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What We Get Wrong about the Attachment Relationships of Single People

the attachment styles of singlesAmericans share many beliefs about single people, and just about all of the negative ones turn out to be wrong. They are stereotypes, not facts.

So sure are we about our disparagement of single people that we actually use the negative words and phrases as synonyms for single people, as if they were neutral and factual. People describe single people as “alone” and “unattached.” They say that single people “don’t have anyone,” as if the only kind of person who counts as someone is a spouse. In fact, though, the evidence shows that single people are more connected to others than married people are. They maintain their ties with friends, siblings, parents, and neighbors. It is the people who get married who become more insular.

In a comment on an article I wrote debunking stereotypes of single people, a reader said he thought that lots of single people actually did have attachment issues – that wasn’t just a stereotype. He said that many of his single friends had avoidant attachment styles.

I can see why people would believe that. It would fit with the stereotypical reasoning that if people are single, it must be because they have “issues,” and one of those issues is that they are avoidant in their relationships with other people. That reasoning ignores the many single people who choose to be single, and who live their single lives fully. Even single people who wish they were coupled may still have secure attachments with the important people in their lives.

The biggest problem with the reader’s objection, though, is that the available research does not support it.

Here’s what I wrote about the research on attachment among single people in the 2015 Encyclopedia of Mental Health:

Implicit in some of the theoretical arguments for the greater social support and commitment supposedly enjoyed by people who get married is that the quality of their ties are superior.  One version of the argument is that adults with romantic partners have “full-blown attachments” whereas single people do not.

The lively field of adult attachment focuses overwhelmingly on the attachments of people who are coupled. In lay terms, people who are single are sometimes described as “unattached.” The few studies of the attachments of single people, though, suggest otherwise.

Doherty and Feeney (2004) have shown that single people often have relationships with friends, siblings, parents, or offspring that fulfill the four main attachment functions (providing a secure base, a safe haven, a target for proximity-seeking, and a source of separation protest when contact cannot be maintained). In another study in which attachment anxiety and avoidance were measured as dimensions (Schachner, Shaver, & Gillath, 2008), singles and couples did not differ overall on anxiety or avoidance, and the single women did not differ from the coupled women on either dimension. The only difference was for the single men, who reported more anxiety (but not more avoidance) than the coupled men.

Even if some future study were to show that single people are more likely to have avoidant attachment styles than coupled people are, that would be a long way from suggesting that most single people have attachment issues. Typically, in studies of relationships, many more people score as securely attached than insecurely attached. But so far, in the research I know about, there is no evidence whatsoever that single people are more avoidant in their relationships, compared to coupled people.

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What We Get Wrong about the Attachment Relationships of Single People

Bella DePaulo, Ph.D

Bella DePaulo (Ph.D., Harvard; Academic Affiliate, Psychological and Brain Sciences, UC Santa Barbara), an expert on single life, is the author of several books, including "Singled Out: How Singles Are Stereotyped, Stigmatized, and Ignored, and Still Live Happily Ever After" and "How We Live Now: Redefining Home and Family in the 21st Century." Her TEDx talk is "What no one ever told you about people who are single," https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lyZysfafOAs. Dr. DePaulo has discussed singles and single life on radio and television, including NPR and CNN, and her work has been described in newspapers such as the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, and USA Today, and magazines such as Time, Atlantic, the Week, More, the Nation, Business Week, AARP Magazine, and Newsweek. Dr. DePaulo is in her sixties. She has always been single and always will be. She is "single at heart" -- single is how she lives her best and most meaningful life. Visit her website at www.BellaDePaulo.com.


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APA Reference
DePaulo, B. (2016). What We Get Wrong about the Attachment Relationships of Single People. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 17, 2018, from https://blogs.psychcentral.com/single-at-heart/2016/09/what-we-get-wrong-about-the-attachment-relationships-of-single-people/

 

Last updated: 15 Sep 2016
Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 15 Sep 2016
Published on PsychCentral.com. All rights reserved.