The research world is totally lopsided when it comes to single and married life. Ask any question about marriage or coupling and you can probably find a slew of studies that address it. Ask any question about single life and you will probably find…crickets.
The concept of single-at-heart is new (I have been developing it) and so we know even less about that than about single life more generally. One question I wonder about is whether there is a hard-wired component to being single-at-heart. If you live your best, most authentic, and most meaningful life as a single person, is that at least in part because you are temperamentally suited to living single?
With definitive research on the matter not yet available, I look for suggestive clues. Sometimes I find them in the writings of people who most certainly are not single-at-heart, and seem to have a hard time believing that anyone else could be.
An example of such a person is Daphne Merkin, an essayist, novelist, and literary critic who has written for the New Yorker, the New York Times, and many other publications. Around the time when Eric Klinenberg’s Going Solo was getting so much attention (mostly positive) for what the book’s subtitle described as “the extraordinary rise and surprising appeal of living alone,” Merkin wrote a contrary piece for Elle.
Daphne Merkin knows that married life can be miserable – she tried it, left it, and never wanted to step foot in that terrain again (or at least not with the potential partners she met). She also realizes that living solo can be joyful – she loved aspects of it when she was young. What she cannot seem to accept is that plenty of people truly can live on their own for a good long time (not just for a brief stretch in their 20s) and settle into that life with great contentment and meaningfulness. For those people, it is living with others that would seem inauthentic and unfulfilling (and probably annoying).
If you read Merkin’s essay, maybe you noticed what she said right after describing what she enjoyed about living on her own in her twenties:
“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.””
A person who is single-at-heart, upon returning to a place of their own, would probably find the air light and freeing and welcoming, not heavy. That “instantaneous grief of being alone” would be nearly unrecognizable. I actually gasped when I read that phrase, so discordant was it from my own sentiments.
Also consider this:
“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.”
The dreariness of the solitary confinement analogy is obvious. But also look at the comparison state – a “domesticated future.” For the single-at-heart who love their own place and their own space, living alone is not a prelude to anything. It is the end state. If you are single-at-heart and you live alone, you may have already reached the place where you want to be.
And what about that “unaccompanied, unechoed self”? The phrase reminds me of something else Merkin says about living alone when she equates it to a “lack of physical connection with another person.” In both instances, living alone is confused with being alone and never seeing any other humans. In fact, solo dwellers who enjoy the company of other people will often go out and find it. Sometimes, the company will end up under their covers. They just won’t move in permanently.
There are plenty of other examples throughout the article to suggest that the author is someone who, in her bones, simply is not single-at-heart and probably never could be.
You could repeat the analysis I just did on Merkin’s essay on just about anything I have ever written about living alone or with other people. You would find the same kinds of biases, only reversed. I love living single and don’t want to be dissuaded from saying so by prevailing notions of what constitutes a good life.
Now I have a new challenge. For my latest project, I am listening to people’s stories about the living arrangements that work best for them. I try to see their lives from their own perspectives. Many of them love living with other people. So far, I have found that it is really gratifying to hear from people who have found their place, their space, and their people, regardless of whether their notions of The Best Way to Live are similar to my own.
After all, that’s the real bottom line of all of my writings on single life and ways of living. There is no one Good Life. There is no one Best Way to Live. We are all unique individuals, and the true joy of living in contemporary times is that we have more opportunities to create a life that works for us than we ever have before.
[One last note about the Merkin article: I so appreciated that she acknowledged my book, Singled Out, and Kay Trimberger’s The New Single Woman as setting the stage for Going Solo. But I wish she hadn’t gotten singlism wrong. It is the stereotyping, stigmatizing, and discrimination against single people, not the fact of living single.]
Single woman image available from Shutterstock.