasting relationship with the person.

“But they wanted to date this person anyway!” says Spielmann.

This suggests that those who fear being single don’t necessarily have blinders on when it comes to making their relationship decisions, she says. But they seem to want a relationship so badly that they’re willing to overlook some warning signs.

Researchers also found evidence the image of older, single woman as the prototype of fear of being single might not hold true. The study showed that both men and women share similar levels of concern about being single.

“In our results we see men and women having similar concerns about being single, which lead to similar coping behaviours, contradicting the idea that only women struggle with a fear of being single,” says co-author, Professor Geoff MacDonald of U of T's Department of Psychology.

Ultimately, Spielmann hopes this study will help those who fear being single to become more secure and make better relationship decisions.

“At the very least, what we now know can serve as a reminder to question why you’re making the choices you do in your relationships,” she says. “And to try to focus on making decisions that are truly in your best interest.”

Dominic Ali is a writer with University Relations at the University of Toronto.