Living Alone

Photo: Keoni Cabral

I remember thinking when I was lying on my bedroom floor, bleeding internally so badly that I’d lost the ability even to crawl, that if I hadn’t been married I would have bled to death.  I was home after a laparoscopic appendectomy, had awakened at 3 a.m. with projectile vomiting, and had found myself unable to move (due to rapid blood loss).  Luckily, my wife could do so normally and called an ambulance.  I was transported to the hospital and ultimately saved by a second operation later that afternoon.

Apart from the rare instances in which the presence of a spouse is literally life-saving, however, I don’t believe a married life is necessarily any happier than a life lived alone (as much as I love my wife and have felt my life to be enormously enriched by her presence in it).

Certainly, divorce statistics would support the idea that a significant number of marriages make people unhappier.  We may be driven to couple ourselves, but we all struggle to do it well (living with someone else is simply hard for reasons that are anything but simple).  Single people may envy their coupled friends, but depending on how skilled you are at conducting a relationship, it may easily cause you more misery than being single and wanting to be coupled ever did.

This isn’t just because conducting a healthy relationship requires skill.  It’s also because how happy or unhappy we find ourselves is to a large degree independent not just of our marital status but of all external circumstances.  How happy we are actually depends on our inner life state and the confidence with which we face our problems.  Not that our inner life state is itself entirely independent of external influences.  But it has a size and a strength all its own.  When it’s strong, even if things like a marriage aren’t going well, we can still see our way to happiness.  When it’s weak, even a healthy, happy marriage can’t save us from misery.

Marriage is, however, an excellent proving ground for challenging ourselves and strengthening our inner life state through the acquisition of wisdom.  No other relationships have required me to challenge my weaknesses and negativity more than romantic ones.  Viewing marriage as an experience that has lessons to impart rather than as the foundation of my happiness itself, has forced me to develop myself in ways that have freed me to enjoy it even more.

This is all to say that the view that a married life is intrinsically superior to a single life is incorrect.  They’re simply different with equal potential to make us happy or miserable.  Some people may seem constitutionally better suited for marriage and others for a life lived singly, but nothing prevents either type of person from enjoying either state.  Marriage, like anything else, has both its good and bad points, and is therefore—of course—what we make it.  For the record, I love being married—but one thing marriage is certainly not is an absolute requirement for a happy life.

Next WeekThe Right To Die

 

31 comments to Living Alone

  • vusa

    “…but one thing marriage is certainly not is an absolute requirement for a happy life.”

    Agree 100%. An unhappy person seeking a solution in coupling is abysmally wrong.

    I wonder what the statistics show—are happily married people in long-lasting marriages optimists in life?

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  • keith

    So…painfully…true.

  • Fi

    Never been married but have had a couple of long term relationships. . .not for me as felt very inhibited! ! like my life as a singleton but has its drawbacks. . .no one to make you hot drinks or run a bath when you feel like crap!!! However. . .how did being married save your life!! If you were just living together surely the outcome would have been the same!

    Fi: I meant simply being in a relationship (compared to being single).

    Alex

  • Midwest guy

    Am a physician also. Am so very happy to be alone, since divorced 5 years ago. The autonomy, freedom, solitude are simply precious and astounding! Everything from cooking to writing to taking a walk, to patient care, is a pleasure!

    So much so, that am afraid to give it up. What to do, should a romantic relationship blossom?

  • Gerry

    Alex—with all due respect, I don’t believe that you can make the assumption that singles are as happy as married people. One cannot empathize with the feelings of others that one has not experienced. Even as a physician, you can certainly sympathize with, but you can cannot “feel” the pain of childbirth or the suffering of a cancer patient.

    Gerry: But of course I experienced life as a single person—before I got married. What I learned was that being married didn’t make me any happier; it just gave me something else to enjoy. The point I was trying to make is that we often put our hopes for happiness into one basket—marriage, money, fame—but that we need to be happy first to enjoy those things, otherwise the negative effects that accompany them (as accompany all things) might come to predominate our experience of them.

    Alex

  • Anna-in-N.

    .. so true
    …. and fortunately
    …….. for my life
    …….. not painfully so.

    Your quote: “How happy we are actually depends on our inner life state and the confidence with which we face our problems” sums up my life (of 70 years) nicely.

    Thanks, Alex, for another thoughtful and thought-provoking meditation.

    —Anna

  • Stacie

    “How happy we are actually depends on our inner life state and the confidence with which we face our problems.” Was married for 10 years, now divorced for almost 10 years; intentionally not dating for the last four of them. Very happy with my decision so far and can say, from this vantage point, that “uncoupled” life feels excellent and light-weight. I enjoy the world through my experiences and know, without a doubt, that it is truly my own lens with which I am viewing them through. Maybe someday that will change but, for now, I am joyful and full of gratitude.

  • Steven P

    This summer I turned 57. From the day I was born until September 1, 2000, at the age of 46, I had never lived alone. I was living with a roommate in my final year of law school when I met my future spouse and I moved in with him when school finished while I studied to pass the bar. And for a long while we had a wonderful marriage (of course back then there was no such thing as same sex marriage, but we were married save for the marriage license.) And it was a wonderful life together until it wasn’t, starting some time in the 16th year. And eventually it became necessary for me to leave if I was going to be happy and healthy again.

    And those first 18 months living alone, returning to my hometown, NYC, were, despite all my friends and family in the NYC metro area, the 18 loneliest months of my life. And then I decided that this being single was not a hyphen between what was and what must come in the form of another person to be in relationship with and to live with. No I decided that this was my life and I was going to like once more the person who I was living with . . .me. The last 10 years have been the happiest of my life. It’s not that I would say absolutely no to a relationship again, but it would have to be a person that brought as much to the table as I do for myself. And that’s become a pretty high bar.

    Who knows what may come? Meanwhile I love the one I’m with.

    Steven

  • Scott

    Alex,

    Thank you for your wisdom. I have been married for over 10 years. I have two young children. I have been considering ending my marriage. I believe that my wife’s inner life state is in shambles. I don’t know how to address this. I have been teetering on leaving for quite some time now. I feel trapped. I don’t want to hurt my little girls (we have 2 daughters). I am also concerned about the potentiality that I would not see them very often. What suggestions would you or your readers have to address her “inner life state.” She does not admit where she is… I also feel “who am I to tell her to change”?

    Thanks.
    Caught

    Caught: Oh, so difficult. Have you spoken with her about how you are suffering? Approaching her with an attitude of “you need to change” will likely be met with defensiveness. But if you are suffering in this relationship, whether you blame it on her behavior or not, that suffering is your problem. Without knowing the specifics of your situation I can only offer general ideas: perhaps couples counseling if you haven’t tried it? That will get you working on your marriage together as partners (if, as you imply, she’s depressed, therapy would also unmask it). When one person in a relationship suffers it’s rarely only caused by one person.

    Alex

  • “Viewing marriage as an experience that has lessons to impart rather than as the foundation of my happiness itself, has forced me to develop myself in ways that have freed me to enjoy it even more”

    Very nice statement. I recently came across Rainer Maria Rilke’s, “Love consists in this, that two solitudes protect and touch and greet each other.” You have added the development aspect.

  • I do agree whole heartedly. I have often wonder why society elevate marriage status to the ultimate ideal. I can now understand why my stressful marriage did not drive me into depression. I have will fully decided to spent my energy and interest elsewhere.

  • Shay Voncreer

    If I am understanding this essay correctly, it is your opinion that living alone can lead to greater happiness than living coupled, which you acknowledge can be “literally life saving” or merely enormously enriching. I think this week’s premise is woefully misguided. Your comments come across as the insensitive reminiscence of a former bachelor who is wearing rose-colored glasses regarding his past. For one, why are you assuming that the life-saving potential for living a married life is so rare? Anecdotally, all marrieds I know can point to an episode, perhaps more than one, where having a spouse was life-saving indeed. The fact that so many couples chose to end their marriages is not a testament to the value of living single by any means. The statistics suggest a population with low tolerance for dashed expectations perhaps, but there is no reason to assume a relation between the divorce rate and the desirability of living alone. After all, the majority of divorced folks remarry or shack up again, so obviously they are not driven by a desire to live alone. Your suggestion that living alone can lead to greater happiness is generally belied by many studies of physical and mental health comparing various outcomes for those who are coupled versus those who are not. The reasons why a person lives alone matters very, very much. If one is single and living alone by choice, it is entirely different from the situation where one lives imprisoned in an empty house for years, if not for life. Temporary solitude is great. It offers freedom to indulge one’s self without having to constantly take the needs or wishes of another into consideration. Take-out food and temporary guests can be great fun, but the echo of footsteps in an empty house for years-on-end is a death knell, not a party. Yes, married (or coupled) life is intrinsically preferable than a single life, if one has a choice in the matter, unless called to a life of service that precludes a personal romantic and family life. The indefinite single life is marred by silence and loneliness that cartons of ice cream or uncompromised television viewing (or gaming) cannot supersede. Coming home to a home occupied by a loved one who cares how your day went and whether you are alive is infinitely better for the heart, mind and soul, even if one must pay the price of picking up one’s socks off the floor forevermore. Loneliness kills, doctor. Surely, you see evidence of this sad fact in your practice every day.

    Shay: You’ve misunderstood my intent. Nowhere did I state I thought living alone can lead to greater happiness than living coupled. My thesis is specifically that one isn’t intrinsically superior to the other. Nor did I state I believe people get divorced because they prefer to be alone. Certainly the benefits of being coupled are real (I’m enjoying many of them myself). My point was simply that they aren’t necessary for a happy life. Living single doesn’t necessarily doom one to a life of loneliness.

    Alex

  • joanwinnek

    My second marriage to a man I dearly love has lasted for 31 good years. We have weathered many storms, and now face our decline, although we are only in our early 70s. I had bilateral knee replacement 10 years ago, then survived breast cancer 8 years ago. He had a shunt put in his brain for NPH in 2005, then had a stroke in 2008. He recovered from both of these quite well, until he was hospitalized in November 2009, after collapsing at home for no apparent reason. At first he was in an isolation room (terrible noise from the machine that purifies the air) because they suspected H1N1 flu … eventually a nuclear scan showed an infected, gangrenous, ruptured gall bladder. It was removed laparoscopically and he came home five days later, after a total of nine days in the hospital.

    He hasn’t come back from that, despite attempts at physical therapy and aquatic therapy. He walks very slowly, needs a wheelchair in airports, and his energy is very low. We continue to travel, his great love and desire, but it becomes more difficult, and I am the person who must make all arrangements. I don’t look forward to being alone. I may die before him. But that would leave him pretty helpless, so is also to be dreaded. Two of our parents and one step-parent have lived far beyond having any decent life or ability to connect with others.

    Old age is frightening.

    Joan: It is indeed. You touch on some of the wonderful benefits of being coupled as we age: the joy of traversing a long life with companionship, of facing life’s travails with a partner, which can significantly ease the burden of many of them.

    Alex

  • So true.

    I live in a somewhat conservative country, and sometimes people are shocked at my happily-single-at-47 state. If I want to write poetry at two in the night, or sit for an hour watching sunlight on green—not too sure a wedded state allows the space for this kind of freedom.

    Re: the medical emergency you’ve outlined, yes, your wife saved your life, but I guess we singletons keep a cell phone close and have a network of close friends on call. Not the same, I know.

    Yet!

  • Thank you, Alex. I am sharing this post with my clients, and as a relationship coach I couldn’t agree more with you: “Single people may envy their coupled friends, but depending on how skilled you are at conducting a relationship, it may easily cause you more misery than being single and wanting to be coupled ever did.”

    I teach an approach, a way of understanding relationships called “The Architecture of Relationship” (my own model). The premise of this model is that a generic formula exists—like property—that all architects follow regardless of the final product. Similarly, a relationship requires certain “procedures” to be followed in order to be sustainable, healthy and fulfilling to the two people in it. And, like buildings, they might appear very different from one couple to the next (which is why it appears to be elusive and mysterious) but actually, when you understand the process it is less cryptic than one might think.

    Part of the process includes building a relationship on a suitable foundation. A solid foundation is represented by someone who has a strong sense of self worth. Someone who enjoys their own company; who likes and respects the person they have become and knows what they have to offer is valuable. The paradox: this person does not need a relationship to feel fulfilled and happy but chooses to be in relationship because he/she wants to share the life journey with a significant other. It’s known as readiness versus neediness and is the prerequisite to forming a healthy bond with another. Out of choice, this person learns the relationship and communication skills needed to create a mutually fulfilling partnership. Or not. The irony is that this person could be equally happy and fulfilled without a relationship.

    I say IF being happy and fulfilled in a relationship is important to you, make it your business to become a skilled relationship architect. It’s worth the investment. Toxic relationships, like contaminated buildings, have the habit of slowly destroying the people inside it (children and adults).

  • S

    Dealing with the societal & peer pressure can be hard ….and the constant theme that “unless you have someone you are incomplete.”

    That apart…while I enjoy my single status, its hard not to feel the twinge of loneliness…especially on some occasions—sick, feeling down, tired with having doing just SIMPLY every single thing yourself…

  • Jude Jackson

    As Socrates once so famously said, “By all means, marry. If you marry well, you will be happy. If not, then you become a philosopher.”

  • Sara

    This is a thought-provoking post, but neither Alex nor the commenters have addressed the situation of those of us who are widowed, therefore living alone but not by our choice. My 39-year marriage was (mostly) happy and supportive. Now I am single, but not by choice! While I try to move forward and find the joy in my current situation, and I’m generally a positive and resilient person, I still grieve for the intimacy and companionship that I have lost.

    Sara: Of course, recovering from the loss of a companion is entirely different from wanting but not finding one or not wanting one in the first place. Thirty-nine years of companionship will create an attachment not easily relinquished. And yet studies confirm that most widows and widowers do eventually manage to recover and enjoy life, even as they continue to miss the person with whom they lived so much of their lives. My condolences on your loss.

    Alex

  • In reply to Sara:

    I am a one-year survivor of early stage breast cancer. I have opted not to take any adjuvant therapy despite the fact that by so doing I up the odds of a cancer recurrence. One of the major reasons I have made this choice is that I don’t particularly want to outlive my husband. I handled life quite well when I was single, but he’s spoiled me. (Also, he is a bit of a hoarder and I don’t want to have to deal with all his stuff if he should die first.)

  • Bee

    I find it interesting that when I am mulling over a problem in my life that I always seem to trip over your blog that sheds light on to the issue. Your post and the replies have once again shined light onto the path for myself. (Maybe the second part of the lesson is that I should bookmark your site!)

  • frida

    l just know that l don’t have to marry someone who does not have the same expectation as l; also don’t marry a negative, problematic person, because the problems will take my own life.

  • Julie

    As someone who has lived alone after being somebody’s daughter and somebody’s wife for 32 years total—its a mixed bag. Sometimes is nicer to be alone and do as you want but there are times when a familiar face, a familiar touch, a smile, a hug (or someone to run out for cold pills when you feel like you’re being done in by a particularly bad “bug”) seem very tempting. But the grass is always greener. A few people I’ve known and admired for their marriage, as it appeared to me, but who is to say how they felt?

    I think the reason so many marriages fail is that one or both parties is into CONTROL and OWNERSHIP. Being married does not mean you agree to have your brain taken out or only have desires and thoughts that have been pre-approved by the partner. So much of the grief after divorce is caused by too many females (usually) attempting to exact retribution on that person we once said we loved (but now the gloves are off) in the form of child support. Not meaning that child support shouldn’t be required, but that I see the balance of power way out of line these days in the courts.

    I know this isn’t about the “legal” side of marriage/divorce etc. but it has a lot to do with the outcome and based on my experience and the experiences of others I care about—it is a formidable weapon backed up by an unrelenting and unreasonable BIG BROTHER.

  • anne

    Nice post. I would like to point out that many single people share housing with others who are not their romantic partners, and thus have others around for any emergencies that might arise. It might take some accommodations, but can be a good situation if it works.

  • JK

    Hi Alex,

    I was thinking about this post tonight. For some reason it has been a bit of a sleeper for me, but definitely a good post. My first thought was, OMG!! How scary that must have been!

    Second thought: last week my closest friend was admitted to ER with a serious problem. I wasn’t sure she would make it. This is the first time I’ve experienced that sort of worry for a friend, and it was an awful experience. So I think when it comes to relationships, it’s easier to be the sick one rather than the caretaker.

    I live by myself and sometimes wonder what would happen if I were in a similar situation and without help. I think the bottom line is that each of us will face death either alone or with company. Or maybe a little of both. I hope I’ve found some sort peace with it, whether it is tomorrow or seventy years from now. But if I am in a relationship, more importantly I would hope my husband and family can find peace too.

    I would rather be alone than with the wrong person. But being with the right person is better than being alone.

    Thanks again for the great post, Alex.

  • Emma

    I just got married a couple of months ago, for the second time, and I am still working out exactly what it means to me.

    I think my husband and I are best friends and compatible in many ways. I like having someone to come home to and enjoy special times with.

    And yet, I lived alone for several years in my twenties before meeting him…..so sometimes I still crave the “queen of my own palace” feeling. I think there are certain things you give up when being married. I have been independent and alone for quite some time, so it is certainly an adjustment to have to make so many compromises.

    I am married to a man with a child from a previous relationship. My husband has stated that he thinks I should feel like his child is my own, and that I should be like another mother to her. I felt terrible for a long time that I was not able to live up to this expectation. I meditated, thought, and wrote about this for some time before I realized a couple of things. Firstly, my husband’s expectation is not realistic. We see his child five or six weekends a year; for me this is not enough time to grow to love a person—child or not—very deeply. His daughter is a teenager and this is not, developmentally speaking, a time when she is likely to be interested in forming another parent-child relationship.

    Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, I realized I am still carrying around my “Good Girl Contract.” I was the oldest child in an abusive home growing up. I thought that if I was totally perfect, in every single way, that maybe I could get my dad to stop abusing us. Maybe if I could do everything right, and break up my parents fights and deflect the attention onto me at the exact moment that my dad was about to lose it, I could make everything “okay.” I now see that as an adult, I still on some level believe that if I am a totally perfect person no one will hurt me. When I get hurt, I then blame myself and tell myself that it must be some shortcoming of mine—that I am deeply flawed in some way that caused this suffering to happen.

    The good news is that my practice as a Buddhist has helped me immensely. I am good at noticing when I hear that voice inside me telling me that I am deeply broken and flawed. Now I just recognize that voice for what it is. Realistically, of course I have flaws. Maybe they just aren’t as horrible as the little devils in my head would have me believe.

    So far, I think marriage has challenged me to try to be my best self that I can be. And sometimes this means realizing that I can still be safe, and still be a good person even if I don’t live up to other people’s (even my husband’s) expectations all of the time. I don’t expect my husband to make me happy….I expect ME to make me happy.

    Thank you, as always, Alex, for thoughtful post.

  • November 11th will be my 19th anniversary. Being married is fun, uncomplicated, and blissful. There has not been a day where I don’t appreciate being married. The secret is that I’ve maintained who I am, and I have accepted my hubby for who he is. The key is to not change each other but to support one another to be who they are truly.

    I agree wholeheartedly that you don’t have to be married to be happy. Our happiness is not dependent on others. I was blissfully happy as a single person. The world was my oyster and I enjoyed the freedom to choose what I wanted at any given time without consideration of another person’s wishes.

    However, being married provides happiness squared. But as a single person you don’t know that, therefore, you don’t miss it. You can be happy in this ignorance. It’s like people who decide not to have children. They don’t know what joy it is being a parent. But it does not matter because whatever stage people are in their life, it is perfect in that moment for them.

    I’m not sure if my point was clear. Enjoyed your blog Alex!

  • Angelina,

    Thank you for the good advice for a happy marriage.

    “Being married is fun, uncomplicated, and blissful”—I imagine that how it should be. I’ve fought uphill for a while, and of course, we humans are great at accommodating anything. It is nice to hear from someone enjoying ease and bliss with a partner. I’m beginning to shift my expectations of what partnership means, and your message came right on time 🙂

  • Patti

    I am 59, a professional woman, and while I have never been married, I have had a few relationships….both good and bad. The societal pull to be married is strong, esp. in one’s 20s-30s when many of one’s friends are getting married and starting families. It was during this time of my life, a wise friend of mine gave me some words of wisdom I have thought of for years. She had married, and I was going on about how “woe was me because I was still single.” She turned to me and asked me if I thought the point of life was to be happy? Of course I replied “yes,” whereupon she said: “Well, let me tell you, that you are as happy, if not happier, than anyone I know who is married.” Simple as that. I guess it is not about who you are with, but who you are!

  • Dave

    Alex, I am new to your site, but love what I’ve read so far…I am single, after my wife left me three years ago—I am aware that I am very dependent on others for my happiness (but it’s not one-sided, I would, and do do, anything for my friends to try to make them happy). Anyhow, I am beginning to learn that this is not the way to be, as it leaves me very vulnerable, and puts of lot of pressure on those I love, as they come to realize that I’m so deeply affected by what they do/don’t do/say, etc.

    You say that happiness comes from one’s “inner life state…”—so my question is, what should I do to achieve an inner life state that would allow me to be happy without relying on others? I am very aware that I just have to change, and welcome your advice…

    Many thanks,
    Dave

    Dave: Ah, how to achieve that inner life state. There’s the rub. Some of my thoughts on that can be found here.

    Alex

  • Chris

    I am 55, female and always single, not from choice. I feel that my life has been a waste in emotional terms. I try hard not to be bitter or self pitying and I go out and about socially and have friends, but the loneliness eats at me all the time. It is horrible and so empty to have no one to rely on, no one to love or cherish, and to feel in my heart of hearts that I matter to no one deep down. I worry that there is something wrong with me all the time. I have no family at all—if I had siblings or children, I would not be as lonely.

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