Single, but not down to mingle: The psychology behind long-term singlehood

by Meghan Rossi

For many, being in a romantic relationship cultivates meaning, happiness, and a sense of belonging (Fletcher et al., 2015; Sedikides et al., 1994). For people without social connections, which would include a romantic partner, we see increased negative emotions, disease, and higher mortality (House et al., 1988; Cohen et al., 1997). However, it is possible that the psychological and health benefits of romantic relationships may only apply to people who are in high-quality relationships. It is possible that people in unhappy romantic relationships may experience negative impacts on their health. For example, some research suggests that being in a low-quality relationship is linked with decreased well-being, greater health problems, and a lowered likelihood of engaging in positive health behaviours (Kiecolt-Glaser & Wilson, 2016; Walen & Lachmann, 2000). Interestingly, some research suggests that single people have somewhat better health outcomes when compared to those in lower quality relationships (McCabe et al., 1996).

So, perhaps, instead of being in a low-quality relationship, some people may choose to remain single. We are actually seeing an increase in “singles” across North America, in terms of individuals in living alone (Statistics Canada, 2017) and in rates of non-partnered individuals (U.S. Census Bureau, 2017). We currently don’t know a lot about why people choose to remain single. People endorse many different reasons for choosing to be single, such as, developing a romantic relationship is not a goal or priority, that they’d prefer to focus on their careers or engage in spiritual pursuits, or that they have been hurt in past relationships and experience too much difficulty initiating new ones (Timonen & Doyle, 2014; Band-Winterstein & Manchik-Rimon, 2014; Forsyth & Johnson, 1995).

An attachment theory framework can help us to understand the motivation behind a person’s choice for long-term singlehood (Pepping et al., 2018). Attachment theory (Bowlby, 1969), which was originally developed to explain the relationship between an infant and their caregiver, suggests that early experiences in childhood help to shape how individuals learn to develop and maintain relationships with others, even in adulthood. Caregivers that are responsive (e.g., soothe distress, express positive affection, and warmth) and available allow a child to develop a secure attachment style where they learn that they can feel comfortable and secure with close others. Inconsistent or invalidating (e.g., dismissing emotions) responses from caregivers can lead children to develop an insecure attachment style where they learn to not feel confident in their relationships. Despite wanting a romantic relationship, individuals with an insecure attachment style often display overly clingy or dismissive behaviours towards close others (Mikulincer & Shaver, 2016).


“…ultimately what may matter most is whether it is the persons choice to be single.”

Applying attachment theory to long-term singlehood, Pepping and colleagues (2018) propose that an individual with a secure attachment style may pursue singlehood as a strong personal choice and are able to satisfy their attachment needs from other non-romantic relationships. On the other hand, those with an insecure attachment style may engage in behaviours that make maintaining long-term relationships more difficult, such as distrust and suspiciousness of partners or avoidance of intimacy. However, the researchers discuss that ultimately what may matter most is whether it is the persons choice to be single. Those that are satisfied with their chosen single status are more likely to experience greater satisfaction, self-fulfillment, and less distress than those who are not satisfied with singlehood (Lehmann et al., 2015). Individuals that are choosing to be single may be those for whom singlehood is associated with more health benefits, whereas those not choosing to be single may experience the negative effects of not having social connection.

Overall, despite pervasive and often negative myths about singlehood, those who confidently choose to be single and are able to receive their attachment needs from other relationships can still experience benefits to their psychological well-being.



Band-Winterstein, T., & Manchik-Rimon, C. (2014). The experience of being an old never-married single: A life course perspective. The International Journal of Aging and Human Development, 78, 379–401. doi:10.2190/AG.78.4.d

Bowlby, J. (1969). Attachment and loss. Vol. 1: Attachment. New York, NY: Basic Books

Cohen, S., Doyle, W. J., Skoner, D. P., Rabin, B. S., & Gwaltney Jr, J. M. (1997). Social Ties and Susceptibility to the Common Cold. Infection4, 5.

Fletcher, G. J., Simpson, J. A., Campbell, L., & Overall, N. C. (2015). Pair-bonding, romantic love, and evolution: The curious case of Homo sapiens. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 10, 20–36. doi:10.1177/1745691614561683

Forsyth, C. J., & Johnson, E. L. (1995). A sociological view of the never married. International Journal of Sociology of the Family, 25(2), 91–104

House, J. S., Landis, K. R., & Umberson, D. (1988). Social relationships and health. Science241(4865), 540-545.

Kiecolt-Glaser JK, Wilson SJ. (2017). Lovesick: How couples’ relationships influence health. Annual Review of Clinical Psychology, 13, 421–443. doi:10.1146/annurev-clinpsy-032816-045111

Lehmann, V., Tuinman, M. A., Braeken, J., Vingerhoets, A. J., Sanderman, R., & Hagedoorn, M. (2015). Satisfaction with relationship status: Development of a new scale and the role in predicting well-being. Journal of Happiness Studies, 16, 169–184. doi:10.1007/s10902-014-9503-x

McCabe, M. P., Cummins, R. A., & Romeo, Y. (1996). Relationship status, relationship quality, and health. Journal of Family Studies2(2), 109-120.

Mikulincer, M., & Shaver, P. R. (2016). Attachment in adulthood: Structure, dynamics, and change (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Guilford Press

Pepping, C. A., MacDonald, G., & Davis, P. J. (2018). Toward a psychology of singlehood: An attachment-theory perspective on long-term singlehood. Current Directions in Psychological Science27(5), 324–331.

Sedikides, C., Oliver, M. B., & Campbell, W. K. (1994). Perceived benefits and costs of romantic relationships for women and men: Implications for exchange theory. Personal Relationships1(1), 5-21.

Statistics Canada. (2017, August 02). Families, households and marital status: Key results from the 2016 Census. Retrieved from

Timonen, V., & Doyle, M. (2014). Life-long singlehood: Intersections of the past and the present. Ageing and Society, 34, 1749–1770. doi:10.1017/S0144686X13000500

U.S. Census Bureau. (2017). Table AD-3. Living arrangements of adults 18 and over, 1967 to present. Retrieved from tables/families/time-series/adults/ad3.xlsx

Walen, H. R., & Lachman, M. E. (2000). Social support and strain from partner, family, and friends: Costs and benefits for men and women in adulthood. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships17(1), 5-30.