Does Living Alone Drive You Mad?

By
Sunset Boulevard’s Norma Desmond, the icon of lonely madness. Color Tinting by Gluekit

Part One: A (Clutterless) Room of One’s Own

Silver Lake, Los Angeles, golden hour. Basil-cucumber martinis all around. We are a dozen well-preserved, Lena Dunham’s–mom–aged women in floaty Indian shirts, sundresses, sandals. We’ve just come from an afternoon literary event. Topics we might cover include global warming, male versus female book critics, our children’s awful middle schools, and the joys of Uber, but what stirs our hearts most — surprisingly — is just one thing: Robyn’s cottage.

Two years divorced, Robyn has been giving us a tour of her freshly redone bachelorette cottage. It’s a calming sea of white warmed with dots of Mediterranean color via fresh flowers, art, and pillows (with a separate studio that rents on Airbnb for $2,000 a week). What’s visible is what delights the eye; that which does not is tucked into natural-wood built-ins or behind frosted-glass cabinets that encase one’s tax returns in camouflaging ice. Robyn’s oasis is a cunning Swiss Army knife of pockets and shelves and drawers that glide. There is no clutter.

That’s what has stunned us above all — the lack of clutter. “My house could never be like this,” exclaims Shelly*, a therapist, with surprising vehemence, “because if you open any closet in my house, an avalanche of crap will spill out!” Shelly gives seminars on how to sustain happy marriages. Part of her spiel is that Jack, her husband of 22 years, aside from being a successful corporate lawyer, is also funny and patient and kind. But apparently Jack has kind of a problem collecting model wooden ships — or something like them. Shelly’s tirade unrolls in bitten-off phrases: “Library! Tried to remodel! ­Movers had to come! Floor to ceiling! Sailboats! Propellers! Paddlewheels!”

Anita’s clutter rant is more coherent. “Oh my God — with my husband, Curt, it’s the guitars — he must have 25, 30 guitars. And amps. And old Guitar Player magazines. And these — these Rubbermaid bins full of power cords. We haven’t been able to open the basement door in years.” “You’re married to a musician?” another woman asks. “No!”

I think about my boyfriend, Charlie. Thankfully there are only three guitars, beloved squires of that certain tribe of ­middle-aged white male. But as I behold the snowy luxury-spa fantasy that is Robyn’s bedroom, I’m struck by a conspicuous lack of “his” side of the bed. By that I mean the books, newspapers, and magazines stacked like sandbags against a coming hurricane: Charlie’s collapsing reading wall, an eyesore collecting dust bunnies. I look at it and feel an almost physical ­violation. Love the man, hate his piles.

Of course I realize as I ogle Robyn’s cottage that I’m looking at the idealized travel-postcard version of female singledom. For starters, it’s upper-middle class at least, a yuppie fantasy, and I don’t mean to say that all middle-aged bachelorettes are relatively well-to-do, idle “creative” and real-estate geniuses. This is just the initial sample set that results when interview subjects are self-selecting (and when I’m the one, looking around at my own friends as case studies, doing the interviewing).

But, it seems to me, even the nest that appears so idyllic during a lazy late afternoon, among martinis and admiring guests, might not be so enjoyable after darkness falls, after we all get home, after worrisome crunching sounds begin in the branches adjoining the bedroom, and after perhaps one mis-chooses one’s evening movie (maybe Sundance or IFC Channel, featuring, perhaps, Ellen Burstyn in an award-winning if starkly grim performance), the one that triggers you to suddenly begin weeping, “Oh my God — I’m 57 years old, my eyelids are crêpe-y, and at this point I have no clue where I would find anyone else … I am aloooooone!”

I think of the friends of mine who were blissfully single in their 20s and 30s. Still single in their 40s and 50s, they seem to be contracting a bit. They get out to social events less often; they bond more unapologetically with their animals; they post on Facebook more, including a disturbing amount of rare archival videos from before we were even born, as though chipping away at their own ten-hour Ken Burns documentaries. Once they seemed spontaneous, but they have now become scattered; once independent, now almost unmoored.

It makes me wonder: Okay, so there might be an initial honeymoon period, but what does living alone eventually do to you?

The Big Lebowski’s Dude offers, for what it’s worth, a sunnier picture.

Part Two: Soul Mates

I come to this question honestly, if not blamelessly or cleanly. I cohabited for 20 years with my longtime husband and father of my two now-teen daughters in a stable family household. But at 46, in a spate of midlife–second-adolescence madness, I initiated a cataclysmic extramarital affair with a married colleague (also with a family). In contrast to the way most of these things end, what ended up being true after all the flaming pieces of jet debris fell to the ground and cooled was that my new beloved and I were something like soul mates, and we were meant to spend the rest of our lives together … in some way.

But what way is that? That is the big question. I know that we will always be in conversation with each other (in a certain fanciful-afterlife way, I can picture us in side-by-side grave sites still gossiping and trading recipes and undoubtedly arguing). And we can both enjoy smoking medicinal marijuana and watching Sons of Anarchy. But the mechanics of sharing a home together can sometimes lead to bitter clashes, the depth of which surprise me.

I am shamed to realize that in my marriage, my daughters never heard their father and me fight, which also meant, perhaps, that we didn’t truly ­communicate. By contrast, my new relationship is a world of constant intimate communication, but we yell too much, sometimes because I have a dream of two creative-class people who have deftly converted their garage to a sculpting studio with a kiln, and the reality is so different and comparatively ­depressing (dusty boxes of bowling shoes? Cassette tapes? Wine corks?) I worry, in the end, if this whole cohabitation business isn’t just … old-fashioned.

Which is one reason why, lately, I find myself pondering the relative benefits of independence versus intimacy — about just how much space you should try to carve out for yourself, about how limiting it is to give too little and how self-violating it might be to give too much. Because of the particular way my last years have unfolded, I never had to face the prospect of yawning nights alone, wondering if I would ever be coupled again. But I find myself looking around at my friends, and their relationships, or lack thereof, and trying to parse out what kind of guidance it gives.

Part Three: Indian Food for One

These are, statistically, boom times for middle-aged people who are living alone. Their numbers have nearly doubled since 1999, rising from 13 percent to 21 percent of the 55-to-64-year-old population. Singletons in general tend to dwell in large cities: Manhattan and Washington households are half-solo-occupant (by contrast, Idaho and Utah households are less than one-fifth so).

And there are, in fact, those who’d say this is healthy. In his 2012 book Going Solo: The Extraordinary Rise and Surprising Appeal of Living Alone, sociologist Eric Klinenberg led the rallying cry. In Klinenberg’s formulation, the freedom to live alone is one of the triumphs of wealthier societies, and loneliness is but a memory thanks to, among other things, social media. The studies of UCLA genomics researcher Steven Cole, however, yielded somewhat-conflicting results. Cole did an analysis of gene activity in people with varying loneliness levels as measured by a survey. He controlled for factors like age, weight, and the use of prescription drugs. The result? Chronic loneliness (social isolation, that is, as opposed to mere stress or depression) correlates to actual changes in gene expression. Genes for bad things like inflammation get overexpressed, while genes for good things like antibodies are stifled. This could make a person more prone to infection, heart disease, and even cancer. The study also found the size of one’s social network matters less than the strength of one’s ties. Never mind all that liking on Facebook; medically speaking, a few close friends is better than many casual acquaintances.

In the end, is stability limiting — does it quash our vibrating uniqueness — or is it, in fact, stabilizing? In our youths, many of us suspected that being tied down to a partner and family might constrain us. But after 40, even that landscape starts to shift. Many singletons turn inward and start longing for the things so many of us longed to be free of in our 20s. One bachelor friend of mine decided at 46 that, after too many Trader Joe’s single-serve Indian meals (plus those all-too-handy microwaveable burritos, Kettle Chips, and chocolate-covered espresso beans), he had suddenly become too fat to appear in public — not even for a home-cooked dinner with three single (very friendly, and not too anorexic themselves) women. Another bachelor, another ex of mine in fact, became obsessed, as many do in L.A., with traffic patterns. When I invited him to a play — by James Joyce, his favorite author — he declared proudly and obstinately: “I won’t cross the 405 after 4 p.m.!,” practically waving a cane. Speaking of ­traffic, I admit that I couldn’t get out in the evenings at all by this point without my partner. He loves to drive — so that’s my personal Uber; he’ll flag the toothpaste spots on my collar (why so many? It’s because I vigorously brush my teeth without putting on my glasses); and if there is the sort of obligatory vaguely work-related L.A. party where you are “greeted” in the lobby by a wide-eyed intern crossing you off on a clipboard and the only real “mixing” offered is snatching both veggie bruschetta and Thai meat skewers off passing trays, at least we have each other to talk to before driving home and roundly complaining.

But what does that mean for all those people who don’t have that person to complain to? Or who, after nights spent apart, don’t have someone to come home to, to reassure them that, no, that wasn’t rude to say, and no, they didn’t really mean that, and no, you weren’t so drunk (or perhaps were, more than you realized)? All those people who spent all those years coming home only to their own thoughts. The more time I spend thinking about living alone, the more I kept coming back to that endless vacuum of mental space. 

For writers who are mothers, like me, our customary complaint has always been that we never had time to ourselves. More recently, I’ve started suspecting that the belief that if we are alone with our thoughts, brilliant things will occur (a novel! An opera! A screenplay!) may be a myth. In fact, the opposite may be true — that, left solely to its own devices, one’s mind tends to go into endless fretting circles. There are the emails sent that drew no answer — do they not like you? Did you offend them? Did you ask too much? (And now we have social-media anxiety — if enough people don’t like our Instagrams right away, we might quickly take them down.) Let alone the stress over one’s impossible-to-fulfill ambition. And then there is the mole that you watch anxiously, day after day. (I am currently in a slightly alarmed relationship with a back molar that has me flossing four times a day.) One does retirement-account and property-tax sums in one’s head over and over again. To a certain extent, these are the worry beads of life, and a calming partner (if you have that sort of partner) can simply say, “There, there.” Or, “That’s enough for today — let’s shake up a cocktail, light up a bowl, and watch TV.”

And if you don’t, never mind socializing, even keeping our lonely caves relatively civilized can start to become challenging, though few will be quite as bizarre as legendary outsider artist Henry Darger. A solitary custodian who lived alone in a small apartment, in Chicago, Darger left behind not just a 15,145-page tome detailing wars between massive armies of girls (with penises) but also, less dramatically if no less tellingly, a ten-year daily weather journal. Think about that: a ten-year daily weather journal.

Part Four: Super Singles

Except: Some report truly loving midlife singleness. For them, living unencumbered in one’s own home is like finding church. It represents breaking free of limiting molds. Says Rhadika, 60, an ­educational-software consultant in Dallas: “I’ve lived alone my entire life, in four different countries. What’s the big deal? I have my own business, fly a plane, and am so used to managing on my own I am not worried about the future. I don’t come home to arguments and relationship crap. I don’t have to worry about infidelity or empty nests, and I am a lot more lighthearted than many married people I know. From where I stand, marriage is just a way for two half-people to team up and delude themselves they make a whole person.”

Thom, 64, a Los Angeles playwright­lyricist, has had a less-sunny life trajectory, but he relays his personal Cessna down swoop with winsome gallows humor. “There’s a Zen simplicity to it I find invigorating,” he says of his $425 studio with a hot plate and bathroom down the hall. The one downside? “Managing certain kinds of sadness that are culturally encouraged. Like the holidays!”

Can I channel that cheer? Can I see or feel my way to a more lighthearted existence alone? In my ideal world of singleness, I wake up at about 7:20 a.m. (neither too early nor too late), mysteriously refreshed (no confused tangle of limbs that caused neck or back pain), admiring the silvery skeins of light and promise that dawn is strewing into my elegant if somewhat spare (with perfect color accents) bedroom. With a wry chuckle I alight from my bed (in some floaty off-white or eggshell-hued peignoir) and, with a wry chuckle (I do not quite understand why this vaguely French Catherine Deneuve trope of the wry chuckle continues) pour myself a cup of perfect coffee (prepared for brewing the night before). There is no newspaper full of Woody Allen’s favorite new 19-year-old actresses or a passel of hideous 22-year-old Silicon Valley art-collecting billionaires to unsettle me: Somehow, no, I take that cup of coffee and I (wryly) lean against my outdoor porch’s balustrade, observe the pastel dawn and the birds (who seem to speak to me, their throaty altos communicating in a poetic language we both understand) and … God knows. I am already exhausted with this entire morning singleton description.

But the contrast between Radhika and Thom is telling. At least in my experience, of all those who say they love living alone in middle age, the most conspicuously giddy appear to be women over 50 for whom going solo is a joyous yawp of female liberation. As opposed to their bachelor counterparts, these women tend to have more networks that they naturally maintain, and they have a few more domestic skills that keep their homes from slipping into hoarding caves. (On average, anyway.) As cheers the (eternally girlish) Huffington Post about “The Lifestyle More Older Women Are Starting to Embrace”: “Midlife women are doing it again. As we did in our 20s, we are questioning fundamentals, challenging the status quo, being stubbornly bohemian, and embracing the unconventional. Boomers are tenaciously breaking down stereotypes about aging and redefining life after 60.”

This redefinition takes a great deal of effort, it seems. After all, being a singleton is fine — perhaps preferable — if you’re a superwoman with multiple passionate interests (“Monday is choir night, Tuesday is Scrabble, then Saturday I’m off to Nepal! See you in 2017!”). Not all of us blaze with this hard, gemlike flame, though, and it seems to dim especially the further one gets from the moment of “liberation.” (I’ve found it an especially rare flame among the lifelong single, once they’ve reached a certain age.)

Take the case of Julianne, a busy working magazine editor–film publicist–party thrower for three decades in Manhattan. Her base was a sprawling loft in Chelsea from which, like Tales of the City’s Anna Madrigal, she has mother-henned, since the mid-’80s, a swirl of incoming and ­outgoing bon vivants. For those, picture certain kinds of hipsters now in their 60s who today can look like stylish, if not ­particularly well-rested, rock-and-rollers in their late 40s. Guided by their own magical health rules, the No. 1 bodily directive of this group is to remain cocaine-thin, which means some of them are still ­smoking, and if there is physical fear, it is fear of carbs. (Popular cocktail recipe: Bullshot, a Bloody Mary that substitutes those noisome 7 grams of carbs in tomato juice with zero-carb beef bouillon.)

Everything was going great guns for ­Julianne through her 30s, 40, and 50s, then two events occurred: She turned 60, and there was a recession, if not quite in that order. First her productions company went under, then the loft abandoned (owing to skyrocketing rent), and then came a mysterious viral infection that hospitalized Julianne for a week, at which point it became apparent to my friend Jo, the most adult of Julianne’s Peter Pan friends, that her suffering bon-vivant hipster had neglected over the years to carry health insurance.

Jo subsequently tried to rally the troops around their flamboyantly generous hostess of decades with limited success. “I found that Julianne’s party list was not the same as Julianne’s support list,” Jo says. “It’s ironic. When I was growing up in the Midwest, I used to loathe the army of casseroles and hot dishes that would arrive on the porch when anyone was sick. But now I kind of envy that system.” Even the great Elaine Stritch, glamorous unfettered denizen of the Carlyle, singing cabaret in exchange for board and room service until the age of 88 (and how great is that?), moved home to the care of her family in Michigan at the very end.

Julianne turned out to be part of the problem, too. Most comfortable in the role of glamorous hostess to many, she simply gave up wanting to have an identity at all. She refused to accept either visitors or help. When even the most well-meaning friends would come to her new, small apartment, she would be elusive and ungracious. “I’m deeply worried about her,” Jo says. “She’s day-drinking and missing appointments and not getting out of her bathrobe all day. You go see her, and her wig has kind of slipped off and she doesn’t fix it.”

Part Five: “Peanut Butter or Yogurt and All That Sadness”

We are not meant to be alone. If so, being put into isolation in jail would be a treat.” So muses my friend Jason, 57. His wife had a midlife crisis and an affair; Jason eventually forgave her to preserve the integrity of family holidays. Jason bought a new place, where he works and cooks for his daughter when she visits from college. “Living alone is fine for now,” he says, “but I can see if I continue this too long I’ll go nuts and start locking the doors from the inside.”

Among the newly single, everyone has a different account of the hardest part. Says Lily, age “56½,” a Bay Area artisan-food-business owner: “Waking up is toughest. Most days, it begins with an anxiety attack, which I beat back with several cups of strong coffee. I work out of my house, so there is a lot of blur between work and personal time. Mornings are when I wonder if I’ll outlive my money.”

Says Zach, 59, a newly divorced dad living in what he calls the isolated “penal asteroid” of Long Beach: “For me, the worst part of the day is the late afternoon. I entertain a false hope all day that I’ll have a group of people to unpack it all within the evening. Then, as the sun goes down, I panic again about having to face my dark empty apartment. On a good night, I might be able to sit still and read, but that’s black-belt stuff. When I’m alone, there are too many places my magnified self-­centeredness can take me.”

Says Janet: “I miss someone tracking me. ‘Did your plane land safely?’ ‘How was your day?’ I hate eating dinner alone. I always say I’ll cook for myself, but I don’t. Dinner ends up being that second bowl of cereal in the day or peanut butter or yogurt and all that sadness.”

Says Beth: “For me, it’s at the very end of the day when the lights are out, and there I am. Lying in bed alone.”

It doesn’t seem to get much better with time. I visit my friend Andy, 52, who has been single for over a decade now. In contrast to a Room of One’s Own, Andy has gaily dubbed his 250-square-foot converted garage the Palace of Failure.

Handing me an espresso, he gives a short tour. The Palace of Failure is like a small houseboat, packed with books, DVDs, appliances. To the right are large monitors (TV and computer, flickering); in the middle is an unmade futon topped with wrinkled laundry and a sleeping bag that appears to be breathing; to the left is a narrow landing strip of kitchen. It features a “tabletop convection oven” (big enough to bake pizza but not chicken) and a ten-­gallon water heater (“I can wash dishes or shower but not both”).

What’s breathing under the sleeping bag turns out to be Andy’s 19-year-old cat, ­Mingus. Andy flutteringly picks little pieces of fur off Mingus’s back and flicks them onto the carpet. “I’ll vacuum it tonight,” he says, “or maybe tomorrow.” The problem is to get to the vacuum he has to open the closet door, blocked by his Syndrums.

The rent strikes me as surprisingly high — $945 a month. An oft-Zillowing, Excel-spreadsheet-wielding woman would find this unthinkable. Andy agrees. “But I don’t want to move Mingus. Moves disorient Mingus. Mingus deserves better, don’t you?”

It strikes me that instead of the cat lady, we are in the era of the cat gentleman. “In 19 years, we’ve been apart 20, maybe 30 nights,” Andy reports.

Part Six: Pairing Up

There is one obvious solution to the problems and perils of living alone: dating. And online dating makes meeting like-minded partners easier than ever. I do know people who have found their life mates online. In a time when even Martha Stewart is on Match.com, there is no stigma. But it’s not a universal salve. For some, who are ­uncomfortable and out of practice, dating still feels impossible.

“I see a lot of single, lonely middle-aged women in my practice,” says Susan R., a therapist who works out of her home in Manhattan. “It’s a huge problem. They’re sad. They’re full of regret. They wonder what happened. They try to date, but find that eligible 50-something men only want to date 30-something women.”

Scott, a 57-year-old New York teacher, offers a perhaps surprising and defiant answer as to why: “It’s because women my age, I’ve found, are largely angry! They have been intensely fed sexist fairy tales about how to live their lives (much more so than men), what a good girl is and isn’t, and how to get their ‘happily ever after.’ It seems to me when they get to middle age and all, and what they have been taught does not pan out, they get angry — real angry. Who wants to be around that? Younger women aren’t as likely to call a man out on his shit.”

This comment may sound angry, too — or forget may, it probably does. “I see patients of both genders for whom living alone is really hard,” Susan R. continues. “I see a lot of depression, free-floating fear, worries about Ebola or isis. People feel physically isolated. One patient of mine was ruminating about Mrs. Anderson, a widowed baby­sitter she had growing up in New York, who kept delivering a poinsettia plant at Christmas and a lily at Easter long after she stopped babysitting. She was a bore but probably lonely. My patient thinks she may be turning into Mrs. Anderson but realizes New York City today is not a community that allows that kind of small-town behavior.

“This loneliness could be alleviated by dating,” she says, “but I see both men and women suffering from Short-Attention-Span Theater. They’re swiping away on Tinder — next! Next! Next! But the biggest problem I see with women seeking men? Women pathologically attached to their dogs. They don’t see it. They’re in complete denial about it. They do not acknowledge it ever gets in the way of dating.”

Has she been able to help any of these patients?

Susan R. answers frankly, without hesitation. “No.”

Part Seven: The Time of Sleeping

In the end, the chicken-and-egg question becomes: Is it the frazzled people who end up alone, or is it the aloneness that’s doing the frazzling? Do middle-aged people who live alone too long lose the capacity to ever again live with another person? Or is living alone over 50, 60, and beyond simply the destiny of a younger person who was frustrated, mystified, or simply not engaged enough by earlier relationships?

To puzzle this out, it’s probably worth thinking a bit about not singledom but its opposite, coupledom, and what exactly we’re trying to get out of it. Unhappy marriages used to be (in our parents’ Greatest Generation of Manhattans, meat loaves, and fighting about money) if not the norm, at least no great surprise. But we’ve resolved to use our enlightened gender awareness, superior educations, economic independence, and active listening learned in therapy to artisanally create much better marriages. When we extract ourselves from them we realize that marriage isn’t just a flight between two eHarmony-paired, politically and sexually simpatico, active-listening souls. It’s also a set of conditions — such as sharing a bedroom, if not necessarily a bathroom — and a series of rituals, some more social, like dining together, some more practical, like driving each other to the airport. And some more essential, like talking to one another and having someone to behave in front of every day.

So when, in your 20s, 30s, and even 40s, you give up on a marriage, or on a long-term relationship, for romantic reasons, you are also giving up on a certain type of companionship. Never mind that as we get older, more tired and irascible, we may ask ourselves: If we give up half the bed (with the expensive mattress and hypoallergenic pillows we finally got right), what are we hoping to get in return? Frankly, the longer we’ve gone on living by ourselves, the less room our lives seem to have for other ­people, so cluttered with this and that that only a custom-made robot seems likely to complement that clutter. Can our domestic companion also shop and cook and clean up, subtly improving the landscape of the home like a quietly humming Roomba — replacing dirty laundry with clean laundry, an empty fridge with a full one (ditching the rubbery vegetables), and, yes, perhaps filling the car with gas? 

And that’s just the practical stuff. True domestic companionship may have now become an even more difficult kind of art, in a time when our computers, televisions, and even my personal girlfriend Pandora (Joni Mitchell radio! Celtic Christmas radio!) form a pashmina-soft environment we can sculpt to our fancy. In the 1960s, people had only Walter Cronkite in the evening, and he went offline at seven. By contrast, few adults can offer as much witty conversation, sweeping narrative, and adventure as $7.99 a month can buy on Netflix. George Clooney is to be had at the touch of my tiny Apple remote (the one little bigger than a stick of chewing gum). 

The fact is that by this age, many of us would just like to lie in bed and watch television, particularly if we have already raised kids and are exhausted from it.

But is that really good for us? Is it healthy? Does it lead to longer life? A vegan yogic friend was telling me about a startling passage he had recently come upon. Bothered by high blood pressure, even though he eats quinoa and kale and does frequent juice fasts, he was reading with bafflement the 1891 teachings of Lahiri Mahasaya, the teacher of the teacher of Paramahansa Yogananda (founder of “spiritual organization” Self-Realization Fellowship). “Mahasaya talks about this certain time of the year, January through March, the cold months, where for your health you’re supposed to eat meat and drink alcohol. And further, ‘At the time of sleeping, lie embracing a lover — covered in a comforter — who is greatly affectionate, full-breasted and lithe in form. And during the entire time continuously enjoy pleasures with each other.’ He is literally talking about the importance of having a good ‘sleeping companion’!”

Which is why, as appealing as Robyn’s perfect Room of One’s Own seems, I suppose I’ll be sticking close to Charlie, as mad as his piles make me. As I breathe in the dust and stub my toe on an errant guitar, I have to remind myself, “Hey, all of this is good for my immune system! At least on a molecular level.” It would take a braver person than me — with a more exquisite appreciation of the dawn, and the birds, with their poetic, throaty altos — to actually flee.

*Some of the names in this story have been changed.

*This article appears in the January 26, 2015 issue of New York Magazine.