When you’re single and searching, couples can look like an interesting puzzle. What separates them from you? Are they more desirable? More mature? Just luckier?
Possibly. But a new study has identified a less considered factor: Maybe they’re more fearful.
In a recent study at the University of Toronto, single female college students evaluated a dating profile that featured the picture of an attractive man with one of two descriptions of what he was seeking in a relationship.
The first profile said: “When I’m dating someone, I really care about putting in the effort and making it work. For me, that means paying attention to my girlfriend and getting to know who she really is as person” and “I figure the most important thing is that we’re there for each other, no b.s.”
The second said: “I love what I do, so I need someone who respects that and is willing to take the back seat when necessary,” and “I like to keep conversations light and not too serious when they’re not work-related, and I most prefer situations that easy and problem-free.”
Clearly, Guy No. 1 is a gem and Guy No. 2 not so much. The women in the experiment got that. When asked to evaluate their prospective date’s potential as a partner, the participants gave the nice guy high marks and the more self-absorbed one low marks.
But when the participants were asked if they were interested in dating this person, something interesting happened. A substantial number of women expressed romantic interest in Mr. “Work Comes First”—even though they had also acknowledged that he wouldn’t make a very good boyfriend.
What distinguished the women who were interested in Guy No. 2 from those who took a pass? One thing: The women interested in dating the not-so-nice guy were afraid to be alone.
Before examining the dating profiles, the participants answered a questionnaire designed to determine their fear of being single. The women who were not particularly stressed about being single expressed a lot of interest in Guy 1 but not much in Guy 2. But the women who were anxious about their single state expressed just as much interest in workaholic as they did the attentive guy.
“Despite recognizing that some targets were less likely to be caring and supportive than others, those who more strongly feared being single did not seem to be taking a prospective partner’s responsiveness into account when making decisions about romantic interest,” said the authors of the study, which was led by social psychologist Stephanie Spielmann and published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.
A subsequent experiment found that men who were fearful about being single also prioritized relationship status over relationship quality. The researchers also looked at people in couples and found that those who were fearful about being single were more dependent on less satisfying relationships.
“Fear of being single is a unique predictor of settling for less in one’s relationship,” the authors said.
Single people are often told that they’re too picky—in fact, when I was reporting my book on the single life, It’s Not You, I learned that this is the most common refrain that single people heard about why they are alone.
The University of Toronto study gives credence to a theory that I often heard singles tentatively venture as they discussed their choices. Maybe the issue wasn’t that they were childish or entitled. Maybe they were just a little braver. Maybe the problem wasn’t that they were too picky. Maybe others weren’t picky enough.