In a study that included both married and single people, the participants were asked to think about the extent to which they “fear being alone (i.e., single, without a romantic partner).” Then they were asked to talk about that in their own words, specifying what in particular they feared or did not fear about being single.
The 126 women and 27 men were recruited for the study through online forums such as Craigslist. (That means that the participants were not a representative national sample, and the results are suggestive rather than definitive.). They ranged in age from 18 to 59, with an average age of 30. Forty-five percent were either single and not dating or dating just casually. The others were dating exclusively, engaged, or married.
Set aside your disapproval for the authors for making the common mistake of equating “alone” with being “single, without a romantic partner.” Academics who publish studies about single people should know that on the average, they have more friends than married people and do more to maintain their connections with other people such as their siblings, parents, friends, and neighbors. They are not alone.
Think about the question that participants were asked, about their fear of being alone. Make a prediction: What percentage of them said something like, “Hey wait a minute, I’m not afraid of being alone”?
The answer is 39 percent. That’s more than twice as many as those who went along with the presumption and said that yes, they did fear being single – 18 percent.
Another 12 percent said they were ambivalent. For example, a single woman said, “Sometimes I am bothered by being alone but also feel relief.”
Another 7 percent said they were not afraid of being single now, but they worry about being single in the future. For example, a 25-year-old single woman who was casually dating said, “I tend to not worry so much about whether I am alone or single at the moment but do have a fear of being alone when I am old.”
(The authors did not say why the percentages did not add up to 100. Maybe it is because some of the participants did not address the issue in their answers.)
Here’s a summary:
39 percent: I’m not afraid of being single.
18 percent: I am afraid of being single.
12 percent: I’m ambivalent.
7 percent: I’m not afraid now, but I might be in the future
Of those who described specific reasons for NOT being afraid of being single, here’s what they said:
10 percent: They have family and friends to turn to.
For example: “Regardless if I have a significant other or not in the future, I will always have people who love me and who I love.”
9 percent: Being alone is better than being in a bad relationship
For example: “I have grown enough emotionally and psychologically to know that I would rather be on my own than be part of another unhealthy relationship.”
9 percent: No longer fear being alone
For example: “Upon doing a lot of soul-searching, I have come to realize that my state of happiness depends on me…I’m no longer dependent on someone else to make me happy or make me feel worthy.”
1 percent: Religious beliefs help
For example: “I never feel alone because God is always there.”
Although fewer people said they feared being single than did not fear it, the fearful ones generated more different reasons for their worries. (Participants were allowed to name as many fears as they wanted.)
40 percent: Fear of not having the long-term companionship of an intimate partner
12 percent: Fear of losing current partner
11 percent: Fear of growing old alone
7 percent: Fear of never having children and a family
7 percent: Fear of feeling badly about oneself
5 percent: Fear that friends and family won’t be enough
4 percent: Fear that others will judge them negatively
2 percent: Concern that they won’t have as much sex
2 percent: Concern that they will suffer financially
1 percent: Belief that any relationship, even a bad one, is better than being alone
Research suggests that the ordering of these concerns is out of whack. As for their #1 fear of what single life will bring – or fail to bring – it turns out that a romantic relationship partner is hardly the only way of assuring that someone will be “your person.” I explained that in “If you aren’t in a relationship, who is ‘your person’?”
At the same time, the participants probably should have been a bit more concerned about the issues that ranked near the bottom of the list. Sadly, other people do judge single people more harshly than they judge married people. And financial concerns are totally legitimate. In part because of the many laws that benefit only people who are legally married, married people are, on the average, far better off economically than single people.
The concern about not having as much sex is overblown. And studies show that the belief that a bad romantic relationship is better than no romantic relationship is simply wrong.
Perhaps the most important finding, though, is the very first one. Asked to think about their fear of being single, the most common answer, by far, was, “I don’t fear being single.”