Life / Health

The science of anuptaphobia — the fear of being single

A biological anthropologist says reproductive-age men and women equally report eagerness to marry in surveys, and the ‘biological clock’ may be the reason why.

Amanda Shallal, 32, oscillates between nonchalance, hope and stress over being single.

Torstar News Service

Amanda Shallal, 32, oscillates between nonchalance, hope and stress over being single.

There’s a spiral staircase in Amanda Shallal’s family home. Her mom had it built so she could watch each of her daughters saunter down the steps in a wedding dress.

Shallal’s two sisters, both older and younger, have already done it, and her older brother is engaged. At 32, Shallal is starting to worry she’ll never take that walk herself.

Being single at her age is “unheard of” in her family and culture, Shallal says. Her parents, who are members of the Chaldean community, a Christian minority from Iraq, married young and wanted the same for her — especially for her to find a nice Chaldean boy. That might be tricky, since only around 700 people in Toronto identified as native speakers of the Chaldean language in the last census.

“Talk about pressure, and stress, and anxiety,” Shallal says.

Dating apps once held the promise of meeting the right person, but like many, Shallal has become “burnt out” and disillusioned. No one keeps her interest — she has never had a serious relationship. She suffers from what the internet has coined “anuptaphobia” — the fear of staying single forever.

Shallal, a graphic designer in Toronto, oscillates between nonchalance, hope and stress. Winter months are stacked potential nightmares for singles, starting with holiday parties and ending with the most dreaded day on the calendar.

“Valentine’s Day is coming up, you want someone to kiss at midnight, someone to give you gifts. My birthday is in January, too,” Shallal says. “And I don’t want to go out. I want someone to snuggle with. I don’t want to go to clubs and freeze my ass off just to find a guy’s number.”

Dating anxiety is well-documented. The feeling of butterflies before a date is near-universal. Anxiety surrounding yet another weekend of Netflix — without the chill — is something you may confide to friends but rarely is it discussed in public.

While everyone who responded for this story was a woman — straight, gay and bisexual — biological anthropologist Helen Fisher noted reproductive-age men and women equally report eagerness to marry in surveys. Fisher, a senior research fellow at the Kinsey Institute at Indiana University and chief scientific adviser to dating site Match.com, says the “biological clock” is the driving force from an evolutionary perspective.

“We are a pair-boding animal. There’s every reason to believe people of reproductive age would be very anxious about being alone,” Fisher says.

“If you don’t have children, you don’t pass your DNA on tomorrow, and from the genetic perspective, you die. There’s every reason for the young to be particularly interested in forming a pair bond.”

Toronto’s Lindsay Porter, 36, has been single for seven years. Her friends are “partnered up” and have families. She’s torn between “settling” and seeking the magic she last felt years ago when a three-year relationship ended due to bad timing.

“Then I get anxiety about whether that was my only chance,” says Porter, a market researcher. Since then, she’s met one other person with whom she felt a strong connection, but was offered a job in London, England, the same day as their first date. She later moved to San Francisco and returned to Toronto in 2016.

“I feel like life was throwing me these tests of whether to choose my career or personal life. And now that I’m 36 I’m wondering if I screwed up all my chances.”

Porter too has opted out of online dating.

“A lot of people, for me, don’t have that X factor,” she says.

She has a good job, lots of friends and hobbies, but still the biological imperative can’t always be denied, especially for women who are constantly being reminded of their fertility.

“There’s anxiety related to the steps, the social norms, you’re supposed to go through. You’re supposed to find a partner, you’re supposed to get married, then you’re supposed to have a kid. When you’re single, those social norms get forced on you, but they’re irrelevant at the end of the day.”

In fact, the fear of being single is often based on social judgment that “there is something wrong with you” for not maintaining relationships, says Stephanie Spielmann, assistant professor of psychology at Wayne State University in Detroit, who has studied the fear of being single.

The fear can lead to unwise decisions, psychology researchers led by Spielmann, who completed her PhD at the University of Toronto in 2013, found in a series of studies.

One of the studies, published in 2013 in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, found men and women with a fear of being single may be more likely to “settle for less” — choosing a dating partner they recognized was less caring and had rated as less attractive in an experiment looking at fictional online dating profiles. They were also less likely to initiate a breakup when facing an unsatisfying relationship.

A second study in 2016 in the Journal of Personality, which followed participants before and after breakups, found the fear was intensified after the breakup and that on days when it was most acute, the single person reported greater longing and more attempts to get back together.

To make it worse, this could all be compounded in the Tinder era.

Those with a stronger fear of being single “are probably quite interested in using various media or online options to meet new partners or keep track of their ex,” Spielmann says.

“The risk is that they might end up going on even more bad dates or settling for lower quality partners,” she says.

Spielmann’s not-yet published data suggests people with a fear of being single are no less attractive and aren’t even single for longer periods of time than those who don’t report such anxieties, suggesting the fear is psychological and not an accurate reflection of an ability to find a mate.

Research has noted singlehood is deemed by society as a “deficit state” characterized by its lack of relationship, rather than a neutral status of its own, and that “fails to acknowledge the unique rewards or fulfilment that singles can experience,” Spielmann says.

After being in committed relationships for most of her 20s, Bea Jolley, 30, is embracing that possibility. To celebrate the flexibility of being single, she’s dating herself, enjoying trips and lavish dinners on her own.

“The anxiety comes from the assumption that the pinnacle of my life as a woman, the construct of being a woman, is motherhood and marriage,” says Jolley, a supply teacher in Toronto.

But that’s not “the yardstick I’m using to measure my happiness and success,” she says. When she meets someone lamenting their singledom, she reminds them a partner is great but does require emotional labour, and being single allows more time to focus on personal goals and friendships. She’s fulfilled by her close friendships, completing her master’s in social justice education at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education and her new-found freedom.

After her most recent relationship ended last March, Jolley travelled to Europe, taking herself for a romantic dinner in Venice and a sunset visit to the Eiffel Tower. This year, she’s inviting anyone in her community who is single and femme-identified to get together for a “Palentine’s” Day.

“If you’re just waiting for a partner for your life to start, your life will pass you by,” Jolley says.

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