The popularity of Eric Klinenberg’s book, Going Solo: The Extraordinary Rise and Surprising Appeal of Living Alone, has made living alone a hot topic. I can’t claim to have read all of the reviews and discussions of the book that have been popping up everywhere, nor have I seen even a fraction of the author’s media appearances.
From what I have observed, though, one topic seems to be missing from the discussion: Wanting to live alone means many different things to many different people. I’m not even talking about the emotional meanings of living alone – obviously, there are many varieties of those. The geography itself varies enormously.
I guess I’m at one extreme. I live in a house by myself. I moved to my neighborhood knowing no one else around me. Of course, by now I’ve met some other people in this tiny town of Summerland, California, but I didn’t move here because I knew other people who lived here too.
In college, I lived alone at the other extreme. For several years, I had a single room in a dorm. There was a sense in which I was living alone. As soon as I walked out my door, though, I had other people all around me up and down the hallway and above and beneath me on the other floors. We all shared the same dining room. I liked that a lot at the time. Now, it would be far too much togetherness.
Recently, I’ve started interviewing people about their living arrangements (pursuing some of the ideas I described here) and have found that some adults are recreating those kinds of living situations for themselves. In one example of shared housing, people all live in the same house, but each person (or set of people) has private space. You can walk into your space – it may be one room or a whole suite – and shut the door behind you. You have your privacy and your solitude. Open your door, though, and you may run into your housemates in the hallways or in the spaces you share, such as a living room or dining room.
The people I’ve met so far who are sharing a home have different preferences for the amount of social interaction they want with their housemates. Some have regularly scheduled times to get together – often for a meal – as well as more informal gatherings, such as a spontaneously declared movie night. Another person I interviewed, whose housemates include family, said that he and his sibling often do little more than grunt at one another as they pass in the hallways – and that’s just fine.
People who live in different parts of a duplex, or on different floors of a multi-story home, have even more privacy, but they are less alone than I am now. (Again, I’m talking about geographical aloneness rather than emotional loneliness – very different! I savor my own space but I would not want to feel emotionally alone.)
One of my friends from Virginia who lived alone for a long time described a living arrangement that she loved. She had her own place, but several close friends lived within walking distance. They often sauntered to each other’s places then headed out for dinner. That’s a different kind of “alone” than the kind that requires some sort of transportation to get to your nearest friend.
Discussions about living alone are usually discussions of people who are single, and that is appropriate. There are some intriguing exceptions, though. In my ongoing survey of 21st century living arrangements (you can still participate here, if you are interested), I have gotten responses from a number of committed couples – some of them married – who are living in their own separate homes because that’s how they want to live.
A recent New York Times story described a married couple in which each person lives in a separate little bungalow on the same lot. For the woman, it was her condition for marrying – she would only do it if she could have her own place. For other couples, even that arrangement would mean too much proximity.
Many adults in the U.S. and beyond are struggling to create a life with just the right mix of time alone and time together. It is a luxurious struggle to have. We don’t all have to live the same way anymore.
[Note: Thanks to everyone who has already participated in my survey on 21st century living arrangements. It’s ongoing. I am especially grateful to those of you who expressed a willingness to be contacted to tell me more about your experiences. I expect the project to continue for a while, so you may still be hearing from me.]
Young man relaxing photo available from Shutterstock.