Summary and Conclusions From Exploratory Study of the Long-Term Unattached

This exploratory study was designed to identify a range of variables distinguishing long-term unattached (LTU) adults from long-term committed (LTC) adults between the ages of 30 and 50. Specifically, it attempted to identify explanations for, and consequences of, long-term unattachment. The five research questions looked at:

  1. Characteristics from childhood, e.g., community size, parental characteristics, characteristics of the parent-child relationship, characteristics of the family-of-origin;
  2. Felt alienation, both in childhood and adulthood;
  3. Psychopathology;
  4. Influence of sociocultural changes, e.g., the human potential movement, the women's liberation movement, the emphasis on romance in our culture, and the erosion of traditional values; and
  5. Life experience, i.e., subjective life experience (depression/despair and feelings about attachment status), and supportive affiliations (use of and need for, as well as, methods used for meeting other singles and satisfaction with same).

LTU subjects selected were those who had not been in a committed, intimate relationship for eight or more years. LTC subjects selected were those who had been in a marital, or equivalent, relationship for eight or more years.

The study was done in two parts. The preliminary study was qualitative and consisted of interviews of 14 subjects–seven LTUs and seven LTCs. LTU and LTC subjects were closely matched on demographic and socioeconomic variables. Subjects were asked open-ended questions related to family-of-origin, separations and losses, patterns in relationships, feelings about attachment status, and opinions about the needs of married, or single, people. Emerging themes were added to the range of ideas from the review of literature.

The review of literature had summarized psychological and sociological theories related to long-term unattachment (e.g., psychological theories related to intimacy and commitment problems, and sociological theories on the "singles" phenomenon), as well as, current research relevant to long-term unattachment. A questionnaire was developed from the combined list of ideas gleaned from the literature review and the preliminary study.

The final study was quantitative. Seventy-seven subjects were administered the questionnaire designed for the study, as well as, the Millon Clinical Multiaxial Inventory (MCMI). LTU responses to the questionnaire and scores on the MCMI were compared with those of LTC subjects. All variables were subjected to discriminant function analysis, and univariate analysis.

The results showed that:

While long-term unattachment may be problematic, it seems that the cultural attitude of self-reliance precludes the seeking of help for most LTUs. Further, LTUs' avoidance of interpersonal closeness precludes meeting potential mates through the means available. The creation of interventions which might help LTUs might, therefore, be better based in a context of health promotion. This supports the idea that a return to traditional affiliative networks may be what is needed to prevent the phenomenon of long-term unattachment from continuing.

In conclusion, it appears that the phenomenon of long-term unattachment is a consequence of both psychological and sociological variables. Intrapsychic characteristics resulting in problems with intimacy and commitment appear to stem from insecure attachments in childhood. However, insecure attachments within the family may result from the same societal changes which have led interpersonal estrangement, i.e., the breakdown of the family and community, and the decline of intimacy-sponsoring institutions (Yalom, 1980). Therefore, interventions are needed which target both social and psychological structures.