InterviewAlone Together?

22 January 2020

Heidelberg University researcher investigates "mingle relationships"

How satisfied are people in so-called mingle relationships? Psychologist Dr Alica Mertens of Heidelberg University explored this question. The results of her research were published in the “Journal of Happiness Studies”. In the following interview, Alica Mertens discusses this type of relationship as well as her study.

Dr Alica Mertens

What does the term "mingle" mean?
Mertens: "Mingle" comes from the English and combines the words "mixed" and "single". It's a type of relationship between a committed partnership and being single. Mingles have an intimate relationship and act like a couple in private but do not take the final step toward commitment by making their relationship public. They leave the back door open, so to speak, in case a "better" partner comes along. This phenomenon is also known as "fear of missing out".

How widespread is this type of relationship and is it mainly young people who are in them? 
For the moment we aren't really sure. To answer that question, we would first need to address the "age" category systematically and in a larger sample. Our study included 764 participants, many but not all of them students. The percentage of mingles was 15 percent, from which we can't infer that 15 percent of the total population are mingles. But it does appear to be a substantial proportion.

What question did your study focus on?
It was important for us to find out if people who are in a mingle relationship were satisfied with this type of relationship. So we first looked at how mingles compare with those who are single versus those in a traditional, committed relationship. We measured basic life satisfaction and emotional loneliness. We also investigated whether the differences between a committed partnership and a mingle relationship could be explained on the basis on fundamental psychological needs.

What needs are those?
There are three basic psychological needs: they are relatedness, competence, and autonomy. Relatedness in a relationship means the feeling of affection and intimacy. Competence means feeling capable when you are together with your partner. Autonomy, in this context, does not mean independence but rather the sense of choice going into the relationship.

How did you go about collecting the data? 
We developed an online survey whose central variable was relationship status; it also addressed life satisfaction, emotional loneliness, and basic psychological needs in the context of a relationship. Participants were surveyed twice, one year apart, so that we could see if a shift in relationship status toward greater commitment led to improved well-being. 

What was the main conclusion of your study?
The mean values of the scales we measured showed a tendency for persons in a committed relationship to be more satisfied with their lives and less lonely than mingles. Mingles, in turn, were more satisfied than singles, but there was still a significant difference compared with the traditional relationship. That doesn't necessarily mean that people in a committed relationship are always automatically happier than mingles or singles, because life satisfaction isn't based solely on relationship status. The study also showed that shifting into more committed forms of relationship increased well-being. We also observed that mingles felt their partners met the three basic needs to a lesser degree than those in committed relationships. Here we noted interesting gender differences that we didn't expect.

What differences were those?
Above all, the need for relatedness was decisive for women to maintain that "as a mingle, I am less satisfied and feel more lonely". This was different for men. They, too, were less satisfied and more lonely as a mingle, but compared with women they felt more of their basic needs were met. So why aren't they happier then? There are studies that show that men experience more sexual jealousy and women more emotional jealousy. In a mingle relationship, you can't rule out that one partner won't become intimate with someone else. For men, this sexual jealousy may weigh heavier. That is one possible explanation. 

How will your research delve further into this topic? 
I directed an empirical project seminar in which students investigated how individuals who preferred a mingle relationship were perceived in a dating profile. We also looked at if that perception depended on whether the participants preferred playful love, called ludus, or selfless, agape love. We are currently preparing these data for publication. It would also be compelling to personally interview mingles and ask them exactly where they feel uncertain in their relationships. There is already research on less committed relationships, but psychology has yet to specifically define them. That is why it is important to approach it from different perspectives. In our study, we also attempted to pin down the term mingle further. We want to pursue this more extensively in future studies.

Personal background

Alica Mertens studied psychology at the universities of Heidelberg and Frankfurt (Main). She earned her doctorate at Ruperto Carola in 2019 with her dissertation entitled "Motivated perception – Discovering emotional bias in mood judgements using the mood-of-the-crowd paradigm". She is a research assistant in the Research Methods and the General and Theoretical Psychology units at the Institute of Psychology of Heidelberg University. Her research topics include new forms of relationships, emotion perception, eating behaviours, and well-being in relationships.

Original Publication

Bucher, Alica; Neubauer, Andreas B.; Voss, Andreas; Oetzbach, Carolin: Together is Better: Higher Committed Relationships Increase Life Satisfaction and Reduce Loneliness. In: Journal of Happiness Studies (2018)

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