“Single? Well, it is better than being in a bad relationship.” Well-meaning friends and relatives sometimes convey such sentiments to single people. There are even some single people who say the same thing about themselves. But is it true?
Research published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin shows that such a sentiment sets the bar far too low. On seven different measures of how people were doing, people in romantic relationships were better off than single people in only one way. On the other six measures, people in romantic relationships did better than single people only if they said their relationships were of the very highest quality.
Single people did better than people in bad romantic relationships. But they also did better than people in romantic relationships that were not that bad at all.
In “The highs and lows of love,” Nathan W. Hudson of Southern Methodist University, and Richard E. Lucas and M. Brent Donnellan of Michigan State University, also described the emotional experiences of people in romantic relationships when their partner was and was not around. Some of the findings were not at all romantic.
How the study was conducted
Michigan State University conducts a State of the State telephone survey four times a year. Participants who said they were interested in signing up for other studies were sent invitations to take part in this study. The 326 people who answered questions at least two different times were included in the analyses. They ranged in age from 19 to 92; on the average, they were 53 years old. Most (86%) were white.
The 307 people categorized as “in a romantic relationship” all said that they were in a committed romantic relationship; 271 were married and 7 were engaged. The people categorized as “not in a romantic relationship” (I refer to them as single) included lifelong single people who were not dating and those who were dating casually. Just about all of the divorced and widowed people said they were not dating or only dating casually.
All participants answered 7 sets of questions about how they were doing.
1. Overall positive feelings. The extent to which the participants generally felt happy and satisfied over the past two weeks.
2. Overall negative feelings. The extent to which the participants generally felt frustrated, worried, sad, and angry over the past two weeks.
3. Overall sense of meaning. The extent to which the participants generally felt a sense of meaning over the past two weeks.
4. Positive feelings yesterday. The extent to which the participants felt happy and satisfied while engaging in various activities the day before.
5. Negative feelings yesterday. The extent to which the participants generally felt frustrated, worried, sad, and angry while engaging in various activities the day before.
6. Sense of meaning yesterday. The extent to which the participants generally felt a sense of meaning while engaging in various activities the day before.
7. Life satisfaction. The extent to which participants were satisfied with their lives, as measured by five items (e.g., “I am satisfied with my life”).
The participants who were in committed romantic relationships also rated the quality of those relationships.
Quality of the romantic relationships. The people in romantic relationships were asked how much they agreed with 5 statements, such as “My relationship with my partner makes me happy” and “We have a good relationship.” Ratings were recorded on a scale ranging from 1 (very strongly disagree) to 7 (very strongly agree).
Were the people in romantic relationships doing better than the single people?
The people in committed romantic relationships did not experience more positive feelings – overall or during the previous day – than the single people did. They also did not experience fewer negative feelings or any more of a sense of meaning. They were only doing better in one way: they said they were more satisfied with their lives.
Maybe they were proud of themselves for being in a romantic relationship, since those relationships are so valued, and perhaps that’s why they were more satisfied with their lives. Other research suggests that any special life satisfaction is unlikely to last. For example, 18 previous long-term studies of married people showed that they typically become more satisfied with their lives only when they first marry; over time, their satisfaction goes back to what it was before they married. Also, that special wisp of happiness around the time of the wedding is typically enjoyed only by the people who stayed married. The ones who were headed toward divorce were already becoming less happy as the day of their wedding approached.
In the current study, the people in committed romantic relationships did not feel any better than single people emotionally and they did not experience their lives as more meaningful.
One subset of people in romantic relationships were doing better than single people in every way – the coupled people who agreed most strongly with every positive statement about their relationship. In every way, they described their relationship in the most positive terms possible – a 7 on the 7-point scale.
As for the coupled people who gave middle-of-the-scale ratings of their relationships – for example, they neither agreed nor disagreed that their relationship made them happy – they were worse off in every way (either significantly or nearly so) than the people who were single. The truism was also true: single was better than being in a bad relationship.
Were the coupled people happier when their partners were around?
When the participants were asked about the emotions they experienced during various activities the day before, they were also asked to indicate who (if anyone) they were with each time. That way, the researchers were able to see whether people had more positive experiences when they were with their partner than when their partner wasn’t around.
On the average, people in romantic relationships had more positive feelings and a greater sense of meaning when they were with their partner. However, they did not experience fewer negative feelings when their partner was around.
Again, the quality of the romantic relationships mattered. People who rated their relationship quality as a little better than neutral (4.4 on the 1-to-7 scale) had more positive feelings when their partner was not present than when their partner was around.
When it came to negative feelings (frustration, worry, sadness, and anger), the results were even more ominous. Even those who rated their romantic relationships as fairly high in quality (5.5 on the 1-to-7 scale) experienced significantly more negative feelings when they were with their partner than when their partner was not around. As the authors concluded:
“Thus, it appears that people who reported anything less than “strongly agreeing” that their relationship was high quality (original scale score = 6) experienced more negative affect while around their partners than when separated from them.”
As is always true of studies like this, we cannot know for sure whether relationship status or quality, or the presence of a romantic partner, caused people to feel more positively or negatively, or whether some other psychological dynamics were involved.
Single people’s relationships
Most scholars who study romantic relationships refer to what they are studying as “relationships” rather than “romantic relationships.” The implication seems to be that unless you have a romantic relationship, you don’t have any relationships at all – or at least none that matter. In a truly rare occurrence, the authors of this study offered a more enlightened perspective:
“Although theorists have suggested that romantic relationships may be preeminent in determining well-being (e.g., Hazan & Zeifman, 1994), individuals who are not involved in romantic relationships may be able to fulfill their relational needs in a variety of ways (e.g., friendships; see DePaulo, 2005). Future research should offer a more detailed investigation of the social lives of single individuals.”
The “Single at Heart” choose single life over even the best romantic relationships
The study I am describing distinguished among different kinds of romantic relationships but not among different kinds of single people. People who love being single have very different experiences than people who are reluctantly single. For people who are “Single at Heart,” single life is their best life – their most meaningful, fulfilling, and authentic life. For them, being single is better than having even the best romantic relationship.