Four studies break down preconceived notions about people who like to be alone and those who are not afraid of being single.
There are people who like to be alone, maybe even love it. How do you imagine them? Does your mind visualize misanthropists, or the dreaded loner hiding somewhere to prepare for his next kill?
As Anneli Rufus explains in her beautiful book Party of One: the Loners’ Manifesto, these stereotypes do not capture the true loners. True loners are people who embrace time spent alone. Those who become violent are usually lonely people against their will: they want to fit in, they want to be loved, and they want to be the object of desire. But they have instead been excluded and rejected. This exclusion and rejection feed their hostility and rage.
What is the truth about people who like to be alone?
Thanks to certain scales recently developed to measure different attitudes towards loneliness, we now have research-based answers.
To begin, we need to understand what it means to “enjoy being alone”. One meaning of “being alone” refers to spending time alone. The “Desire to be Alone” scale, developed by Birk Hagemeyer and colleagues, measures this.
People who score high on the “Desire to be Alone” scale recognize themselves in the following statements:
- When I am alone, I feel relaxed.
- I like to be totally alone
They do not recognize themselves in the following statements:
- I feel uncomfortable when I am alone
- Being alone quickly becomes too much for me.
A second definition of “alone” can be used when talking about single people. Thinking life as a single person could be something that some people fear, Stephanie Spielmann and her colleagues developed a “fear of being single” scale. By inverting the scale, we can find the characteristics of personalities who are not afraid of being single.
Thus, people who are not afraid of celibacy do not recognize themselves in the following statements:
- I feel anxiety when I think about being alone forever.
- If I end my life alone, I would think there is something wrong with me.
Details of the study
The personality of two groups of people was measured for the fear of being a single study. One group comprised 301 people recruited online, with an average age of 29 years. Only 33 were married, 131 were single and not seeing anyone, and the rest were seeing someone. The other group comprised 147 Canadians who had not yet graduated, with an average age of 19. Only 2 were married, 105 were single and not seeing anyone, and the others were seeing someone. Results were averaged over the two groups.
Two groups of adult Germans took part in the study on the desire to be alone, and all had been in a serious relationship for at least a year. The first study involved 476 participants (average age 35 years), and the results were averaged between males and females. The second study included 578 heterosexual couples (mean age 42), and results were separated for males and females.
The “Big Five” personality traits were measured for each participant in both study settings:
- Neuroticism: tense, sullen, anxious
- Opening: original, curious, imaginative
- Extroversion: always willing and sociable, talkative, assertive
- Agreeable: considerate and kind, confident, cooperative
- Conscientiousness: reliable, organized, meticulous.
Studies of people who like to spend time alone have also included a measure of their sociability, measured by statements such as “I find people more stimulating than anything else”.
Studies of people who did not fear celibacy included measures of six additional characteristics:
- Contingent relationship self-esteem: the extent to which a person’s self-esteem is contingent on how well the romantic relationship is progressing (when they have one).
- Need to belong: people with a strong need to belong are more likely to identify with statements such as “I need to know that there are people I can turn to in times of need.
- The tendency to feel hurt: These are people whose feelings are fragile.
- Sensitivity to rejection: People sensitive to rejection are more likely to be rejected and to feel anxious because of the sense of rejection.
- Loneliness: Measured by statements such as “Do you often feel a lack of companionship?
- Depression: Measured by assertions such as “I felt I couldn’t get out of the doldrums even with the help of family or friends.
If our stereotypes about people who like to be alone were true, then we should find that they are neurotic and withdrawn. However, the opposite is true: people who like to spend time alone, and who are not afraid of being single, do not be neurotic, i.e. they are not tense, sullen, or worried.
People who like to spend time alone and those who are not afraid of celibacy are also more open-minded than others, are more sensitive to hedonism than those who are afraid of celibacy (those who like to spend time alone are not more or less in hedonism than others), but also more conscientious than those who are afraid of it (the results are not striking for people who like to spend time alone).
One question that one can ask about singles is whether they are introverted?
The most relevant study suggests that this is probably the case. But studies of single people include all single people, whether they have been single. The studies we’re talking about include people who are not afraid of being single and those who like to spend time alone.
Individuals who were not afraid of celibacy were more extroverted than those who were afraid of it. This finding is consistent with those showing that singles have, on average, more friends than married couples, and maintain more relationships with friends, neighbors, relatives, and family. But, again, research on social connections includes all singles, not just those who are afraid of being single.
Those who like to spend time alone are no more or less outgoing than those who don’t, but they score lower on sociability. Both scales (extroversion and sociability) measure similar types, so it is curious that they did not lead to more consistent findings.
It also seems that people who are not afraid of celibacy are not hypersensitive to rejection and do not feel hurt easily. When they are in a couple of relationships, their own self-esteem does not depend on how the relationship evolves, they do not strongly need to belong, and they are less likely to feel lonely or depressed.
Add to this their openness, agreeableness, extroversion, and low level of neuroticism, and people who are not afraid of being single will suddenly seem very courageous. And yet, those who love celibacy and choose it voluntarily are often frowned upon by others, who think they are strange or judge them more easily than those who choose married life. Fortunately, we are seeing more and more of them every day, so hopefully, this will change.
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