Research explains why people stay in relationships rather than be alone.
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Being alone means different things to different people. For some, it’s a time to pursue one’s own interests, to be productive or engage in self-care, a chance to focus on friends or family, a choose-your-own-adventure opportunity.
For others, the idea of being alone is terrifying.
What does being alone mean to you?
A deep-seated fear of being alone, often called the fear of being single (Spielmann et al., 2013), has the potential to drive romantic relationship decisions. Who you’re willing to date, why you stay with a current partner, the extent you’ll go so that someone won’t leave you… people sometimes make important relationship-related choices with the goal of avoiding being alone rather than the goal of achieving a healthy and satisfying relationship. When relationship decisions fail to prioritize what is best for the self, they can come at a high cost to personal well-being.
Why the fear of being alone is linked to relationship decisions
- Concerns about what others might think: Staying in an unsatisfying relationship so as to avoid being alone could reflect self-presentation concerns. What will friends, co-workers, or family think if another relationship ends, or an on-again/off-again relationship is back to off-again? Beliefs about other people’s expectations about being in a relationship do appear to be a reason why people fear being single (Spielmann et al., 2013).
- Relationship-based self-esteem: Some people’s self-esteem is fully dependent upon their relationships, a type of self-esteem called relationship-contingent self-esteem. Individuals high in relationship-contingent self-esteem question their own self-worth with even momentary beliefs that a relationship isn’t working or isn’t satisfying (Knee, Canevello, Bush, & Cook, 2008). When a relationship is truly distressed, their whole self-worth suffers. Individuals high in relationship-contingent self-esteem are also more likely to use tactics to keep a relationship intact; some of these behaviors emphasize to partners what is good about a relationship, while others take a negative approach (e.g., threats, deception) to keep the relationship going (Holden, Zeigler-Hill, Shackelford, & Welling, 2018).
- Feeling like a failure: Do you need a romantic relationship to feel like you’re a success in life? What if you don’t end up in a relationship? Feeling like something is wrong with you if you’re not someone who keeps a relationship, gets married, or stays married could reflect a high fear of being alone. Perhaps, then, it’s no surprise that the fear of being single is associated with staying in dissatisfying relationships (Spielmann et al., 2013).
- A lack of relational autonomy: A specific type of autonomy, relational autonomy, is compromised when people feel like they’re not in a relationship of their own volition, like they don’t really know why they’re in a relationship, or like they are somehow stuck in an undesired situation (Knee, Lonsbary, Canevello, & Patrick, 2005). Fear of being alone may reflect low relational autonomy and a perceived lack of agency to change one’s situation. Such concern would be further supported by a belief that one cannot meet his or her basic psychological needs outside of a relationship.
Romantic relationships can be supportive, fulfilling, and joyful experiences, but if they are not, the fear of being alone can limit an ability to see other potential options. Making a relationship-status change is all-the-harder when individuals recognize the stress, emotional pain, and logistical challenges (e.g., housing, resources) that often accompany a breakup.
The good news is that as difficult as breakups can be, many are accompanied by considerable personal growth. People learn that they’re more capable than they previously thought; they learn what they want in a future partner; they learn how much they value their friends (Tashiro & Frazier, 2003).
If someone is able to surmount the emotional and practical challenges of breaking up and be open to the idea of growing while alone, he or she opens the door to the possibility for a more satisfying future romantic relationship.
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