What Do Singles Really Want?


Aaron Ben-Zeév

Is sexual diversity all they need?

“I thought I was promiscuous, but it turns out I was just thorough.” Russell Brand

Many married people envy singles for their greater romantic freedom in conducting casual relationships. Do singles envy married people for their enduring serious relationships? A recent study(link is external) of singles in the United States, conducted by Match, the world’s largest relationship company, indicates surprising trends.

Seeking serious relationships

“I have a rule, and that is to never look at somebody’s face while we’re having sex; because, number one, what if I know the guy?” Laura Kightlinger

It seems that singles perceive their greater freedom to engage in casual (mainly sexual) relationships as insufficient. The abundance of romantic options makes the search for a partner quite superficial. Conducting a serious romantic relationship that includes the intention to stay together for a long time implies giving up much of your romantic freedom for the sake of your significant profound relationship. Nevertheless, the Match survey indicates that 69% of today’s singles are looking for something serious.

According to the study, American singles use three major paths for fulfilling this wish for seriousness: hanging out, friends with benefits, and an official first date. All three paths require investing time together and have certain rules expressing their various degrees of seriousness.

In hanging out, people do not engage in sex and have not gone out on an official first date. Although this type of relationship has the lowest degree of seriousness, it still has some rules of behavior that indicate some level of seriousness. Thus, many singles believe that a wider array of behaviors are appropriate when hanging out than when on an official first date, including asking out the day of, splitting the bill, and moving slowly toward physical intimacy.

Friendship with benefits is more serious, and indeed, almost half of the people in such relationships have experienced it turning into a committed relationship. Moreover, most participants in the study (71% of men and 80% of women) who engaged in this kind of relationship think that friendship is more significant than (sexual) benefits.

The experience of a formal first date has become increasingly popular (almost half of the singles surveyed had gone on such a date) and significant. The greater significance is expressed in asking someone out 2–3 days in advance, having the first date at a nice restaurant (rather than in a fast food place), and having a perfect ending such as a peck on the cheek or kissing.

Helen Fisher, Match’s chief scientific advisor, claims that all these tactics, which have proved successful in launching love, indicate that courtship is expanding. Of particular importance, she says, is the new significance of the formal first date: whereas it used to be just a casual look-see, now it often signals the official beginning of a romance.

Seeking diverse, brief sexual interactions

“To keep a marriage, the husband should have a night out with the boys and the wife should have a night out with the boys, too.” Zsa Zsa Gabor

Alongside the search for serious romantic relationships, there is also a great tendency of singles to experience diverse, brief types of superficial, sexual relationships. Thus, many singles have dated multiple people simultaneously—more women (69%) than men (51%). Moreover, 62% of heterosexual singles would be open to a threesome, and one in four singles would have sex with a robot, yet nearly half of singles would consider it cheating if their partner had sex with a robot.

One of the study’s interesting findings is that both single women and men reported having their best sex in their mid-sixties. This suggests that good sex is not mainly based on superficial novelty, as is often the case at a young age, but requires some profound familiarity. This finding, however, does not imply that the best sex in a committed relationship with the same partner is best at an older age. On the contrary, Christine Proulx and colleagues (2017) argue for the existence of “the honeymoon-as-ceiling effect,” which indicates that marital quality rarely increases beyond its initial point of marriage, or prior to it. They claim that spouses typically do not significantly and linearly improve on positive dimensions of marital quality from the start of their relationship.


“I find that when you open the door toward openness and transparency, a lot of people will follow you through.” Kirsten Gillibrand

According to the Match study, among those involved in a friendship with benefits relationship, 61% believe that one must disclose all other current sexual partners. The greater openness about romantic flexibility stems from the greater acceptance in society of such flexibility, as well as from the fact that such flexibility is expressed in many frequent and various types of experiences that can no longer be hidden.

This is compatible with the significant openness and honesty associated with polyamory. It seems that polyamorous people arrive at a different understanding of what commitment and intimacy ought to involve, typically replacing a flat notion of (predominantly sexual) fidelity with complex notions of emotional openness, honesty, explicitness as a romantic norm, and the ongoing manifestations of tenderness (Ben-Ze’ev & Brunning, 2017).

What do singles really want?

“I am too intelligent, too demanding, and too resourceful for anyone to be able to take charge of me entirely. No one knows me or loves me completely. I have only myself.” Simone de Beauvoir

The complexity of the current romantic environment, which includes plenty of alluring options, challenges people in general, and singles in particular. To an outside observer, this environment is paradise, the wet dream of all lovers: having whatever you want, whenever you want it. However, a closer look indicates that something is rotten in the state of romance. Flexibility without constraints and change without stability are damaging.

Singles really want to combine profundity with sexual diversity. They want to have it both ways—a serious, meaningful relationship, as well as diverse sexual encounters. Is it possible? In our current society, this is not easy to achieve. It contradicts the accepted norms that separate profoundness from sexual diversity—most people feel the two are incompatible and should not be sought at the same time. You first have the sexual diversity. You eat as much as you can from the sexual meal, then stop it, and turn to the phase of a serious relationship. This route is rather problematic, as most people want both of these phases to continue. They want to be married, but not dead; they do not want merely to breathe, but to be alive.

Current singles (and other people) realize the intricacy of their conflicting desires and many do wish for a more complex romantic environment. On the one hand, most of them retain the old dream of having a serious, profound relationship that will last for a long time. In order to achieve it, they develop different tactics to get to know others better through various interactions over time. On the other hand, singles also like brief and diverse sexual interactions, such as dating more than one person at a time, having a threesome, and some even would have sex with a robot.

Concluding remarks

“My boyfriend and I live together, which means we don’t have sex—ever. Now that the milk is free, we’ve both become lactose intolerant.” Margaret Cho

At the basis of the new romantic reality is a combination of great diversity and restricted flexibility. No doubt, you cannot eat everything you want; in part, because it is not romantically healthy to do so. However, you need not go on hunger strike in order to flourish romantically. Adopting a moderate diet never killed anyone.


Ben-Ze’ev, A. & Brunning, L. (2017). How Complex Is Your Love? The Case of Romantic Compromises and Polyamory. Journal for the Theory of Social Behaviour, (DOI: 10.1111/jtsb.12156)

Proulx, C. M., Ermer, A. E., & Kanter, J. B. (2017). Group‐based trajectory modeling of marital quality: A critical review. Journal of Family Theory & Review9, 307–327.



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