More women may be living alone today than at any time in human history. Fifty-one percent of women live without spouses. A quarter of adult American women have never married. The percentage of divorced or separated women has tripled since 1950. Nearly 12 million women are widows.
Yet “aloneness,” the state in which each of these women lives, is virtually invisible as a subject of even passing concern in the social and cultural zeitgeist. Shouldn’t we, as therapists, pay more attention to it? I believe we need to take a more systematic and comprehensive therapeutic approach to the role that aloneness can play at every stage of women’s lives, whether they’re single or married, young or old.
After the Bliss
Lisa, a successful set designer in her early thirties, came into my office looking wilted and slightly shell-shocked, as if she’d rushed to a party only to find it was long over. In a way, this was true. Four years after meeting Sam and falling in love, she’d separated from him—an event that seemed to have occurred of its own accord, as apathy and battle fatigue wore romance down. She was struggling to understand how a magical relationship could have fallen apart. She said that in meeting Sam she’d come as close as she could imagine to finding a soulmate. She’d found him the smartest, most exciting man she’d met. They spent a whole year in romantic bliss.
Then slowly things began to change. Lisa began to notice, or imagine, that Sam was gradually becoming more distant, more preoccupied, more restless, more emotionally cut off from her. She felt an empty space inside, a sense of aching disappointment and need—feelings that evaporated during those ever fewer times when he was loveable and attentive.
Since she’d prided herself on her “independence,” she was shocked and disturbed by these feelings of longing and neediness; she’d never considered herself a “clingy” female. In spite of herself, she began to pursue Sam, hinting at “long-term possibilities” for their relationship. The more he resisted, the more desperate and resentful she grew. She became convinced that he was using his deadlines as excuses to disappear. He became annoyed, impatient, and angry, and the two began fighting all the time: he accused her of “god-awful prying” and having a “crazy temper”; she accused him of being “cold,” “narcissistic,” and “self-righteous.”
On the day Sam moved out, Lisa remembered sitting in her apartment in stunned disbelief. “It’s odd,” she told me. “I’ve been by myself a thousand times when Sam was out, only now it’s different. Before, I was alone, but not really: I was waiting for him. Now I’m not waiting for anyone.” She sobbed. She felt frightened and confused and strangely ashamed, as if she herself were to blame.
She spent the next few weeks crying a lot, sleeping away the weekends, and refusing to answer the phone, not recognizing herself, she told me. “It feels like there’s something terribly wrong with me. I don’t even understand why I feel so bad. . . . It’s not that I want to be with Sam,” she said, struggling to make sense of her feelings. “I mean, I do, but only if it could be the way it used to be, and I know it can’t. It’s just that”—she stared at the floor—”that I’m alone, completely alone, and it’s terrifying.” She looked at me helplessly. “I don’t know how to be a woman alone.”
As she regained some equilibrium, we began to talk about the bullying emotions she was struggling against: shame for being a woman alone, and fear that she’d remain alone forever. Like many women, she was suffering from an old reflexive tendency to equate aloneness with personal failure. She couldn’t shake the feeling that a woman alone is a “loser,” as if being without a man made her “less of” something: “less worthy,” “less desirable,” and the clincher, “totally inadequate.”
No matter how intelligent, well educated, independent, and successful women may be, they often harbor vestiges of shame and self-doubt, of which they’re not even aware until enforced aloneness—like a failed relationship—brings these feelings to the surface. For this reason, I decided to focus on making the invisible manifest by bringing the subject of aloneness into the foreground of our sessions. So I told Lisa that I, too, was a woman alone, albeit twice divorced, and with two grown sons. I selectively disclosed some of my own early encounters with aloneness.
As a single woman in my late twenties and early thirties, I could more easily tell myself that I was merely “between relationships” than face the fact that I was actually “alone.” I led a stepping-stone life: grateful to be “rescued,” first by one man, and then another, the warmth of dependency being preferable to the chill of aloneness. My aloneness felt dark and opaque, like slipping into total disconnection from the world. What I didn’t know then, I told Lisa, was that the disconnection I was feeling came not from others so much as from me.
I took the chance that Lisa could identify with this younger version of me, and at the same time accept me as a “good enough model” of a woman at ease and confident, whose professional and personal satisfactions in life didn’t depend on a partner. I hoped she’d realize that she stood in good company with millions of other women—that with or without a man, she was capable, not only of surviving, but of thriving.
The next time we met, Lisa said that hearing my story made her wonder whether her own shame-filled thoughts had kept her from developing a personal life. “I’ve been thinking about how much shame has shaped my decisions—why it’s so important for people to see me a certain way, even if it’s not truly me,” she said. She told me she had a favorite aunt, who couldn’t bear the reality of becoming an old woman in need of help, no longer the young sexy woman in control that she always was. Watching her aunt withdraw from the world, Lisa “felt her shame like a weight on my soul. Maybe that’s why I balked at having to give up Sam—the romantic myth of finding the perfect man, maybe marriage, but staying together for sure, and somewhere down the line, having a child.”
I told Lisa that this was a dream that almost every woman I knew had to deal with. Unfortunately, embedded in the dream was the notion that as women, we’re each only one half of a whole. Lisa nodded earnestly before pausing and asking the perhaps inevitable question: “Do you have someone in your life now?” I certainly didn’t want to debunk romance and relationship, but I didn’t want to encourage false hope either. So I closed the chapter about my personal life, saying, “If you’re asking whether I found my perfect lover, I’m not sure the answer really matters. The point is that I came to understand that aloneness would be intermittently a part of my life simply because I was alive—we’re all alone at some points in our lives—and I’d have to wean myself from long-held fantasies of rescue.”
Reflecting about the unrecognized, but inhibiting influence of shame in her life prepared Lisa to consider all the ways it was intimately connected to a fear of being alone. As women, we feel ashamed because we’re always being told we’re not good enough, pretty enough, smart enough, sexy enough, “feminine” enough, or, contradictorily, “tough” enough. All these messages have the effect of preventing us from discovering our true selves, and we yield to a desire to become shape-shifting perfect women—sexual sirens, nice girls, mother-figures, breadwinners, ideal housewives. Being alone contributes to our shame: we’re culturally programmed to think that if we were better, more successful women, we wouldn’t be alone.
Aloneness vs. Loneliness
In an unfinished, posthumously published essay, psychoanalyst Frieda Fromm-Reichman pondered the problem of loneliness. She cautioned psychotherapists to recognize that aloneness, loneliness, isolation, alienation, and solitude are descriptively and dynamically different experiences, which need to be differentiated and individually explored by the psychological community, rather than being lumped together in one jumbled “psychological basket.” As psychotherapists with women clients who are or will be alone (or who might wish to be alone if fear of being alone didn’t hold them back), we need to sort out our own tangled feelings about aloneness, loneliness, and solitude. Too often, while we want to help clients develop a personal self, we tend to think about progress in terms of their capacity for and success at forming close relationships with others.
Overlooked, as psychoanalyst Anthony Storrs suggests in Solitude: A Return to the Self, is the vital truth that the personal self is often best nurtured and realized in aloneness—specifically, in the animating form of aloneness that I call “creative” or “active” solitude. Psychotherapists need to pay close attention to our two opposing drives, the one impelling us toward close connection with our fellow human beings, the other toward our need for the sovereignty of selfhood that only the aloneness of solitude can foster. At a time when an unprecedented number of women are unmarried, it behooves us to help our clients acquire more balance between their desire for relationship and their capacity for solitude.
It took about six months for Lisa’s life to resume a semblance of normality after the breakup with Sam—six terrible months. Being alone in the apartment stirred up all sorts of painful feelings, and she hated going home. Like many of us, Lisa confused aloneness with loneliness, but they aren’t the same. The word alone means simply, “apart from others”; it’s a neutral state, neither good nor bad, unless emotional memories tilt it in one direction or the other. For women, it’s usually tainted with a sense of being excluded, rejected, or punished, and, therefore, unworthy of being with others. In part, we develop these attitudes in childhood. We were told to leave the table or go to our room if we were “bad”; inevitably, the stigma and pain of exile from the magic circle of the family became associated with being alone. In Lisa’s case, aloneness took on the dark hues of rejection, influenced in part by the sad defeat of her maiden aunt, but more by her self-absorbed socialite mother, whose life revolved around parties, lovers, and travel.
Loneliness is about a sense of loss, about missing a connection with another person. Lisa’s first experience of “real loneliness” coincided with the death of her father, a naturalist who’d spent much of his free time cultivating African violets in the hothouse he’d built especially for them. She’d spend hours at a time helping him. “He died just before my eleventh birthday, and in a strange way, I think I’ve been lonely for his company ever since.”
The issue isn’t that we’ll never feel lonely; after all, some degree of loneliness exists in all our lives: the issue is how aloneness makes us feel about ourselves. What the definition of alone doesn’t make clear is the essential difference between aloneness and loneliness: that to be “apart from others” also means to be in the presence of oneself—and this is exactly what Lisa, like many women, wanted to avoid.
Solitude is the spacious silence inherent in aloneness. One of its great boons is peace, a state of inner quiet and emotional harmony, which, in our crowded and hectic world, seems less available and, consequently, more precious than ever. What I call “active solitude” is a space in which a woman learns to speak with her own voice and move to her own rhythms—whether baking bread, arranging flowers, saying a prayer, or writing a symphony. It’s a dynamic place, where her sense of self, like a good wine, has a protective space and enough time to mature and deepen.
Active solitude can mean using life’s opportunities and vicissitudes to explore the self, perhaps taking time off from work just to reflect on the direction of one’s life, or mourning a loved one’s loss, or writing an autobiography, or going on a meditation retreat. In the space of solitude, we discover how much our old stories about who we are have kept us in a state of emotional bondage. Gradually, we learn to step out. Most important, we discover that the gains of solitude can enhance all our relationships in a new, vital, more intimate way—from partners to friends to the larger community of women and men of which we’re a part.
Gradually, Lisa began to appreciate the time she was spending alone in her apartment. Once she could think clearly again, she wondered why she’d been so undone by the end of a relationship she knew had gone bad. “It’s amazing when I think about it,” she said. “Some part of me wanted out as much as Sam did, but I was afraid to let go. I let myself believe that my own life counted for less without him—but even worse, that as a person, I was worthless.” Then she came to an active decision: “to let myself be on my own for a while.” She devoted herself to her work and enjoyed the company of friends, and for a long time, that was what she needed.
About two months later, I proposed to Lisa that she spend a short amount of time each day in solitude. Lisa balked. “I’m already in it!” she says. “I’ve been alone now for months. I may even end up that way. Why would I willingly put myself into solitude?” I answered that while she might think she’s “in it,” she wasn’t yet making use of it. I asked if she’d be willing to turn off her cell phone, find herself a comfortable place, and for just a few minutes each day experiment with simply listening to what the silence brings—listening beyond the many “shoulds” and “oughts” that told her how to behave and what to feel, and trying to hear her own voice.
“Suppose it means finding a deep hole in me and coming up empty?” she asked.
“Then try to see where emptiness takes you,” I said. I suggested that during these intervals she keep a “solitude journal” and record her thoughts and feelings in it.
Lisa took up the challenge, and gradually acclimated herself to solitude. It didn’t take long before she realized that “self-doubt has crept into so comfortable a place inside me that it doesn’t want to leave.” This was a helpful admission. It meant that Lisa’s camouflaged feelings were coming into the open. For the first time, she understood that her primary concern—”always to please the man, not myself”—often made her mind opaque to herself, confused, defensive, and uncertain about its own originality. “Instead of asking, ‘Who am I?’ I’ve been asking, ‘Who do you want me to be?’ Instead of pondering, ‘What do I want for myself?’ I’ve asked, ‘What do you want from me?'” Now Lisa was ready to turn the question around and ask: “What do I want for myself?”
Her question was open-ended. It went beyond her work, her friendships, her ideas of success, her longing for a “real relationship,” and it settled on utterly simple things: drinking lemonade at a cafe and watching the world go by, cooking a stew and putting candles on the table for her dinner, puttering around in her apartment. She was amused to discover how much some of the humbler forms of creative living delighted her.
A year later, Lisa met Simon: “exactly the kind of man I’ve never been drawn to. He’s shy, he’s an introvert, he doesn’t care a whit about his appearance, and he couldn’t care less about making a name for himself.” She was surprised to discover how good it felt being with him. Eventually, when Simon asked her if she ever thought about living together, Lisa heard herself saying, “I’m not sure I want to give up my freedom” and asking if he’d be willing to wait for a while. Meanwhile, in her time alone, she could ask the kind of questions she’d have been too afraid to address before: if I’m a woman alone, do I want to stay that way? if so, why? and if not, why not? Can I be a woman alone and still continue this intimate relationship with Simon? And if I do decide to have children, does that mean I should get married first? She still isn’t sure what her answers will be, and she’s grateful Simon isn’t pressing her.
Female psychotherapists, partnered or not, need to begin asking themselves, “As a woman alone, who am I?” and bringing the awareness of fresh answers consciously into their work, so that they, and their clients, can begin to understand that aloneness is one of the most overlooked and underutilized dimensions in women’s lives—one we’ll all experience; one we owe it to ourselves to learn about.
By Janine Roberts
This case study includes many keen insights about how societal messages affect women clients living alone and makes crucial distinctions among aloneness, loneliness, and solitude that other therapists can work with in their own practices. The opening statistics highlight the fact that numerous female clients may be confronting shame and other challenges brought on by being alone and feeling disconnected from themselves.
I wish, however, that the statistics and the case study hadn’t been presented through a heteronormative lens. Saying “fifty-one percent of women live without spouses” and “a quarter of adult American women have never married” masks the percentage of women in these statistics who are gay, or women who are partnered but not married. Language like “with or without a man, she [Lisa] was capable, not only of surviving, but of thriving” is heterosexist.
I applaud Falk’s use of personal disclosure. Clearly that technique was helpful in the therapy. Research on the self-disclosure of therapists has shown that clients consider it useful in strengthening their connection with their therapist, gaining new perspectives, and seeing themselves as “normal.” In workshops I’ve given in the U.S. and abroad, hundreds of clinicians have said that they self-disclose in therapy, and commented on how infrequently self-disclosure is addressed in training and supervision.
However, clients said in the research studies that the closeness that arose from therapist disclosure didn’t always feel comfortable. Disclosures can cross boundaries inappropriately and be dangerous, putting clients in a position, for example, where they feel they need to take care of their therapist.
The ways in which Falk discloses, including her seemingly abrupt decision to stop disclosing, raises some questions. Initially, she shares a great deal of information (about her two divorces, her grown sons, that she’s a woman alone, her experiences of leading a “stepping-stone life” in which she was looking for rescue from men, and how her aloneness felt “dark and opaque”).
In studying self-disclosure, I’ve found that it’s better to disclose briefly and tentatively to begin with, and to ask clients about how they feel about the disclosure before telling them more. The case description doesn’t make clear whether and how Falk checked in with Lisa as she began to disclose, and whether there was any evidence that sharing this much information was helping the client.
It’s intriguing that Lisa later asked Falk, “Do you have someone in your life now?” I wanted to know why Lisa thought that information might be important for her at that particular point in the therapy. I was also curious about how Lisa reacted when Falk didn’t respond to her directly, but decided instead to close “the chapter about my personal life.” An important study in 2004 by Jean Hanson of the University of Toronto reported that 18 clients, primarily women, found that nondisclosures by therapists were particularly detrimental to their experience of therapy.
Therapists and clients have to create a comfortable personal relationship (albeit one with many limits) within the professional relationship. From the description of the case, it’s unclear to me whether this happened between Lisa and Falk. Also notable is that in three years of working with Lisa individually, there’s no mention of couples therapy, only the statement that her separation from Sam was “an event that somehow seemed to have occurred of its own accord.”
Personal disclosure, intentionally or otherwise, is part of every therapeutic process. Whether we like it or not, as therapists, everything about us discloses some measure of “personal” information: the atmosphere of our work space, its furnishings, the way we dress and style our hair, the sound of our voices, our gestures, our bodies, even whether those bodies put on or take off a few pounds. Moreover, through the course of each session, we’re continually engaged in a conscious decision-making process regarding what we say and why. Hopefully, our choices derive from a “wisdom sense” that includes our professional training, moment-by-moment monitoring of our emotional responses, accrued information about our client, and, beyond that, an intuitive sense of what feels right.
I chose to share certain aloneness experiences with Lisa primarily because I’d come to the conclusion that she was like most women I work with, who entered aloneness thinking they were the first and only ones to do so; in fact, it’s why I decided to write a book on the subject.
The paragraph to which the commentator alludes is meant to give a general, not literal, rendering of this therapeutic choice. My later decision not to answer Lisa’s question about my personal life was a reminder that, beyond letting her know that, as women, we can survive and even flourish in our aloneness, what mattered were her feelings, her circumstances, and the choices she felt comfortable making.
Florence Falk, Ph.D., is a psychotherapist in private practice who’s taught at Rutgers University. She’s the author of On My Own: The Art of Being a Woman Alone. Her next book is Longing Steals the Heart.
Janine Roberts, Ed.D., is professor emerita at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and associate editor for international scholarship for Family Process. Her books include Rituals for Our Times, Tales and Transformations, and the book of poems, The Body Alters.