You might assume that people in romantic relationships are happy and feel fulfilled. After all, intimate relationships have many psychological and emotional benefits, including feelings of intimacy, a sense of security and purpose, mutual trust, and social support.

However, some people might not have the time or energy for close romantic attachments. Work-related responsibilities, limited emotional capacity, or recovering from a difficult break-up could make being in a relationship seem unrealistic or undesirable. In other words, there are times when people may just not feel ready to be in a relationship.

How ready people feel to be involved in romantic relationships may affect how they go about pursuing or maintaining a relationship. People who feel ready may find ways to build and strengthen their relationships, leading them to feel closer and more satisfied. Conversely, people who don't feel ready may distance themselves from their partner or avoid developing a deeper relationship, leading relationship quality to deteriorate.

The interesting cases arise when people feel ready for a relationship but aren't involved in one, and when they don't feel ready for a relationship but are nevertheless currently involved in one. We wondered how readiness affects the psychological benefits people derive from relationships, and what happens when there is a mismatch between their readiness and current relationship status.

We sent out surveys to people residing in Singapore and the United States, receiving more than 1500 responses. We asked them to indicate if they were currently single or attached, and how ready they felt to be in a committed romantic relationship at the current time. We also asked them about their psychological well-being, including how competent and autonomous they felt in life, their sense of purpose, and their personal growth.

Relationship Readiness and Well-being

People who felt ready to be in a relationship had better psychological well-being than people who felt less ready. While we would have expected this trend for coupled people, it was a bit of a surprise to see a similar association for single people as well. You might think that a single person who feels relatively ready to be in a relationship but does not have a romantic partner at that time would actually feel more dissatisfied and unfulfilled.

Coming to terms with being single and feeling satisfied and fulfilled while single may lead to feeling ready for a relationship. This idea might be expressed as, "Now that I am comfortable in my singleness, I am ready to be in a relationship." People who are ready may have higher psychological well-being because their psychological needs are already fulfilled.

Is It Always Better to Be in a Relationship?

Although feeling ready to be in a relationship was associated with well-being for everyone, actually being in a relationship was not always linked to well-being.  Among people who felt ready to be in a relationship, currently being in a relationship predicted improved well-being. 

However, among people who did not feel ready for a relationship, being in a relationship was associated with worse well-being than being single. This was consistent in Singapore and the U.S. and held for people from different socioeconomic backgrounds.

Coupled people who don't feel ready to be in relationships may feel "trapped," forced to navigate the challenges and conflict in a (poorer quality) relationship that isn't a priority for them. All these aspects would diminish their well-being while being stuck in a relationship, in comparison to singles who do not have to deal with these relationship-related costs.

Being in a relationship isn't a source of happiness and satisfaction for everyone; it depends on whether people feel ready. 

For Further Reading

Tan, K., Ho, D., & Agnew, C. R. (2023). Relationship status and psychological well-being: Initial evidence for the moderating effects of commitment readiness. Journal of Happiness Studies, 24, 2563-2581.

Agnew, C. R., Hadden, B. W., & Tan, K. (2019). It's about time: Readiness, commitment, and stability in close relationships. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 10, 1046-1055.

Hadden, B. W., Agnew, C. R., & Tan, K. (2018). Commitment readiness and relationship formation. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 44, 1242-1257.

Daniel Ho is a third-year Psychology PhD student at Singapore Management University. His research examines close relationships and evolutionary psychology, particularly in areas of mate preferences and friendship.

Kenneth Tan, PhD, is an Assistant Professor of Psychology in the School of Social Sciences at Singapore Management University. He studies close relationships, in particular commitment, partner perceptions, and relationship dissolution as well as their effects on individual and relational well-being.

Christopher R. Agnew, PhD, is a Professor of Psychological Sciences at Purdue University. His research focuses on close, interpersonal relationships and the use of relational models to understand broader social and health processes.