Living alone allows free rein to your idiosyncrasies

Anna Coogan

THERE is a defining moment in the life of anyone who is living alone when you just know you have to cop on to yourself, says Anna Coogan.

It could be that terrifying moment when you are sitting on the loo in a friend's house and you think, "Christ, did I close the door?"

Or it could be the moment you realise you're becoming a bit nutty. Journalist Rhodri Marsden writes this week in the London Independent about living alone and of "the incident in the kitchen where you pretend that a bag of frozen peas is a monster that's coming to get you".

Single Person Living Alone Behaviour is usually presented as being slightly questionable and barmy. Think of Claire Danes's CIA operative in Homeland, who turns her Georgetown one-bedroom into a control bunker for an ad hoc spying operation. Or Kramer on Seinfeld, washing vegetables in the shower or deciding, on a whim, to ditch his furniture in favour of 'levels'.

It could be because a person living alone hasn't got the usual social checks and balances - there is no one there to monitor behaviour and to say things along the lines of, "Did you really just ask that potato if it wanted to go for a nice little walk into the oven?"

Marsden feels happy to indulge in his fun side when there are no witnesses to his behaviour, and writes: "The other day I wondered what the skirting board would feel like if it was pressed to my cheek, and with no one around to dissuade me, I gave it a go. (Cool, refreshing)."

Though, as a man in a state of vivere solus, he also admits to grim breakfasts of Hula Hoops with water, and huskily whispering to himself, "Come on, let's do the ironing."

There are also some depictions of single living, for example Sandra Bullock being so lonely in the movie While You Were Sleeping that she pretends to be engaged to an unconscious man, which push the boundaries of quirky very far!

Finally, however, there is someone who really does seem to see the real benefits in being a 'solo occupant'. Eric Klinenberg is a sociology professor at New York University, and he has just published a book which not only comes down in favour of living alone, but also includes a survey of people who actually love doing so.

His book, Going Solo: The Extraordinary Rise and Surprising Appeal of Living Alone, argues that more and more humans are gradually getting into the swing of having a good time living solo.

In Ireland, for example, the number of one-person households is lower than is typical in northern European countries. However, that figure is steadily on the increase here in recent years, and accounts for just about a quarter of all our households.

Klinenberg believes that most of the public discussions about people who live alone and the single lifestyle "tend to represent it as an unmitigated social problem, a sign of narcissism, fragmentation, and diminished public life".

Yet his experience in writing about people living solo has altered his views. For starters, his interviews with people who live alone uncovered a well of happiness. His interviewees, from young professionals to divorced middle-agers to independent seniors, attested to the benefits of solo living.

People living alone described feelings of unfettered freedom, and of just being able to get up and go whenever it suited them. They also talked about the joy of being able to set their own schedule and indulge in their own habits and focus on their own development without constantly compromising to keep someone else happy.


No sacrifices. No attachments. "Although we often associate living alone with social isolation," Klinenberg writes, "for most adults the reverse is true."

He and his researchers interviewed more than 200 "solitaires" (his term) about their experiences, 160 of them from New York City. Klinenberg admits that at the beginning of his research he was concerned his subjects would turn out to be the sick and the elderly. In reality they turned out to be of all ages, and to have full and fulfilling lives.

Klinenberg offers a few hypotheses for this growing trend for solo living - including living alone being a crucial rite of passage into adulthood. That it's a sign of economic achievement. That it's a form of self-cultivation and living authentically, a reaction to the stifling compromises made by the cornered souls of Mad Men.

In previous periods throughout history people had no choice but to live in the family unit which was the building block of society, crucial for protection, food-gathering and reproduction.

Klinenberg acknowledges that living alone might be damaging to some people at times, and refers to how exile was once ranked as the severest form of punishment - a fate worse than death.

Yet he concludes: "Our opinions about being single have changed dramatically over the past 50 years."

Roisin Meaney, a successful author, has lived alone for the past 20 years, a single lifestyle which makes her unusual among her friends and family who are mostly married with children.

"Unless I'm having guests to dinner, roast chicken is generally off the menu," Roisin says.


"Much as I love it, the thought of finishing it off for the next four dinners tends to banish its appeal. The upside, meals-wise, is that if I feel like shoving a potato into the microwave and tipping a can of beans over it, there's nobody around to say 'That's your dinner?'"

She admits to being in her pyjamas working in front of her computer at noon some days.

"Housework definitely moves down the list of priorities when living alone - I've become expert at a half-hour whip round with the hoover and Febreze when anyone calls to say they're on the way."

Roisin, whose new novel is called One Summer, agrees with Klinenberg about the up-sides of living solo. "Of course, the joys of solo living include being able to sit watching telly with green gloop on my face and a plastic bag around my hair when I'm having a spa evening.

"Yes, I do things like talk to myself and I have imaginary conversations. But I think the pertinent question is if I am desperate to live with someone. The answer is I'm not.

"I like the life I have made for myself, and would find it hard to move a man into my house. I think he would have to maintain his own place, as what I've got going on here, and never having to explain myself, suits me," Roisin says.