Societies around the world are increasingly full of singles. Marriage rates are plummeting across Asia, Europe, and the United States, and committed relationships are in rapid decline as well. To understand this alarming trend, researchers recently took to Reddit, a place where people are more than happy to talk about their feelings.
Menelaos Apostolou, Ph.D., an associate professor at the University of Nicosia, examined 6,794 comments left on an r/askreddit post that simply asked: Guys, why are you single? Apostolou explains in a study published Wednesday in Evolutionary Psychological Science that the Redditors’ varied answers fit into three main evolutionary theoretical frameworks that explain singlehood overall.
Why Are Some Men Single?
It depends on who you ask. After analyzing, coding, and classifying the 6,794 Reddit responses, Apostolou sorted them into 43 different categories. The top three reasons men gave for their single status were poor looks (with 662 comments), low self-esteem (with 544 comments), and low-effort (with 514 comments). Some men wrote that they were “cursed with awful genetics,” while others reasoned that “confidence is key, and I’m locked out.”
Apostolou says that the reasons these men think they’re single can be divided into three categories: freedom of choice, difficulties with relationships, and constraints. The first label means what it sounds like — these are the people who stay single because they want more freedom and are happy just having casual relationships. Constraints are factors like sexual issues, health problems, and having ties to previous relationships. The final category, “difficulties with relationships,” is the most interesting and the most controversial.
These difficulties are situations presented by the commenters. For example, some heterosexual men were distressed that they couldn’t flirt, while some reasoned that their “terrible” ability at picking up on signals is why they weren’t dating. Apostolou hypothesizes that that the real issue is a “mismatch problem”: Men of the past, he argues, didn’t have to rely on flirting or friendship to get a mate. Instead, they were given wives through violence or family ties and today, those men’s descendants are running around without the evolved social skills necessary to charm a woman.
“We have inherited mechanisms which enabled our ancestors to gain access to the reproductive capacity of the opposite sex, and which are likely to enable us to do the same today,” Apostolou writes. “This likelihood is compromised by the considerable differences between ancestral and modern conditions, known as the mismatch problem.”
That Seems Like a Stretch, Right?
Yes it does. We know that the dating landscape today is extremely different than it was for, say, our great-grandparents. An increasing number of people are meeting online, and when they’re plugged in, they’re super picky about who they go after. However, we’re also diversifying who we’re choosing to date and opening ourselves to different means of expressing love and affection.
Chris Haywood, Ph.D., a reader in critical masculinity studies at Newcastle University, explains to Inverse that while this study does “provide us with important narratives about how men talk about their relationships,” it’s confusing which ancestral societies Apostolou is using as a comparison for his “mismatch theory.” Haywood reasons that there’s a certain vagueness here that allows the researcher to take a mix of rituals and compare them to “a singular, one-dimensional notion of modern manhood.”
Haywood also takes issue how the theoretical approach taken here frames sexual desire and romantic love as evolutionary adaptions to attract and retain mates. There’s heteronormativity embedded in the idea that relationships are driven by reproduction, and Haywood is “not entirely convinced that fundamentally, all men want to have children with women who have been socially sanctioned as highly desirable.”
And while men remain single for a variety of complex reasons, it’s more likely that it’s the gradual stripping of gender roles and not an evolution-driven inability to flirt that makes the landscape challenging for some.
“The rapid change in how men and women initiate relationships is producing emergent forms of masculinity where trust, authenticity, and self-branding have become the currency,” says Haywood. “Anxieties, vulnerabilities, and failures are not the result of an ancestral mechanism shaming them into reconnecting with a Neolithic Alpha maleness. Instead, it’s more about men trying to navigate changing gender relationships and not having a template of traditional dating rituals to rely on.”