Single-minded: Being unattached beats being in a bad relationship—or even in a ‘neutral’ one

October 22, 2019

Are people who have life partners happier than those who go it alone? Not necessarily, according to a study performed recently by psychologists Nathan Hudson of Southern Methodist University and Richard Lucas and M. Brent Donnellan of Michigan State University.

Indeed, the researchers found—out of a cohort of more than 300 respondents, ages 19 to 92 (average age: 53)—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.

In other words, single people were more satisfied with their lives than people in bad romantic relationships. But they also did better than people in romantic relationships that were not that bad at all.

What was the one way in which people in relationships were more fulfilled and contented with their lives? The people in committed romantic relationships did not experience more positive feelings than the single people did. They also did not experience fewer negative feelings or any more of a sense of meaning.

Indeed, according to a report by Psychology Today, they were only doing better in one way: They said they were more satisfied with their lives.

The researchers posited that It’s possible that they were proud of themselves for being in a romantic relationship, since those relationships are so valued in our society—and perhaps that’s why they were more satisfied with their lives. Compared to single people, though, they did not feel any better emotionally and they did not experience their lives as being 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 seven on the seven-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: being single was better than being in a bad relationship.

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:

The research findings have been published online in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.   

Research contact: @PsychToday

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