Being alone is an art

Tattered Trunk Sadly this major oak in a pastu...
Tattered Trunk Sadly this major oak in a pasture North of Abberton Manor has given up the ghost. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

My 8th. most popular blog post — with 578 views so far — offers 12 tips on how to travel alone as a woman.

For me and for many women I know, of all ages, it’s just no big deal. For others, going to a movie or concert or eating a meal in public, certainly at a good restaurant likely filled with couples or groups of friends, remains a prospect so intimidating they refuse to even try. They feel conspicuous, lonely, out of place.


If you fear doing things alone, you’re always going to be clinging to others, seeking the comfort or validation of their company, like a small child with a tattered blankie. Or, as many women do, choosing to hang onto any man with a pulse because then they’re not single and alone anymore.

(So not true. I was the loneliest of my life when married to my first husband.)

I think it also depends on the friends, family and community you live in, and your ability to ignore or withstand peer pressure. Not to mention housing costs!

I’ve spent many years alone, living alone, no man in sight , or certainly none who would be around for very long. I grew up an only child and grew accustomed to amusing myself — with books, art, music, friends, stuffed animals or Legos.

I left home at 19 and lived alone in a very small studio apartment. I did that until I moved in with a boyfriend at the age of 21 or 22 and lived with him until I was 25 and moved to France for a year. I returned to Toronto and we broke up and I lived alone til I was 30 and met the man I would marry. He and I divorced when I was 37 and someone else — seriously! — proposed to me within the month, a much older man who’d been lusting after me (who knew?) for decades.

I said no thanks, and lived alone until I was 43 when Jose moved into my apartment.

I never hated being alone. But it’s not easy.

Living alone costs a fortune, especially in the United States where, if you are self-employed or out of work, you must buy health insurance for yourself and it’s insanely expensive; in the late 1990s I was then paying $500 a month.

It can get really lonely, certainly as you age, if your pals are booked solid with caring for their husbands or wives and kids and grand-kids and work. Finding, creating and nurturing your own communities is essential to your mental and physical health.

Being alone, for older women especially, can mean descending into terrifying and degrading poverty, a very real issue for those who earned little, saved little and/or spent many unwaged years (without earning Social Security) to bear and raise children.

Being alone is apparently the new norm. From a recent issue of Time magazine:

The extraordinary rise of solitary living is the biggest social change that we’ve neglected to identify, let alone examine.

Consider that in 1950, a mere 4 million Americans lived alone, and they made up only 9% of households. Back then, going solo was most common in the open, sprawling Western states–Alaska, Montana and Nevada–that attracted migrant workingmen, and it was usually a short-lived stage on the road to a more conventional domestic life.

Not anymore. According to 2011 census data, people who live alone–nearly 33 million Americans–make up 28% of all U.S. households.

Here’s a fellow blogger who thinks this is a sad trend, especially for older people.

And here’s a new book on the subject.

Do you live alone?

How do you like it?

34 thoughts on “Being alone is an art

  1. I’ve lived alone most of my adult life, and I’m sick of it, to tell you the truth. Recently I’ve had a co-worker staying with me for 4-5 days at a time a couple of weeks per month, and it’s been a breath of fresh air (it helps that we get along famously, in spite of me being 2 years younger than her mother!), even though I have a one-bedroom apartment. I think it’s been as good for me as it has been for her!

    And it certainly is difficult to find like-minded people to hang out with. People in conventional relationships are dealing with spouses/kids/grandkids, and are often unavailable.

    1. I hear you! I’ve been partnered for 12 years now and have grown to appreciate built-in company. I think it’s great — and a testament to you — that you’re able to enjoy someone so much younger, and vice versa.

      I am lucky that my friends now have grown children who live far away and/or are single or are 10-15 years younger and don’t have kids. I find it depressing how people with kids shut out non-relatives who might really enjoy sharing some of their family life.

  2. I love living alone. I’m not single, but we don’t live in the same city, let alone the same house. For whatever reasons, things worked out that way. I find that being alone is not the same as being lonely. I like who I am, so I don’t ever have a problem being by myself and/or doing things by myself. That said, I do think that society as we know it in this country is not set up to make aging easier for people who either are alone or who prefer to be alone and I think that’s really the issue that needs to be addressed. I know plenty of older women, especially (i.e. over 55), who have been widowed or went through divorces and aren’t that interested in hooking up with someone new in a permanent relationship that required moving in. So what about having a system that was more friendly to Americans living alone (especially in their golden years)?

    Great topic.

    1. Thanks!

      I think you may have the perfect set-up! I also think the reluctance on older women’s part to have someone move in and claim your life and space again is a reflection (?) on how selfish and demanding some men can be (and/or how much women traditionally have accommodated that.) I think men of an older generation were raised to expect a great deal from women and women were trained to deliver it, so women who didn’t and don’t are seen as difficult, instead of independent.

      It’s also a question of how much intimacy you crave. I spent my childhood (8-13) at boarding school so had little taste of family life and really value living with Jose. He’s just very good company.

      Living alone was very rarely onerous for me when I was single. But as you age (and I have dealt with 4 orthopedic surgeries since turning 40), it becomes more challenging when you need serious help that can cost a fortune to hire.

  3. As one of those people who gets along very well with themselves, living alone suits me to a T, from the odd stints here and there that I’ve done of it. But yes, it’s a phenomenal cost. Australian cities are one of the most expensive in the world, and while I don’t pay anywhere near what you do for health insurance, everyday things like food and utilities cost an absolute packet, and these costs are only going to keep rising.

    1. I stayed (miserably) married to my first husband because he was the wage-earner, so being financially dependent is scary. But NY is nuts. If I lived in small-town Ohio, I’d do OK on my current income, but not here.

  4. Hmm, not sure if I qualify as ‘living alone’ as i share the house with two to three teenage daughters (depending on whether #1 has decided to stop with us for a few nights, I hasten to add, rather than not actually knowing how many children I have); but I’ll have been alone in the no-relationship sense for 6 years come July, and I have to say, I love it. Love love love it.
    I can see the whole isolation thing being a problem if you didn’t get proactive about it – society is set up to accommodate families – hell, in a way (big thought for a Monday morning) society IS family, IS interconnected group-units of whatever sort. I found, to my bemusement, that after my husband died, as a widow in my early forties, I suddenly became an odd-shaped peg. Forget just round pegs and square holes, baby! I was just the *wrong* shape. I expect some of that had to do with being a scary bereaved person – ‘oh no, if we invite her to dinner, what are we going to say to her?’ – but it was as if with the demise of my partner, I had become a non-family, I didn’t fit into the ‘couple-with-kids’ category and I didn’t quite fit into the ‘single’ category either. And I found that while people were perfectly friendly, they didn’t invite us round any more, which was hard.
    I adapted. What I had previously thought of as my single-mum friend V’s slightly touchy demeanour suddenly made perfect sense to me! Oddly enough, we’re still buddies – I’m Godmother to her youngest, and we meet up regularly. I have a best friend who was single, she recently got married and that dynamic is changing too.
    Sorry to ramble on about not-much… great post!

    1. Clearly, this one has hit a nerve in many of us! This post has shot through the roof — 207 views so far and it’s only 7:15 am here in NY as I write this.

      I think it really hits on the primal issue of who cares for us? When and how much? My dad always used to say you could be free or loved, but rarely both, which I disagree with. But it’s not easy to find a partner (which I have) who lets a lot of air into the room, so to speak, and still adores you. Jose and I have spent weeks (2-3) apart traveling solo and return to one another refreshed. We often spend a weekend day apart and come back with lots of new material, as it were.

      Unpartnered women are also seen as threatening to another marriage, which is nasty. We all need companionship.

  5. There are things I love about living alone and things I hate. Here are some of the things I love:
    1) I am not someone else’s maid. Not that every man or partner expects that, but most of my married girlfriends do the lion’s share of housework.
    2) I never get annoyed at someone else who left a mess somewhere in the house, and it’s been there for days, and I’m not cleaning it up this time, and why won’t they just clean it up?
    3) I get all of the shower shelves–all of them.
    4) When my car is in the shop, there’s no one to pick me up or drop me off at work.
    5) When I’ve had a rough day, I can do the things I enjoy doing, often solo activities, that soothe me, like catching up on a show I like.

    Here are some of the things I hate:
    1) There are quite a few kinds of home repair that require at least three hands. I cannot install a ceiling fan by myself.
    2) When I get home, there isn’t another human being there who is happy to see me. (I know, that doesn’t always happen when you live with someone, but it never happens when you don’t.)
    3) I have to kill all the spiders myself. Yes, I know this sounds like I’m particularly girly, but I really, really don’t like killing the spiders.
    4) I have to run all the errands myself. Sometimes, it would just be nice to have someone else stop at the store and get the bread.
    5) When I travel, there’s no one to call and say, “I arrived safely at my destination.”

    1. All true!

      I’m lucky that my husband is **extremely** tidy (he’s known as the drill sergeant at work, at the newspaper where he is an editor) and I never have to pick up his messes; it’s more him picking up mine. We’ve also learned to make sure he has downtime when he walks in the door of our small apartment as I’ve usually been alone all day and hungry for company.

      I’ve grown very reliant on him for specific things like changing the printer cartridges. I do most of the housework (we finally hired a maid, 2x month) but I’m home all day and he loses 2 hrs a day commuting, so it doesn’t bother me.

  6. After being married for 25 years and then divorcing, I actually stayed in the house with my ex and kids for another year before moving out of state for two years and living with a gentleman friend out of state for two years. Moving back to the old neighborhood put me living alone for the first time. I love it. I still need help with stuff, but my kids are around (grown) and come over when I need them. I was going to add more but I am at work…maybe later…

    1. I think living alone is much more do-able when you can really rely on others (i.e. kids), unpaid, to help you out when needed. If you are older or frail and alone/broke, it’s rough.

  7. thebitchybride

    I think it’s a little different in the UK, particularly less expensive, but the same social issues apply. This post made me think of my mum, whom I absolutely adore and thus am always worried about. She’s had just one relationship since she and my father separated when I was a child and has now been single for a few years. The thing I see her struggling with is the need to accept and be okay with being alone versus the necessity of at least being open to a relationship if she doesn’t want to remain so forever. She’s gone down the self-preservation route and carved out an existence as a single women (house, career, etc) and tells both herself and others that she prefers being that way and doesn’t mind if she stays so. But as her daughter, I also see her in her lonelier moments, and it worries me that her determination to be okay alone will prevent her from even noticing opportunities to be anything else. I understand why she does it, but it saddens me that there’s no middle ground.

  8. I think it’s much harder for older women —- by which I mean 45 or 50+…My friends in that age range tell me, despairingly, that men their age (usually still healthy) insist on only dating younger women, i.e. in their 40s or below, leaving my friends to date guys in their late 50s or 60s, often in atrocious physical shape (i.e. fat) or selfish and bossy (maybe why they are still single.)

    Even in my late 30s and early 40s I was dating men 10 years younger who were a lot more fun. But both times I married a man exactly my age.

    It’s tough, as you see in you mum, to be(come sufficiently) independent you can survive and thrive — but still very much long for a sweetie to hug you as well. Strong women are often seen (?) as scary or intimidating.

    What’s fascinating to me about this post is that it’s getting a ton of views — but no comments from men?!

    1. thebitchybride

      Hmm, that is interesting. It would be good to hear the male perspective. My dad is also serially single, but that seems more of a choice for him because there always seems to be a string of women (mostly younger!) in the picture, but none he’s willing to offer any commitment. Perhaps one of the differences is that even in this century it’s more acceptable for a man to admit he wants and needs sex and to date lots of women without settling down. If a woman in her fifties did the same I imagine she would find herself the subject of some rather malicious gossip.

      1. thebitchybride

        True, but why should she have to be? I don’t think men feel the same need to be discreet.

  9. I’ve lived alone for half of my adult life. The other half I was a married or a single mom. I like living alone and would much rather be alone than have to cater to some old fart’s “every wish is his command” routine.

    There is a big difference between being alone and being lonely. I’ve felt lonely only a few times in my life and, similar to another commenter, it was mostly when I was married.

    My daughter flew the nest about 10 years ago but it’s only been here recently that I’ve begun to feel like something is missing from my life. It would be nice to have someone who gets my weirdness to share good moments with.

  10. What a fantastic post. I think we can all relate to this, everyone is somehow combating loneliness in some way or another ( and I would argue that that’s one of the reasons so many people have decided to share their lives on social media). Yes, being alone can be amazing at times and probably necessary, but at the end of the day, we all want to find that person we can share everything with. For me, this is perhaps one of my greatest challenges, but when I finally let myself by alone, I learn so much about myself! (maybe knowing thyself is the fear!) Ok, I’m rambling now 🙂 Thank you for this great and thought-provoking read.

    1. Thanks so much!

      It’s the irony indeed that only in true solitude can we sometimes discover what we value most…which we then may want to share.
      I think there is no one with whom you can share everything but that’s why I so enjoy a range of friends, in age and interest.

      My husband is NOT at all interested in some things but deeply interested in others, as I suspect we all are.

  11. Caitlin – I’ve lived alone for a good long time. I like the peace and quiet and freedom of living alone … especially when I have very good friends and family near by. I do get lonely from time to time but never for long. There are too many interesting people to spend an hour or two with – and most are just hoping that someone will give them a call and invite them for a walk or a coffee or a glass of wine on the beach. Sometimes all we need to do is get out of our own way and pick up the phone! Take care, Susan

  12. Living alone. I live in northern oil boom/bust Alberta. I’ve been in this town for 20 years. Naturally, all housing is horribly inflated. I’m paying 1300 a month for a rental condo. The thing that seems to chap me the most is that I’m renting from my sister and she can’t even give me a break. I’ve seen the house prices here, on average, triple in my time. How is somebody single supposed to buy or build for any sort of reasonable price?

    I like the living alone thing. I would love to be in the sticks, where nobody knows my name, where I could start new again….

  13. Thank you Caitlin for mentioning my post. Grazie. We need to think more and more about the joys and the hardships of living alone in older age, especially because many hardships can be alleviated by smart social policies and programs…. GRAZIE!

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