This is not an Onion story. In real science news, a Canadian psychologist tackled a subject on Tuesday even more challenging than what confronted Nancy Drew in The Mystery of Pirate Cove. Conclusion: Whether single or married, women (and men) often stay in lackluster relationships for fear of life alone.

Stephanie Spielmann, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Toronto, began the new study by quoting literature from a generation ago: “Single women lead lonely, depressing, and incomplete lives. Their unhappiness increases exponentially with each passing birthday, because past a certain age a woman is ‘used up,’” write investigators Anderson and Stewart, in 1994. “All women are desperate to marry or remarry because marriage is their only real chance for security and happiness.”

In describing the study in a journal paper, Spielmann discusses the “myth” that single adults — particularly women — yearn for romance and suffer for lack of it. “The present research explores the usefulness of fear of being single as a construct for understanding relationship attitudes and behaviors,” she writes.

Fair enough. And bonus points for using the word “construct” in a psychology paper. To dispel this myth (or maybe she proved it?), Spielmann and her colleagues surveyed a bunch of students and community members at the university.

"In our results we see men and women having similar concerns about being single, which lead to similar coping behaviors, contradicting the idea that only women struggle with a fear of being single,” Spielmann said in a statement. "Those with stronger fears about being single are willing to settle for less in their relationships. Sometimes they stay in relationships they aren't happy in, and sometimes they want to date people who aren't very good for them."

Science now understands that anxiety about loneliness appears to “play a key role” in “unhealthy relationship behaviors,” which might cynically explain a good chunk of conspecific relationships dating back to the Pleistocene. In reviewing the literature on the subject, Spielmann finds a previous study of unmarried women in their 30s, which found three distinct psychological categories. Whereas most women approached singlehood with ambivalence, acknowledging the positive and negative, others either reveled in the freedom or despaired from loneliness. However, the new study explores fears of loneliness with a greater diversity in the age and experience of study subjects, encompassing not only undergraduates at Toronto but apparently older adults wandering onto the campus.

In the study, investigators first surveyed 126 women and 27 men through online forums such as Craigslist.org, in exchange for a chance at winning a $50 gift certificate. Some 38.8 percent reported absolutely no fear of living life alone, with another 18.4 percent worry anxiously about “spinsterhood” and a lonely eventual death. Another 11.8 percent of respondents expressed both anxiety and relief with the vicissitudes of single life, while 6.6 percent — still young, generally speaking — said they worried the future might bring loneliness.

Further, the study assessed survey respondents for susceptibility to depression, loneliness, and rejection sensitivity. On a standard psychological measure of “hurt feelings,” respondents scored a median of 3.27 on the five-point scale.  On their “need to belong,” respondents scored a median of 3.38. In another volley, the investigators assess the romantic attachment styles of the participants, which includes secure and insecure attachment, as well as anxious-preoccupied, dismissive-avoidant, and fearful-avoidant. They also talk about self-esteem a bit.

And what do we learn from this exercise? People unsatisfied with their present relationships — or prospects — will often settle for less when confronted by a strong fear of loneliness. Others, not so much.

Source: Spielmann, Stephanie. Settling for Less Out of Fear of Being Single. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 2013.