It’s been a little over an year since I moved into a small one bed flat in South London after my newly wedded life came to a screeching halt. I was faced with a solo life not out of choice, but out of circumstance. A kind of universal slap in the face if you like. Or, as I now like to tell myself…another path designed for some higher kind of evolution. (The latter feels less absurd and doesn’t send me into an existential crisis so I’m sticking with it).
When you live solo in your mid to late thirties, the experience is significantly different to your twenties. Twenties are a period of trial and error. In and out of relationships, perhaps, a time of flatmates and house parties, and the fact that you now have a paycheck (however questionably low it maybe) that you can do as you like with. Being single/solo is almost a given and seen as just enroute to happily ever after. But your 30s…well that’s when things get serious. You have peers popping one kid, then the second, you have mortgages and phrases like “getting on the property ladder” and you find yourself very interested in that pension plan from work. It’s decidedly more “adult” and a time when being coupled up, sharing a mortgage, planning whose day it is to do the school run is the norm, and you—solo, single, numero uno you—are an anomaly.
So there I was, entering the world of living alone for the very first time in my entire life after a traumatic breakup, in the middle of a global pandemic AND in my late thirties. Of course, I had the choice to move into a house share but I opted not to. For the time being at least I can afford to rent on my own and I prefer solitude and a sense of “having my own space”. I felt like someone learning to swim for the first time. Only, there are no inflatable rings keeping you up. You are in the deep end—sink or swim. The truth is solohood (is that a word?) is still new to me. I don’t know how long this will be my life status, but solo is how I’ll be flying for the foreseeable future of my time here on this earth, so I plan to get comfortable and sit in Business Class. But it’s a bumpy ride and here’s why.
The individual solo experience
What’s great about living alone, is that you get to know yourself in a way that you never could living with housemates or family. This is both a blessing and a pain! You begin to see who you truly are when no one is watching you. It doesn’t get closer than this to your authentic self (which some days for me looks like a grumpy old man with an axe to grind or an eight-year-old in tears because someone said she can’t have that piece of cake until after dinner). When there is no external. Other, yes you can do whatever the hell you want. In theory there is something very freeing about it. Yet, what I find is that I have voices in my head telling me all kinds of stuff. It turns out I’m not living alone after all. I’m living with all these people in my own head. One of the biggest challenges and learning curves for me has been understanding these voices. Sometimes she’s a judgmental nasty piece of work. A “downright bully” as my therapist would say. Sometimes she is a rebellious teenager raging at you and the rest of the world. Sometimes she is a loving mother. Sometimes she is a good friend.
The key is and continues to be findings ways to differentiate these voices, to always be the conscious observer of them (as my Buddhist upbringing and Eckhart Tolle reminds me). I have to keep finding ways to show them who is running this household. When that teenager indefinitely procrastinates on taking the trash out or clean her room, that conscious adult self must step in. When that little child is not falling asleep at night because she is overcome with anxiety the loving and patient mother must step in to soothe her. So, while it sounds a little mental (it is mental because it’s all in the mind) this is how I keep meeting and learning about myself. Living with yourself is no walk in the park but it is an experience that builds your sense of self awareness and in a strange way, also your self-confidence.
The social solo experience
I find the biggest challenge to solo living comes from outside of me (yes, not even The Voices are as hard as what’s out there). As a solo living woman, I find that typically there is one of two social responses to this life status — assumptions that you are Carrie Bradshaw reincarnate or that you are Bridget Jones downing vodka like water singing to Celine Dion (and should you throw a dinner party the best you can do is serve blue soup). The expectation is that I am all glam and carefree or that I am some kind of half adult who needs to be indulged. What’s lacking is R-E-S-P-E-C-T.
Socially speaking, I notice the subtle difference in the way I was treated with a certain kind of respect when I was in a couple vs now. I sometimes feel that there is an unspoken assumption (at the onset at least) that my calendar is open and available, I am desperate for company and that I have more time and fewer responsibilities than those in relationships and marriages do. But the reality is far from it. When you are solo in your mid to late thirties and beyond you are in the most basic of ways pretty much like every other adult. You have bills to pay and a job to show up to and a household to run. In between all that everyday stuff, like everyone else you try to fit in your dreams, passions, friends, family, and a holiday or two. No, there is no New York apartment with a closet full of Manolo Blahniks, cocktails with “the girls” or fashionable social extravaganzas where you dress up in your pink tutu and attempt to charm the next best eligible bachelor. No, I’m sorry to disappoint you. The average middle class solo adult is the same as the average middle class anyother adult, except I’d say for us adulting can be a bit more hard work because you don’t have two heads to figure this stuff out, you have one.
Solohood is hard. I would not want to sugar coat it. It is hard not because of some personal failing but because it is the equivalent of trying to row a boat in the opposite direction of the current. The current of society — the status quo — flows one way; and anyone who is stepping out of this and going in another direction has a battle on their hands. No matter how much spiritual and internal work you do, no matter how much you try to perceive everything from a lens of positivity and agency the fact is living solo in a society that looks at solo adults like they are less than is no easy feat.
The future solo experience
The society we know today is shaped by “The Couple” being on the top of the hierarchy. When I got married some of my wedding cards literally said “welcome to the club” and it most certainly is the world’s most sought-after club. From socio-economic policies to what we see in the media and wider culture…it all predominantly upholds The Couple as the status to strive for. Why else do we have this frantic dating culture where swiping left and right in search of partnership has become a life purpose for so many of our generation and younger? That being said, it might be that the tide is also changing but we just don’t see it yet. According to data by the Office for National Statistics more and more of us in the UK are living alone. By 2039 it is predicted that 1 in 7 will be living alone. It might be from divorce, it might be out of choice, it might be the loss of your partner…as life expectancy continues to increase the chances are we will all live alone at some point in time. Already we are seeing the market responding to this with restaurants starting to accommodate solo diners and the travel industry have been doing this for quite some time now (although it would be good to see them cater to the average solo traveler looking to spend a weekend away on a city break rather than take a full- blown gap-year-style holiday with other “likeminded people”).
I just hope, we see this filtering through to socio-economic policies (such as mortgages, income tax cuts, social welfare for single income households and in particular single parents) and above all… a mindset shift within our culture, social circles, families and peer groups. Because there is no lonelier feeling than when you are misunderstood by your own.
About the author
Dilly Attygalle is a writer, poet, and by day works in book publishing. She also leisurely dabbles in hosting supper clubs. You can find her on Instagram @book__affairs. She lives in South London with The Voices and her plants.