Being Single and Being Lonely Are Not the Same Thing

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Aug. 6 2012 4:30 AM

The Rhetoric of Singleness

Being single and being lonely are not the same thing—but our culture insists on conflating them.

single man watching TV.
Loneliness will not brand the single as much as aloneness does

Photograph courtesy Hemera/thinkstock photos.

The following article is adapted from Michael Cobb’s Single: Arguments for the Uncoupled, out now from New York University Press.

Over the last few years of researching cultural tropes about singleness, I often recalled the snide description of correspondence from the lovelorn in Nathanael West’s 1933 novella, Miss Lonelyhearts, about an “Aunt Agony”-style colum­nist who reads letter after letter about social isolation: “And on most days he [Miss Lonelyhearts] received more than 30 let­ters, all of them alike, stamped from the dough of suffering with a heart-shaped cookie knife.” Likewise, the number of examples of lonely singles I’ve received from colleagues, friends, interlocu­tors, and strangers while I was doing my research is staggering—and although so many are fine examples, taken as a whole, they start to feel cookie-cut for easy consumption.

If it weren’t for West’s snide comment urging me to get beyond the topic of the loneliness of singles, I would have found it too daunting to think about how to approach the topic. Would an exhaustive account of centuries of muscular American individualism be required? Singleness must be shaped by the legacies of Emerson and Thoreau (and countless others). There could have been numerous Walden-esque witticisms about the trials of a life “alone in the woods, a mile from any neighbor, in a house” built by oneself. Certainly being single is a variation on being individual. Even Thoreau had to keep reassuring us that he was not too lonely in the woods: “I am no more lonely than a single mullein or dandelion in a pasture, or a bean leaf, or sorrel, or a horse-fly, or a bumble-bee.” I’m not sure if he can prove or commit too many pathetic fallacies in these comparisons. Such rhetoric betrays a sense that the question of his loneliness is still very much open, and something about individualism must be thought about as we consider the single.

My quick reference to Thoreau helps me express a hunch about what has changed in how we think of individuals in our time: the individual is now usually marked as someone alone, suspiciously without a partner. Thomas Dumm’s recent Loneliness as a Way of Life, a smart inquiry into what it means to be lonely, crescendos into heart-wrenching insights about grieving his wife’s death from lung cancer. Here’s what he says, exquisitely, about what the death of his wife means to him:

My wife, as a thing, no longer exists, and hence is never again to be available for me, but through the fact of her irretrievable absence she is insistently, still sometimes overwhelmingly, available to me. Grief gives her a profound presence in my ongoing life; her ghost, even in its exhausted state, comforts me and frightens me. This is how she is real to me. In my long nights she is silent, I cry to her, I follow her through bizarre dreamscapes, and allow myself to miss her. As her presence as absence comes to be integrated into my life, I begin to lose her again; in her real absence she becomes a metaphor for my real loss of her—she becomes, as Emerson says, a part of my estate.

This is a beautiful passage, with important sentiments to ex­press, and in no way could these feelings not be true. Yet the loneliness of being alone is so often framed by the intense, lyrical loss of a loved one—if not the loved one, a spouse.

Singleness marks being alone in a nearly paralyzingly profound manner—so much so that indi­vidualism, the value of aloneness, can barely be thought unless we strip away the pathologizing dynamics of coupledom that at­tach to the individual a bitter affect we might call loneliness. But what I’ve come to understand is crucial: Loneliness will not brand the single as much as aloneness does. The contemporary individual is not lonely, just single—but this is not culturally recognized.

I have serious misgiv­ings about the miscasting of singleness as a terrible condition worth our pity and obfuscation. As anyone who has thought seriously about single life already knows, the problem of the single is not the actual, lived experience of people who find themselves alone as much as the feelings that deliberately foreclose our understanding of single­ness because singles are thought to be lonely—and loneliness, as we’re frequently reminded, has terrible consequences. To be blunt: I’m sick and tired of the single person being the avatar of the lonely crowd.

In John T. Cacioppo and William Patrick’s recent study Lone­liness we are reminded, yet again, of scientific “findings” that make you want to run to the nearest available partner and pop the question:

Social isolation has an impact on health comparable to the effect of high blood pressure, lack of exercise, obesity, or smoking. Our research in the past decade or so demonstrates that the culprit behind these dire statistics is not usually literally being alone, but subjective experience of loneliness. Whether you are at home with your family, working in an office crowded with bright and attractive people, touring Disneyland, or sitting alone in a fleabag hotel on the working side of town, chronic feelings of loneliness can drive a cas­cade of physiological events that actually accelerates the ag­ing process. Loneliness not only alters behavior but shows up in measurements of stress hormones, immune function, and cardiovascular function. Over time, these changes in physiol­ogy are compounded in ways that may be hastening millions of people to an early grave.

Reading these writers, I can’t help but think of a scene in Bridget Jones’ Diary in which Bridget, asked why so many women are still single “these days,” offers this famous response: “Because we may seem normal to you but underneath our clothes we’re covered in scales.” Now’s not the time to quibble with the rhetoric and findings of these researchers, especially since they’ve been finding their conclusions for so long. And I give them credit: they’re careful to make sure that we understand that loneliness is not the same thing as aloneness; they’re right to soon point out that “being miserably lonely in a marriage has been a literary staple from Madame Bovary to The Sopranos” (actually a literary staple for much, much longer than that).

But they can’t resist prefacing their remarks with a prevailing notion that is considered axiom­atic: “Married people, on average, are less lonely than unmarried people.” Maybe that’s true. Maybe it’s not. The truth doesn’t matter because what we’re rhetorically left with is a sense that social connection is absolutely necessary; that a menacing, de­bilitating feeling of loneliness lurks everywhere; and that, despite examples to the contrary, married people might be experiencing social connection more regularly, more healthfully. In the quick­est of phrases, by describing marriage as an average, if not the av­erage, experience of social connection, the researchers highlight the unmarried—and here I think Cacioppo and Patrick mean “single” rather than those who can’t or won’t be married even if they’re coupled—as a heightened instance of alienation. And they recast marriage and coupledom, however obliquely, as kinds of relations that offer the greater chance of escape from the early grave of loneliness, a loneliness that is crowding us each time we look at our smart phones.

They’re hardly alone in this assessment. Despite all the novelty of new social networks, there’s still a very old-fashioned sense of what grounds people as social actors. For all the inventiveness of technology, it’s strikingly hard to imagine the smooth func­tioning, if not the goods, of the social world without imagining the couple. This imagination, in turn, presents a powerful, if not compulsory, logic that dominates the manner in which we begin to even consider social interaction and connection, in any of its public forms (in old and new media; online or in physical, less virtual spaces where people gather). Moreover, this logic’s cor­rosive effects play out in realms quite beyond the physiological or psychological impact at the level of the individual. Being single is not merely an individual’s psychological or physical plight. There are huge political, social, and cultural stakes in dividing people up into those who are single and those who are not.

Those stakes belong to what is currently a very familiar ter­rain of family politics. I wrote a book on the religious right and homophobic hate speech in the mid-2000s, so the nebu­lous category of “values voters” has been on my mind for some time. The cause of these voters was even further strengthened by the controversy and outrage over same-sex marriage—the plea for participation in state-sanctioned coupledom. “Values voters” are, for the most part, conservative Christians or politi­cal opportunists (even if they are not named as such) who profit, in many senses of the term, from patrolling and excluding those who can enter into official and state-sanctioned forms of intimate couple relating. Marriage, and same-sex marriage in particular, is serious political and cultural business, along with the other “values votes” issues that continue to have substantial clout in the United States (under any presidency, Democratic or Repub­lican)—abortion, stem-cell research, affirmative action, health care reform. These are not wedge issues but central biopolitical concerns that ferociously animate our present and future politics.

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