Confirming a bit of conventional wisdom, a new study finds that people who fear being single often settle for less in love; they're more likely to cling to unhappy relationships and more willing to date duds, the research suggests.
The study's lead author, University of Toronto researcher Stephanie Spielmann, said she wanted to investigate how the pervasive message that people are supposed to be in relationships affects their love lives.
"As children, we learn that you need to find your prince charming to 'live happily ever after,' and as adults, there are many negative images of those who don't have a relationship, such as the 'crazy cat lady' or the 'spinster,'" Spielmann said in an email. "I realized that the scientific study of relationships has not yet explored how these societal messages might be creating insecurities about being single, and how these insecurities might affect how people approach their relationships." [Busted! 6 Gender Myths in the Bedroom & Beyond]
Spielmann and colleagues sniffed out fear of being single in study participants based on their responses to statements, such as "I feel it is close to being too late for me to find the love of my life," or "I feel anxious when I think about being single forever."
Throughout their experiments, the researchers found that people with higher rankings on the "fear of being single" scale seemed to settle for less. They were more likely to stay in unsatisfying relationships, and they were less selective when choosing potential romantic partners through online dating sites and speed-dating events.
"One of the most surprising things about our results was that those who feared being single seemed to recognize that they were making poor decisions about who to date," Spielmann told LiveScience.
In one experiment, for example, singletons assessed fake online dating profiles of physically attractive men and women. Some of the potential matches were made to seem like jerks, and their profiles were littered with phrases, such as "I like to keep conversations light and not too serious when they're not work-related, and I most prefer situations that are easy and problem-free."
And yet, those who feared being single were still interested in dating these emotionally unavailable people, even after acknowledging that they didn't seem very kind or caring and that they would be less likely to have a successful, lasting relationship, Spielmann said. The results of another experiment in the study showed that people with greater fear of being single did not report having lower dating standards than their less anxious peers.
"This suggests that those who fear being single don't necessarily have blinders on when it comes to making their relationship decisions," Spielmann said. "But they seem to want a relationship so badly that they're willing to overlook some warning signs."
And the fear of being alone affects men and women alike, the research found.
"There were actually no differences between men and women in their levels of fear of being single, or in the ways that fear of being single influenced their relationship decisions," Spielmann said. "There were also no differences based on age. These were very interesting findings, because it highlights that everyone is susceptible to worries about loneliness."
The research was published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.