I recently watched a documentary called “Shy Boys: IRL“, involving individuals who identify as experiencing involuntary celibacy (incel), also called forever alone (FA), true forced loneliness (TFL), love shy or a number of other terms. This describes an inability to get a romantic partner despite trying and over a certain age (usually by 18, when most individuals have experienced some romantic contact with their peers.) It is closely linked to overall loneliness, though it’s possible for people to have general life satisfaction outside of a lack of romantic relationships.
As an individual who once struggled with women (although no longer), I found the concept intriguing and decided to explore it further. While this article is written from the perspective of men pursuing women, but women can be FA/incel as well.
Loneliness is defined as a difference between an individual’s desired social relationships and their actual relationships (either in quantity or emotional quality.) Researchers have identified three dimensions of loneliness, intimate loneliness, relational loneliness, and collective loneliness. (Cacioppo, et. al., 2015)
Intimate loneliness refers to your romantic partners, relational loneliness to friends and acquaintances, while collective loneliness refers to loneliness in the context of being part of a larger community like students or professionals.
There is a direct link between between loneliness and depression (Bekhet & Zauszniewski, 2012) while Victor & Yang (2012) determined that before the age of 25 the quantity of friendships is most associated with loneliness while as individuals proceed into middle age fewer, deeper relationships become more important.
Luhmann, et. al. (2016) found that self report ratings were the best source of how lonely an individual actually feels, and that romantic partners (where they exist) were more accurate than friends or parents in predicting this in a sample of first year college students.
Involuntary celibates, then, can be theorized to have high levels of intimate loneliness, and many also struggle with depression.
Model and Causes of Loneliness
Roekel et. al. (2016) and Bangee et. al. (2014) identified that people with high levels of loneliness experienced hypersensitivity to social threat (they were extra sensitive to negative social environments and more likely to assume people around them were judging them) but also, contrary to their initial hypothesis hyposensitivity to social reward. This means that they responded well to positive social interaction when they could obtain it.
Yao & Zhong (2014) found that internet addiction was associated with increasing levels of loneliness, while online contacts did not reduce loneliness as was expected. Odaci & Kalkan (2010) found internet use over 5 hours a day was significantly related to both loneliness and dating anxiety.
Involuntary celibates are likely to interpret social situations as negatively as possible, which can impair their ability to befriend the opposite sex. They may interpret neutral stimuli as negative and therefore become hopeless, believing that they are being rejected when no such rejection has occurred.
Potential Interventions to Reduce Loneliness
Cacioppo, et. al., (2015) in their meta-review explored a number of potential targets of existing work to reduce loneliness. Providing social support to lonely people through programs like mentoring or one-to-one befriending led to a small improvement in loneliness, while increasing opportunities for social interaction by providing group therapy led to no improvement.
Therapy to correct distorted thinking was found to be the most effective, which was confirmed through a study by Masi et. al. in (2011) that used CBT. Involuntary celibacy frequently involved distorted thinking (either about themselves or about women.)
Autism Spectrum Disorder and Loneliness
Autism causes unique difficulties for individuals struggling with loneliness and involuntary celibacy. Their difficulty interpreting social cues means they can be unintentionally asocial and this can exacerbate their feelings of disconnection. Bishop-Fitzpatrick, Minshew & Eack (2013) in their metareview found that social skills training and Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) were both effective in reducing loneliness.
A second study by Gantman et. al. (2012) looked at a 12-week social skills training called PEERS for Young Adults in particular led to sharply decreased loneliness and increased ratings of social skills by parents or other social supports around them.
Relationship Status and Loneliness
Adamczyk, & Segrin, C. (2015) found that, as expected, young adults in relationships were far likely to be lonely and to identify low social support.
Sexual Inexperience in Young Adults
Some young adults may not feel lonely, but may still be frustrated by their lack of sexual experience, and virginity in particular. By 12th grade, 62% of adolescents have engaged in vaginal intercourse, while about 5% of males and 3% of females 25-29 are virgins.
Interestingly, over 50% of 18 year old virgins went on to lose their virginity by 19-21. (Haydon et. al., 2014) This suggests that while involuntary celibacy or being “Forever Alone” (which is most commonly perceived by males 18-24) as a life-long problem, many of these same individuals will in fact have sex within a few years of their peers.
Donnelly, et. al. (2001) conducted a qualitative review of late-life virgins and discovered that differences began in adolescence, a failure to gain a first kiss and other formative sexual experiences led to a persistent feeling of being “behind” which exacerbated attempts to catch up.
Factors related to late-life virginity as summarized Boislard, van de Bongardt, & Blais (2016) include:
- Being overweight
- Perceived as physically unattractive
- Having never been in a romantic relationship
Treatments for Involuntary Celibacy
Treatments for involuntary celibacy are few and far in between, because such a small portion of the population struggles in this way. Anecdotally it appears that a combination of a lack of risk-taking combined with shyness and maldadaptive cognitions lead lonely individuals to pre-emptively fear rejection and therefore not pursue romantic partners, leading to increased loneliness in a vicious cycle.
Those that do purse partners may find themselves unable to cope with the natural levels of rejection that everyone goes through and therefore give up before they find a willing partner.
As noted in previous sections, Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) is the most effective treatment to reduce loneliness and depression. CBT can help correct distorted thinking which is extremely common in individuals who are incel or ForeverAlone.
Social skills training for adults with autism has been shown to fix social skills deficits (and would likely assist adults not on the spectrum as well.) Additionally, improving physical attractiveness, particularly through weight loss for overweight individuals has been associated with an increase in sexual behaviour.
Finally, therapy can also be used to improve low self esteem and confidence.
There is a large internet community focusing on (mostly) young men who have been unable to crack the intimacy code. Do you have suggestions for how to improve your situation? Please write in the comments.
Adamczyk, K., & Segrin, C. (2015). Direct and Indirect Effects of Young Adults’ Relationship Status on Life Satisfaction through Loneliness and Perceived Social Support. Psychologica Belgica, 55(4), 196. doi:10.5334/pb.bn
Bangee, M., Harris, R. A., Bridges, N., Rotenberg, K. J., & Qualter, P. (2014). Loneliness and attention to social threat in young adults: Findings from an eye tracker study. Personality And Individual Differences, 6316-23. doi:10.1016/j.paid.2014.01.039
Bekhet, A.K., & Zauszniewski, J.A. (2012). Mental health of elders in retirement communities: Is loneliness a key factor? Archives of Psychiatric Nursing, 26(3), 214–224.
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Cacioppo, S., Grippo, A. J., London, S., Goossens, L., & Cacioppo, J. T. (2015). Loneliness: Clinical Import and Interventions.Perspectives On Psychological Science (Sage Publications Inc.), 10(2), 238-249 12p. doi:10.1177/1745691615570616
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Haydon, A.A., Cheng, M.M., Herring, A.H., McRee, A-L., Halpern, C.T. (2014) Prevalence and Predictors of Sexual Inexperience in Adulthood. Archives of Sexual Behavior. 43:221-230. DOI 10.1007/s10508-013-0164-3
Luhmann, M., Bohn, J., Holtmann, J., Koch, T., & Eid, M. (2016). I’m lonely, can’t you tell? Convergent validity of self- and informant ratings of loneliness. Journal Of Research In Personality, 6150-60. doi:10.1016/j.jrp.2016.02.002
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