One of my grandmothers was married three times. Each time a husband died, she found another within a year or so. My other grandmother lived the same way. Her adored soulmate died after 25 years of marriage and a cruel illness; within a year she had a new last name.
My and my husband’s mother have had four spouses and a couple of extra fiancés between the two of them. I had my first boyfriend in first grade, and several every year after that. I grew up dancing around our living room while Three Dog Night crooned, “One is the Loneliest Number.”
It was a fact of my life that you never, ever wanted be alone if there were other warm, breathing human beings available. Being alone was a prison, a temporary exile from the land of affection, companionship and laughter. This was particularly true if you were female. It was inconceivable to me that an adult woman would CHOOSE to live alone.
Not so any more, according to the new book “Going Solo: The Extraordinary Rise and Surprising Appeal of Living Alone.”
More than 32 million Americans live alone today. In Manhattan and DC, nearly 50% of households are occupied by a single inhabitant. Five million people between 18 and 34 live alone in the U.S. today, 10 times more than in 1950. The largest group of solo fliers are people between 35 to 64, who choose not to get married, not to get remarried, and not to move in with relatives after divorce or the death of a spouse. All this despite the terrible economy and lack of jobs that have supposedly forced people of all ages to co-habit for financial reasons.
And it’s not just wealthy, independent Americans who are choosing solitude. Around the world – in the globe’s most prosperous nations such as France, Sweden, Germany, Britain and Japan – even more adults live by themselves, up to 60% of households in some cities. Even in poorer countries, such as Brazil, India and China, the demographic of “single people living alone” is growing as rapidly as their countries’ economies. Wherever people can afford to, they are choosing to live in their own space, alone.
Alone — but not lonely.
Ironically, in today’s world, living alone actually IMPROVES your social life. Without family obligations = or the comfy knowledge that someone is waiting dinner for you = people have more free time and are measurably more social than those living with others. This is especially true now that we have email, online movie listings, iPad apps, Facebook, and cell phones that help us connect to others easily and with short notice.
I get this. I’ve spent most of the past 46 years living with other people. I grew up with three siblings. I have three kids of my own. My households have always included an unusually high number of pets. Sometimes, the chaos drives me crazy. Their picayune habits – my mother’s insistence on talking on the telephone at 7 am outside my bedroom door when I was a teenager; my husband’s 3 am snores; the dog barking at the mailman; my nine-year-old’s habit of slamming the bathroom door when she goes to take a shower in the predawn morning; my 13-year-old’s reluctance to clean up the kitchen after her 11 pm milkshake experiments; my 14-year-old’s lack of comprehension that wet towels DO NOT DRY THEMSELVES ON HIS BEDROOM FLOOR.
You get the picture. A little solitude – a nest that stays clean without my constant Windex ministrations – a television that plays shows only I want to watch, at the volume level I prefer – no one calling to be picked up at 10:45 pm at the movie theater — wow, now I’m drooling.
I can understand all this non-stop intimacy — if we lived only to our mid-50s. We could tolerate the constant togetherness for five or six decades. I know I could for the next several years.
But perhaps we human beings, as a species, have been allocated only so much patience, tolerance for other people’s bad habits, and ability to compromise for our beloveds. Maybe we use it all up in a lifetime, now that we are living so much longer. Maybe we need three or four decades of family togetherness, mixed in with another three or four decades of blissful, peaceful alone time.
Maybe being alone is turning out to be an essential part of being human.