Being solo in a culture designed for couples means you regularly need a sense of humor. In February, when we are barraged with images of rosebuds, twinkly gifts and Valentine spa retreats for couples, the ante is raised. People without partners feel like outcasts. Others get chocolate; we get glib helpful hints: Look on the bright side. Try out a dating site. Be your own Valentine.
Being part of a couple is the norm. Living solo is a minority lifestyle, with lots of complications. Being single and living alone with one’s art, or one’s mad entrepreneurial dreams, feels empowering one day, and isolating the next. Anyone who has ever been single at midlife has stories to tell, of being the extra at the dinner party, or presumed to be gay and closeted, or shy, or difficult.
But increasingly, living solo –whether by choice or not – has sustained such rapid growth that researchers are taking notice. Scholars seem startled to discover that single adults are often comfortable with their lifestyle. This week, sociologist Eric Klinenberg published a new and interesting study called Going Solo: the Extraordinary Rise and Surprising Appeal of Living Alone. He was interviewed last week on Smithsonian.com. Dr Klinenberg notices that living alone does not imply loneliness, in this era of abundant online networking and Starbucks on every corner. He thinks that the revolutionary changes in social media have transformed the experience of living alone from something to be tolerated, to a distinct coping advantage: living alone offers respite from too much communication, an oasis in the middle of a busy life.
Being single seems to be working, for a lot of Americans. It’s just another response to the eternal paradox: how do we gain companionship, while holding onto our individuality and our solitude? So why does the coupled lifestyle get celebrated with Valentine gifts, leaving singles to explain themselves?
Question: if going solo is really fine, why is Valentine’s Day so depressing?
The hope of true companionship has not lost its power to charm us. Eharmony is making its fortune on the impulse, even in the midst of busy, fulfilling lives, to find new partners. People don’t like to dine alone. As a therapist, I’ve seen lots of strong women jump into iffy relationships with men whose hearts they barely know, or fear to leave them when the time comes. Being solo scares us.
I think depression about being solo, living on one’s own, is less about the lifestyle, and more about the way it gets us marginalized. Yes, of course you can cope with Valentine’s Day. Watch a movie. Share cappuccino and dark humor with your nonconforming friends, or play laser tag. But that’s not the point. It’s that our hearts require special tending, as if being solo were a failure of the natural order of things, rather than an alternative. If this thought is lurking, bring it into daylight.
Single people do feel sad on Valentine’s Day, even when they have full, creative lives. It’s not a betrayal of our solitary journey, to acknowledge this sadness. Lives often unfold differently from the way we had imagined them. Disappointment for the lack of a soulmate is not a clinical diagnosis, nor is it a sign that finding a partner is the thing to do. Enjoyment of the solo life is not at odds with the hope for deep, meaningful love. But in the meantime, what? Why aren’t there celebrations for solo contentment?
It’s hard for solo people to remain centered while forced to bear witness to all the champagne and frou-frou of Valentine’s Day, but that is the path toward wholeness. It is somebody else’s holiday, masquerading as everybody’s fantasy. Breathe. Step away. There are some interesting online resources for solo life with all its ambiguities, such as Quirkyalone. This imaginative site describes itself as a community for people who enjoy being solo, offering a mindset of self-acceptance, high expectations for love, and tolerance for the nonconforming journey. On February 14 it celebrates International Quirkyalone Day, when uncompromising romantics go their own way.
May we all allow ourselves solitude in a noisy world. May we enjoy our chocolate on a vista overlooking the meadow or the skyline or the sea, in the company of ourselves, and whoever may love and nurture us, without reservation. Solo is fine.