Accepting Mixed Blessings Of Going Solo

ALICE STEINBACH

November 05, 1990|By ALICE STEINBACH

OTHER THAN A WOMAN I KNOW WHO says she is looking forward to her fourth marriage next month because she can't stand living alone, and the man in my fiction-writing class who told me he lives with his girlfriend because she does the housework, most single people I know break out in a cold sweat at the thought of living with someone.

"The problem is, we're all looking for just the right blend of intimacy and autonomy in our lives," said a woman friend who's lived alone for the past 10 years. "And I guess what scares me about the idea of living with someone again is that there'll be too much intimacy and too little autonomy."

To share or not to share your life again -- that is the question facing a growing number of men and women who now live solo. And who say they prefer it that way.

Gone -- or almost gone -- is the day when single people who lived alone, especially single women, were looked upon by couples as sad objects to be invited over for a home-cooked meal and matched up with bad blind dates.

And gone, too, is the mistaken idea that living alone is equivalent to leading a lonely life. Single people have learned the joy of solitude.

Now, in one of those modern twists, it seems single people worry not about living alone but about whether they are capable of living successfully with another person.

Are they capable, for instance, of relearning a vocabulary that includes words such as compromise and accommodation and tolerance? Are they willing to relinquish some of the independence that living alone affords?

And they wonder about their ability to deal with the modern geography of intimacy: Will too much intimacy turn suffocating? Will too little intimacy be disappointing? And what about those daily, minor irritations that have a way of accumulating like cars PTC in a rear-end, pile-up collision? Can romantic love survive the pressures of real life?

"Only connect," wrote E. M. Forster, describing what is surely one of the most profound needs of humankind. And one of the most frightening.

Living together, sharing a real life -- as opposed to a romantic fantasy -- requires a lot of delicate negotiations. And it requires a willingness to allow the "illusion" of the relationship to be disturbed for, one hopes, something more substantial.

Of course, there are a lot of us who don't want the illusion disturbed.

From a single woman: "I don't want to be involved in all the domestic details and work pressures and annoying habits that come from daily contact. I'd rather have the fantasy."

From a single man: "I prefer being in a relationship where all I have to do is show up."

Most single people agree that a large part of the pleasure of living alone comes from the freedom to do exactly what you want when you want to; of being able to pick up and go whenever you feel like it.

Or as a female, 40something colleague puts it: "The best thing about living alone is I can spend an entire Sunday in my nightgown eating popcorn without someone asking when I'm going to get dressed and what we're going to have for dinner. I can eat cereal for supper every night for a month. I can sleep when I like without worrying that someone is feeling ignored. What I fear most about living with another person is having to give up all these delicious little freedoms."

Of course, you could describe such free-doms as the small change of relationships. Still, a penny here and a penny there, and pretty soon you're talking the emotional equivalent of real money.

But the deepest fear among some single people seems to be this: that in sharing a daily life with another person -- one that involves commitment, compromise and responsibility -- they will lose contact with or have to deny a part of their real self.

Perhaps, though, any small loss of the self can be compensated for by the intimacy that springs up between two people through sharing small moments: laughing at the same things, cooking a meal together, sitting in the dark listening to Mozart or the Beatles.

"What do I miss most about living alone?" responded one single woman. "Not having someone to share Sunday mornings with." A male colleague: "The thing I miss most is hearing the laughter of more than one person when something funny happens."

Me? I miss not having anyone to slow-dance with at 3 in the morning when a disc jockey plays Ella Fitzgerald singing "My Funny Valentine."

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