woman sitting on bed
I have lived alone on and off for much of my adult life, and, despite a recent wavelet of articles and books attesting to the wonders of the single life and what it signifies about us as a culture that so many more people are "going solo," as one book title calls it, I can safely say that I have never made my peace with it. Nor do I believe that the new statistics on single living-which are now higher than they have ever been, coming in at 28 percent of U.S. households and nearly 50 percent of Manhattan residents-indicate a profound psychological change in the way we conceive of ourselves, as some are arguing. Rather, I think they're a reflection of certain social realities, not all of them positive (accomplished women who put off marriage often find a scarcity of compatible mates), and certain adaptations (rather than compromise, women remain single). But perhaps the best place to start is not with a fresh-off-the-press "trend," based on more or less factual evidence and more or less provocative findings by sociologists and opinionmongers, but with myself, as an ostensible representative of this new singleton condition.
Looking back, I can't recall ever having harbored a deep wish to live alone. Although I grew up in a big family and shared my room for the longest time with first two brothers and then two sisters, there was a "lonely-in-a-crowd" flavor to my experience that didn't lend itself to dreams of holing up by myself so much as sharing quarters with more compatible souls. Oh, there may have been a period during my twenties when living on my own seemed like a great adventure, a deep immersion in selfhood that would stand me in good stead, even if only for the inevitable pairing up that lay ahead. I enjoyed fitting out my first apartment, a dark faux triplex on 79th Street, with dishes and bookshelves, and reveled in the luxury of working at my desk, writing a bimonthly book column, into the early morning hours without anyone protesting the light or the noise. There was pleasure in staking out my own turf, filling the fridge with handpicked groceries, turning on my Farberware coffeepot every morning to brew the kind of ground beans-strongly flavored but not too tannic-that I'd come to prefer. But I also recall the heaviness of the air striking me each time I returned home and unlocked the door with no one awaiting me on the other side, only an empty apartment and what the English poet Philip Larkin, a lifelong bachelor, called "the instantaneous grief of being alone."
No One Wants to Be Alone
Of course, there's nothing like the drawn-out sorrow of being part of an unhappy couple to make you wonder whether you overdramatized the burden of living on your own. To wit: I married in a state of great ambivalence at 34, became a mother at 35, and by 40 was on my own again, sharing custody of my daughter with my ex-husband. By the end of my marriage I felt overrun, the most basic decisions-like whether to feed our girl broccoli or some other virtuous green for dinner-taken out of my hands, and the idea of having a living space to myself, without an antagonistic male presence to contend with, seemed heaven-sent. I remember the sense of spaciousness I felt toward evening, when I looked forward to getting into bed and the prospect of reading or watching TV without having to make conversation or, as was more likely, patch up an earlier argument. But it must also be said that living with a small child, as I did for some of the week, is not the same as living alone; I found a good deal of companionship in my daughter even when she was addicted to make-believe and couldn't discuss grown-up subjects. Then too, the fact of her dependence on me was a constant, space-filling one, which went a ways toward alleviating my newfound partnerless state.
The years passed, my daughter grew up and away from a focus on me, and I meanwhile became involved with two men in succession, each of whom spent a lot of time in my apartment without officially moving in. The idea of marriage came up with both of them, but I didn't feel prepared to take that conclusive a step, and they both went on to other relationships. Then, as can happen without warning, the opportunities for meeting men became ever more scanty; I was older, for one thing, and pickier, for another. My daughter lived in a dorm in the same city and came home for sleepovers, but other than that, I was back to being the sole occupant of my apartment. Given that as a writer I also work at home, and of necessity by myself, that's a lot of time to one's own.
So let me be blunt about it. These days living alone often seems closer to a sentence of solitary confinement-an advanced course in living within the boundaries of the unaccompanied, unechoed self-than it does a racy prelude to a more domesticated future. If there is a claustrophobia that comes with being in too close proximity to another person, I've discovered that there is another kind of claustrophobia that comes with being in too unmediated a relation to one's own hermetic self. For one thing, there is no one to put on your "best" self for, so you're more likely to skip brushing your teeth before bed, say, or forgo a shower. It's nothing radical, but the subtle softening of grooming standards comes to reflect a deeper laxity of self-care. For another, it's easy to fall into a pattern of inertia, of not making the effort to see the movie or exhibition everyone's talking about. Not to mention something more important that is rarely alluded to in the new paeans to the single life-the lack of physical connection with another person, be it as basic as the touch of someone else's skin next to yours or the heightening of the senses that comes with good sex.
Indeed, there's a certain hour of the night-usually right before I go to sleep, when the noise of the city has abated and I can hear the anxious whirring of my own mind-when my aloneness strikes me with renewed strength, almost as a metaphysical condition to be uneasily pondered: What am I doing adrift in a queen-size bed, with no one's snoring to grumpily ignore or leg to push out of the way? How did I get to this place, where everyone I know seems to be coupled, happily or unhappily, but coupled all the same? (Although I don't mean to suggest that I'd prefer being in just any relationship to being on my own.) And am I fated to be stuck in this condition? From here it's a hop, skip, and jump to forecasting the scene of my own death, à la Bridget Jones, with no one to find me before the dogs have finished off my remains.
An Explanation for the Rise in Singletons
I've been thinking about this issue, despite the fact that I don't fully qualify as living on my own now that my 22-year-old daughter is temporarily back in her old room, because from what I can tell the single life-or "singlism," as social psychologist Bella DePaulo calls it-has suddenly acquired a new cachet. Whether it's a much-noticed article in The Atlantic by Kate Bolick called "All the Single Ladies" or a book called Going Solo: The Extraordinary Rise and Surprising Appeal of Living Alone, by Eric Klinenberg (who himself is married and a father of two), there is a growing cadre of people bent on making a case for the promise of living alone. Most recently, New York Times op-ed writer David Brooks penned a column addressing the multiple factors-including the more than half of adults who are single-that have led to "an amazing era of individualism," in which "people want more space to develop their own individual talents." Unlike many others, though, Brooks also points out that this more flexible approach to human connections favors people with greater "social capital"-those who have the ambition and gifts to custom-make their lives-while leaving others to "fall through the cracks" into hapless solitude.
Klinenberg, whose book has become the go-to manifesto for what looks to be a movement of cheerleaders for the single life-although earlier books, such as E. Kay Trimberger's The New Single Woman and DePaulo's Singled Out helped set the stage-believes that the rise in living alone is nothing less than "a transformative social experience." To back up his claim that "we have embarked on this massive social experiment in living alone because we believe it serves a purpose," he brings together anecdotal evidence regarding all manner of "singletons," ranging from young people who've left home and are partaking "in their city's robust social life" to women who have outlived their husbands. He invokes something called "restorative solitude" (a little of which, I'd like to suggest, goes a long way) and touts the "rich new ways" the Internet offers us "to stay connected," with little mention of the impoverishing effect it has had on old-fashioned, flesh-on-flesh contact.
Why We Still Fear Ending Up Alone
To his credit, Klinenberg does address the sense of stigma that women who live alone in their thirties and forties continue to feel. "Regardless of their personal or professional accomplishments," he points out, "they see their public identity 'spoiled,' as the sociologist Erving Goffman put it-reduced from something big and complex and interesting to that of the single woman alone." Still, he insists that confidence in being a singleton comes if you work hard at it. Perhaps, but most of us are brought up with the expectation that grown-up existence entails being part of a duo of some sort. All of our cultural forces promote this image, from romantic songs to vacation resorts, and the fewest of us, I'd hazard, cultivate youthful visions of a future that features ourselves living alone by choice. Add to this the fact that in our society loneliness and aloneness are often experienced as one and the same state. "People are in this incredible panic to avoid being alone in the room with themselves," says Helen, one of the few women Klinenberg interviews who doesn't chirp about loving her domestic autonomy or remaking society. "Many people-and I'm one of them-absolutely live with loneliness all the time. It's like an illness."
I don't begrudge people who've found definition and meaning in the very fact of their being alone. I applaud their enthusiasm and satisfaction in being able to live as eccentrically as they like without worrying about being observed conversing with their cat or walking around in days-old clothes (heck, some days I barely make it out of my nightgown), but I'm not convinced that these are the signposts of a thrilling alternative to a more conventional way of being. Perhaps the real issue has less to do with whether we end up in a pair or alone than with the dramatic lack of options in how we conceive of adult living arrangements. By far the most intriguing part of Going Solo, tucked away in the conclusion, has to do with a description of the cooperative housing that exists in Stockholm, where people of different ages and sometimes genders live in collective dwellings, alone but not isolated. One such building, called Färdknäppen, operates like a modified kibbutz-offering different-size units, depending on family size, along with communal dining and shared services such as exercise classes and hobby rooms. To me, it sounds ideal-a way of living with others outside the usual confinement of coupledom. I can't imagine that this kind of visionary housing will be hitting our shores anytime soon, though, so in the meantime I'll have to make do with navigating my solo life as best I can, trying to ignore those lines from Bruce Springsteen's "Hungry Heart" that I can't get out of my mind: "Don't make no difference what nobody says/ Ain't nobody like to be alone." Ain't that the truth.
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