Despite the rise and rise of the single household, our society still struggles to accept someone on their own – especially if that someone is a woman. Yet today being alone through choice can be liberating, empowering. Isn’t it about time we recognised the singular charms of singularity, argues Hannah Betts.
By Hannah Betts
6:35AM GMT 21 Mar 2013
Singleness. Loneness. Oneness. Almost a third of Britons now live alone and the statistics are rising exponentially.
Singleness has gone beyond the Sex and the City platitudes of the last century to become a material and philosophical state that individuals increasingly choose, be they men or women.
Ask what has changed most about society during my lifetime and I would answer: the evolution from the stigmatised ‘spinsters’ of my childhood, via the skittish, no less pilloried Bridget Jones ‘singletons’ of my youth, to the notion of the ‘singularist’, which is how I would currently define myself at 41.
For all the Government and the Opposition’s cultivation of the marital unit, and courting of the much-fetishised ‘hardworking, middle-class families’, it’s the single who are culture’s increasing power group.
For, despite financial disincentives in the way of Council Tax (reduced by a quarter rather than a half for lone livers), the fact that living solo is estimated to cost an extra £250,000 over a lifetime compared with being coupled, and even the dreaded hotel single supplement, the number of British people going solo has risen by more than a million over the past 16 years.
Almost 2.5 million men and women aged between 45 and 64 live alone in their own homes.
According to the Office for National Statistics, the number of such sole occupants has risen by 833,000 in the past two decades and there are expected to be a further two million at least by 2020.
The more hysterical sectors of the media may view ‘sterile’ female singleness as a plague, ‘feckless’ male loneness as an infantile indulgence.
Yet even here one may discern the alarming subtext: maybe, just maybe people are embracing oneness because it is a superior way to live. It certainly feels that way to me. I’ve been single since I ceased briefly cohabiting in 2008. Some argue I am never that single because I ‘see’ people and have lovers.
I feel that the definition can only be my own; the idea that single life is sexless or relationshipless is an anachronism.
I live and work on my own, I take responsibility for myself, and I have not chosen publicly to connect myself with anyone else during this time. Ergo, I am single.
Moreover, despite having been a textbook serial monogamist in the years preceding this first and last cohabitation, there’s always been something singular-yet-social about me.
An introvert with extrovert capacities, I am the oldest of a messy family whose door frequently had to remain shut for sanity’s sake.
As a child, I was largely in my own head, my happiest memories lying or swinging alone with the sun beating on closed eyelids, or caught in the expansive selfdom that is reading.
I am not only just ‘a one’, but what my grandmother would refer to as ‘a bit of a one’, a maverick or oddball.
As I grew older, I became considerably more social, yet boundaried. I found the lack of privacy in mere flat-sharing excruciating, public coupledom a challenge. My dreams about marriage have always been nightmares.
The idea of pregnancy gives me the willies since my personal life would be so visibly exposed. And I view all inquiries about the specifics, rather than abstract aspects, of said personal life as gross impertinence.
At this point, I feel I should add that I am actually rather nice and could not begin to operate without, say, my beloved father and nurturing friends. Indeed, the thing that I relish most about single life is how profoundly social it is.
Naomi Gerstel and Natalia Sarkisian published a paper in 2006 positing that married couples spend less time communicating with and visiting friends and family than the single, and are less likely to provide others with support.
They referred to these as ‘greedy marriages’, and such is the tunnel vision some couples feel is necessitated by child-raising that the cynical might ask: ‘Is there any other sort?’
As a conjoined person, I depended on one other, relegating friends to secondary roles. As I am a lone ranger, my friends are my life, and have literally saved mine.
Lovers, too, are friends, becoming part of this tight-knit community, and have radically increased my depth of human understanding. The result – and it feels ridiculous even to have to state it – is that I am wonderfully content.
If I meet someone I want to establish some sort of closer unit with, then, brilliant, if I don’t – equally brilliant. It all feels very adult, very happy, and very normal.
And normal it increasingly is, as the statistics testify in Britain, America and the rest of the world.
Eric Klinenberg’s new book, Going Solo: The Extraordinary Rise and Surprising Appeal of Living Alone, proposes that the trend for solo living has sprung from a sort of liberal perfect storm.
Klinenberg’s evidence suggests that singleness is a consequence of mainstream liberal values, women’s liberation, not least. Add to this ever more urbanisation, developments in communications technology and increasing longevity, and lone living is the natural result.
As Klinenberg tells me, ‘Living alone in such large numbers is historically novel. I originally thought this change resulted from some social aberration. But then I discovered that living alone comports with our most sacred modern values: freedom, autonomy, control of one’s time and space, and the search for individual fulfilment. ’ It also helps contemporary people achieve solitude, which we need more than ever now that we spend so much of our time immersed in social media, digital culture and busy professional lives.’
If this sounds utopian, then it is a utopia I recognise. Almost all my metropolitan single friends live alone (the few who don’t cannot for reasons of youth and economy).
Yet we are permanently connected via Twitter, Facebook, email and text in strong and supportive networks. There may be talk of ‘going communal’ in later years, but for now we are happy with our privacy and perfectionism, living alone because we like it.
The urban myth that those who live solo are more likely to be depressive turns out to be just that, with women faring better mentally from such arrangements.
Even the spectre of the lonely old lady is a fiction: indeed, American studies indicate that such women boast a superior psychological function to those dwelling with spouses.
For both genders, the solo state can seem a lot to give up. Part of me would love to meet someone unitable with. However, the more content one is, the harder it is to find someone for whom one would be prepared to sacrifice one’s freedoms.
A bachelor barrister in his forties concurs: ‘I long to get married and have children. But the older I get, the more unlikely it seems. There must be compromises, but I’m too spoilt to make them. ’ The choice is the guarantee of controlled loneness and complete freedom against the possibility of shared happiness with the certainty of having to do things you don’t want to do.’
At this point, conjoined people tend to proffer the word ‘selfish’. Arguably, we are simply more ‘selfed’.
That said, I am aware that my social circle is largely capital-based, educated and unstymied by convention. My sister, who lives in Birmingham, was the ‘last’ of her single friends at 28. For women, in particular, the prejudice that single living is somehow unusual, brave or downright deviant lingers. Kate Bolick, a contributing editor at The Atlantic, is 40, single, but in a committed relationship.
She is working on a book entitled Among the Suitors: On Being a Woman, Alone, and argues: ‘Even if the single woman isn’t ostracised the way she once was, she’s still regarded as an anomaly. I see three explanations.
’One is that the creators of popular culture are so intent on pandering to the mainstream, which they believe to be stalwarts of “traditional family values”, that single women are still portrayed in film and television according to reductive stereotypes that seep into the consciousness and influence how we perceive women, and how women perceive themselves.
’Second, there’s our cultural fetishisation of romance, and the couple form, and the idea that marriage is the catch-all answer to all our problems. ’This notion that one person can make us happy in every way is fairly recent – and it’s an impossible expectation. We are each responsible for our own happiness.
’Finally, even in light of women’s incredible social, economic, educational and professional advances, our social system is still largely patriarchal, with men holding the majority of power positions, and as such hasn’t evolved to the point where it can consider women outside marriage and motherhood.’
A cohabiting colleague remarks, ‘I’m reading One: Living As One and Loving It by Victoria Alexander: meditations on how oneness is actually the human condition, and how happiness lies in nurturing your oneness.
’I feel I was educated out of being good at being on my own, such are society’s expectations of coupledom. But the only person guaranteed to be with you until the day you die is you, so you need to learn to get on with that person.’
As Bolick notes, ‘Being alone is a fact of life, part of what it means to be alive, and these days, between medical advancements that allow us to live for so long, and the fact that we’re marrying later, most of us spend more time on our own than ever before.
’A romantic relationship is not a fixed state. The deathly loneliness that can arise inside a relationship is far worse than simply being alone. Being lonely sometimes is a feature of the human condition, whether we’re single or coupled.
’It can be hard, for sure. But it’s much wiser to learn how to deal with it than it is to flee from it entirely.’
Living alone can certainly present practical problems. Last autumn I almost came a cropper when I was too ill and confused to summon an ambulance.
The bin bags piled outside my flat are becoming a health risk while, when a visiting lover or brother makes me a cup of tea, I am near hysterical with gratitude.
Being pensionless and renting, I do think about the future, and am actively encouraging a moneyed friend to sponsor some sort of commune on the model of Amsterdam’s 106-apartment Begijnhof building, only smaller and with comrades of both genders.
Still, I relish being at the vanguard of this new loneness and I pity people who have never enjoyed the luxury of going solo as stunted somehow, not quite adult.
If I were actually on my own in this, things might be different, but I am not. And yet my singleness and that of those around me feels unrepresented. It is a soleness not about dating or not dating, not about what’s wrong with men or women, but about learning to accept ourselves as individuals. If we lone wolves end up as someone’s partner, we’ll be better companions because of it; and if we do not, better company for ourselves.
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