Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Living Alone

It feels unnatural, but more and more Americans are living alone.

Social animals that we are, how did we get to the point where so many of us are living our lives in splendid isolation… and liking it?

Has evolution led us to an advanced state where we can achieve perfect self-actualization as autonomous individuals?

Or are we living out the consequences that befall people who get seduced by a bad idea?

In the past, a failure to connect with other people, an inability to share one’s space, was a bad thing, a form of social anomie, the province of the rejected.

Now, as more and more people embrace it, it has become a desirable state.

Have we made a virtue of necessity? Is this what human beings have always wanted? Or is something else going on?

Perhaps, we like ourselves so much that we do not want to share ourselves with other people. Or perhaps we like ourselves so much that we do not have any affections left to offer to other people. 

If you live alone there’s no one around to criticize you, complain about your bad habits, argue about the remote, yell at you for being late or early. You do not have to answer to anyone for your comings and goings. You do not have to compromise or negotiate. You can do exactly as you please.

To many people it feels like liberation.

To me it sounds like the living alone crowd has done too much therapy. They have learned to like themselves so much that they find anyone else’s company a step down, a step toward subjugation.

It sounds quite a lot like what Christopher Lasch called “a culture of narcissism.”

Hopefully, no one will be surprised that the therapy culture and its adjunct, the liberation cult, has produced some new social pathologies.

In his new book, Going Solo: The Extraordinary Rise and Surprising Appeal of Living Alone, Eric Klinenberg suggests that living alone might be a good thing. .

Reviewing the book in The New Yorker, Nathan Heller sees the darker side:

What turns this shift from demographic accounting to a social question is the pursuit-of-happiness factor: as a rule, do people live alone because they want to or because they have to? At one point, Klinenberg suggests that living alone provides “restorative solitude”; it may be “exactly what we need to reconnect.” But most of the people he introduces seem neither especially restored nor vigorously connected. They are insecure, proud of their freedoms but hungry for contact, anxious, frisky, smug, occasionally scared—in short, they experience a mixture of emotions that many people, even those who do not live alone, are apt to recognize.

Meditation is undoubtedly a good thing. We meditate alone. A little solitude is also a good thing. But, as Heller implies, you should not make it a way of life. 

Still, social isolation does not restore your mental forces; it produces anguish and despair. After a time it makes it more difficult to engage and sustain human contact. If you lack the human contact that comes from living together you will suffer stress and anguish.

Heller and Klinenberg see clearly that we got to this societal impasse by following liberal, especially liberationalist, policies and values.

In Heller’s words:

Klinenberg’s data suggested that single living was not a social aberration but an inevitable outgrowth of mainstream liberal values. Women’s liberation, widespread urbanization, communications technology, and increased longevity—these four trends lend our era its cultural contours, and each gives rise to solo living. Women facing less pressure to stick to child care and housework can pursue careers, marry and conceive when they please, and divorce if they’re unhappy. The “communications revolution” that began with the telephone and continues with Facebook helps dissolve the boundary between social life and isolation. Urban culture caters heavily to autonomous singles, both in its social diversity and in its amenities: gyms, coffee shops, food deliveries, laundromats, and the like ease solo subsistence. Age, thanks to the uneven advances of modern medicine, makes loners of people who have not previously lived by themselves. By 2000, sixty-two per cent of the widowed elderly were living by themselves, a figure that’s unlikely to fall anytime soon.

The modern economy gives people the option of living alone. Economic interdependence is no longer a reason to live together.

The liberationist culture also destigmatizes living alone. Nowadays, living alone has become a triumph, not a tragedy.

Of course, liberationist values, especially those involving women’s liberation, make it far more likely that women—and men too—will end up living alone.

Contemporary feminism had two primary selling points. First, it encouraged everyone to live their lives in accord with high ideals, like freedom and equality. Second, it promised women that by becoming more independent and autonomous they would be more loveable and would have better relationships with men.

Living your life in accord with ideals is a form of madness. You cannot be married to an ideology and an individual at the same time. As for the second point, by now every sentient individual knows that feminism is a relationship and marriage killer, no more, and no less.

Many young women prefer living alone in their 20s because feminism told them that they needed to acquire career success before they had to settle down to a life of domestic drudgery.

They sought out the high life represented by the characters in Sex and the City, all women, mostly living alone.

Living alone means that you are supposedly having a great time. But you are also developing aloneness habits. That means that you will have learned to do as you please, when you please, with whom you please.

I hate to say it, but it does not make you a very desirable mate. And it does not make you very capable of adopting the habits that are required of a spouse or a parent.

Heller summarizes the cultural influences:

Most people who were brought up in the past half century have been taught to live this way, by their own rules, building the world they want. That belief—Klinenberg calls it “the cult of the individual”—may be the closest thing American culture has to a common ideal, and it’s the premise on which a lot of single people base their lives. If you’re ambitious and you’ve had to navigate a tough job market, alone can seem the best way to approach adulthood. Those who live by themselves are light on their feet (they’re able to move as the work demands) and flexible with their time (they have no meals to come home for). They tend to be financially resilient, too, since no one else is relying on their income. They are free to climb. To a particular kind of hyper-ambitious young person, entering into a domestic commitment too early carries a risk: what if you end up yoked to somebody who lacks the stamina to keep up? “For a rising generation of aspiring professionals, the twenties and early thirties is precisely not the time to get married and have a family,” Klinenberg observes.

Even people who live alone do not spend all their time alone. They may feel liberated at home but, invariably their jobs will impose discipline and organization.

This division is not a good thing. When your work life is organized and disciplined and your private life is a free-for-all, you can easily fall into a psychological trap: you will feel that you are two people living in the same skin.

It’s not a good feeling. Not knowing who you are, where you belong, and what the rules are is a form of social anomie.

The more you live according to the prevailing cultural mores, the more work will feel like an imposition, even an oppression… thus confirming the bias promoted by liberationist ideology.

If you adapt too well to living alone you will find yourself lacking the skills needed to live within a couple. Singleton habits do not just vanish once you tie the knot. They persist long after they have outlived their usefulness. They will make you an insufferable boor and they will make your spouse’s presence feel like an encroachment on your liberty.

This implies that more and more people are living alone because they do not know how to live in a family or a community.

Heller does not think very highly of Richard Sennett’s idea that cooperation must be learned and inculcated. I would beg to differ.

Heller writes:

In “Together: The Rituals, Pleasures, and Politics of Cooperation” (Yale), Richard Sennett argues that co√∂peration is a skill—one that, until recently, all adults were forced to learn. Now that we’re losing challenging, diverse forms of interaction in the workplace and at school, he worries, we’re growing up without this training. “A distinctive character type is emerging in modern society, the person who can’t manage demanding, complex forms of social engagement, and so withdraws,” he writes.
Living alone erodes social skills. It makes you the only person who matters. It breaks you of the habit of following the rules that produce harmonious social interactions and prevents you from learning how to function within a social role.

If you do not know how to follow the rules and accept the duties that inhere in your role you will have a great deal of difficulty living with another human being. At that point, living alone will feel like liberation.

By roles I do not mean dramatic personae. I mean roles in social groups. Within a family, roles are husband and wife, father and mother, brother and sister, and so on.

Liberationist values, the ones that want you to live as a free, autonomous, independent individual, will tell you that rules and roles are oppressing you. They will offer to liberate you from the constraints that roles and rules impose.  

They do not say so, but they are setting you up for either solitude or drama.

When people who do not know how to play by the rules and to fulfill the obligations inherent in social roles try living together, the result is drama. Permanent psychodrama, if you like.

If no one knows their areas of responsibilities life will become an endless series of conflicts over who does what at home.

If each family member knows what he or she has to do to keep the family in good running order, harmony may ensue. If the rules and the roles are subjected to the kinds of withering critiques that liberationist ideologies have imposed on them, you are heading for living alone.

True enough, drama brings people together. It does create a type of human connection.

And yet, this kind of connection is inherently unsatisfying because it is unreal. Drama involves you in artificial, simulated human connections. When the drama is over you will feel more deprived than you were before, more desperate than you felt before, and more prepared to involve yourself in anything that resembles a human connection.

Do it often enough and you will happily embrace living alone.


Anonymous said...

I love living alone with my dog.

Thanx, Stuart.

Anonymous said...

I plan on living alone mainly because I'm averse to the risks of marriage/cohabitation i.e. divorce theft, lack of commitment. It seems that most people would think I am a loser for thinking the (potential) costs of marriage/cohabitation outweigh the (potential) benefits whereas I just see it as a rational assessment of reality. Thoughts?

Dennis said...

I shudder to think about what kind of curmudgen and old coot I would be without marriage and family. The challenges, pain, emotional roller coaster, et al have made me a far better person who knows there is almost nothing I cannot do. I know who I am and like me because I fear almost nothing.
I find, for the most part, that I really like people for all their idiosyncrasies because it provides me with a wealth of information and experiences. I even like some Liberals as people. I may not like their ideas, but that does not make them less of a human being.
I truly feel sorry for people who have not experienced other people, especially a spouse, up close and personal. To find out that one is not the only important person in their lives. Just to see children and others in your life grow and become an individual that can face the world with the tools you provided to them is a joy.
There is great joy and humility in knowing that they look kindly upon you. To attain self satisfaction one has to be willing to face the challenges of life. What is the meaning of life, but to experience and learn from all that can make you human and a better soul.

Stuart Schneiderman said...

Thanks to Dennis for reminding us of the value of living with other people. And, as Sparky suggests, living with pets is really not the same thing as living alone.

Anonymous raises an important issue too. Has the legal system made it simply too risky and too expensive to get married or even to cohabit?

Many people feel the same way, yet the studies of living alone do not seem to give this enough importance as one of the rational reasons why people are more likely to live alone.

Anonymous said...

An important topic, but I'm uncomfortable w/the moral censure.
I was (mostly) able to maintain a professional career until retirement. Since my marriage folded a few years after return from VN, I've lived alone.
It's not always been easy, fun, or w/o guilt.
Innate Introversion, coupled w/growing up with a Borderline Personality mom has made me incapable of intimate relationships.
There's probably more folks like me out there. -- Rich