Serial monogamist goes solo...
November 10, 2009 8:54 PM   Subscribe

How can I become ok - content, even - with being alone?

About nine months ago, I broke off a serious relationship of several years. Before that one, I was with someone for four years. I've had a boyfriend for as long as I can remember, with very little in-between alone time. I have minimal contact with my exes and am generally quite happy to be out of those relationships. I like being single. I acknowledge that after years and years of being a devoted girlfriend and spending way too much time putting someone else's needs above my own, I need to be on my own for awhile.

I'm a single female in my 20s, living in a big city, a graduate student, working full time. I have some solid, close friendships, lots of acquaintances, and overall a good, stable life. My family is far away, so I rely a lot on my friends for companionship and socialization...but my friends also have their own lives - demanding jobs, busy schedules, boyfriends, husbands, etc. I see them pretty regularly on weekends, but I often find weeknights to be very lonely. I come home from work, make myself dinner, maybe have a glass of wine (depending on how stressful that day was), do some homework, sometimes go to the gym or a pilates class. Throw some tv/music into the mix and that's pretty much my night. And really, the evening I just described is perfectly relaxing and fine. But it's lonely. I often crave company, especially that of a male. It's not even a sexual thing (though, I could certainly use some of that...)

I've dated around a little bit, which was a nice distraction and kept me busy a couple of nights a week, but I'm not looking for a boyfriend and I certainly don't want to date someone just for the sake of having someone, anyone. I want to get comfortable focusing on me. I don't want to feel like I need someone else, because I really don't. I want to be content with just being me, myself, and I for awhile. How do you become ok with being alone?
posted by blackcatcuriouser to Human Relations (31 answers total) 28 users marked this as a favorite
Practice. It gets easier the longer you do it and eventually, you end up being comfortable by yourself. Or so I've been told. I'm pretty much in the same boat you are.
posted by youcancallmeal at 9:01 PM on November 10, 2009 [1 favorite]

I'm sure people will come in with lots of wise sayings and compelling statements on the power of the individual, but on a direct and realistic level it sounds to me like you need a hobby!

If you have a hobby you can meet other people with complementary skillsets and similar interests, and interact with them on a number of levels. There are things like online communities centered around particular hobbies, weeknight gatherings and classes, and hobby-specific conventions and events. All of these are different levels of social interaction that allow you an outlet in an environment where you do not need a partner for full enjoyment. And if you actually get good at something, you'll have a viable and engrossing skill to boot, and may get a reputation for being good at it. That's always a nice boost.

The important bit is, finding a hobby you enjoy helps you be happy being yourself, doing something you see as productive or valuable, and gives you avenues for social time on levels that "normal" dinner & drinks or weekend friends might not provide. No boyfriend required.
posted by Mizu at 9:06 PM on November 10, 2009

Having a roommate/housemate is an option, hobbies are good, having a regular hangout like a coffeeshop/bar that has events might work. If you live close enough, being around family might even be a good plan. Volunteering might make the connection if family isn't close by.
posted by mikeh at 9:16 PM on November 10, 2009

Have you thought about getting a dog? Or even a cat if you must. I'm not sure if you'll count that as still being alone though. Your focus may shift to taking care of them, but I've also found that pet parenthood has done great things for my own outlook on life and it's also helped me redefine my priorities.

Mr. Shotglass and I have an almost opposite work/life schedule and I find myself on my own often. But then I go snuggle these guys and all is right with the world. Also, they make me feel like I'm not crazy and talking to myself. The cute thing is just bonus.
posted by mrsshotglass at 9:23 PM on November 10, 2009 [3 favorites]

I have the same problem, and am also recently broken up, except that I work from home (also a grad student), so it's even worse. I have to force myself outside. You could try to find activities and events, and just go by yourself to museums, lectures, etc. and take advantage of living in a big city--I live in a suburb near San Francisco, and apparently there's a ton of weekday evening lectures (e.g., The Commonwealth Club) and stuff there that I just have to drag myself out of the house for. The problem is a mix of ennui and guilt over the work I should/could be doing at night that I never finish during the day. So you seem well-ahead of me in the having an orderly, full life. You, like I, know what to do, we just have to do it. Just get out there!

But I really am sympathetic. Right now, I am super lonely and bored, and have realized that unless I leave the house, sometimes I can go for a couple of days without talking out loud. I should really make it out to my Tuesday night knitting group, and then try out that dining out group. I started volunteering to fill up some weekends, but I know what you mean by weeknights being the loneliest, when you just want someone to eat with, talk to, and then sleep next to (and sleep with). But until we're ready for another relationship, we have to get used to eating alone, picking up the phone when we want to talk to someone, and finding excuses to leave the house when our own company doesn't feel like enough.

Also, I would recommend picking up knitting and a few seasons of your next favorite TV show, because sometimes, you can't sign up for everything.
posted by dhn at 9:33 PM on November 10, 2009

It's also ok to not be ok with being alone - life rarely lives up to our usually comically impossible ideals.

I'm 32 and I felt truly ok with myself as a person for the first time about a year ago - after many years of trying to convince myself that I was.
posted by MillMan at 9:36 PM on November 10, 2009 [3 favorites]

On reread don't take "life rarely lives up to our usually comically impossible ideals" the wrong way. It sounds like you need to work on making your environment fit your needs rather than the other way around.
posted by MillMan at 9:38 PM on November 10, 2009

Best answer: Just as a reminder,

being a devoted girlfriend does not, or should not, equal spending way too much time putting someone else's needs above my own

If you want to become OK with being alone, you might want to start by accepting that being with someone and being content with just being me are not mutually exclusive.

Or more precisely, you might want to start by figuring out how you get yourself to believe that putting someone else's needs above your own is what a relationship is about. Once you do that, you can begin to discover how not being in a relationship is OK.

For that matter, once you start to really notice your thought process, and your feeling process, when doing something you enjoy... you can apply that same process when being alone, and being with someone.

What will have the deepest effect on your contentment is probably not what you are saying and doing to other people, or what they are saying and doing to you... but what you are saying and imagining in your own mind... that in turn causes feelings... that in turn spurs your behaviors... that in turn create particular social situations.

What kind of voice do you use to talk to yourself, about these things? Is it scolding? Annoying? Blaming? Aggrieved? Sad? Wistful? Can you imagine what it would sound like, being encouraging? Soft? Amused? Teasing?

Change how you talk to yourself, and you can enjoy being alone, and being with another.
posted by darth_tedious at 9:39 PM on November 10, 2009 [6 favorites]

I don't know, I feel like living alone can be lonely and I don't think there is anything wrong with it. I love it most of the time, but yes cooking alone for yourself can be kind of sad. I don't think there is anything wrong with how you feel personally.

If you couldn't do it at all, that would be a problem.
posted by mattsweaters at 9:39 PM on November 10, 2009

If you're really serious about practicing how to be alone I would start with what I was once told about the vow of celibacy in buddism: You cannot take it unless you are in perfect sexual health and functionality.
I would say that that is the first step for achieving comfort in being alone; all avenues are available to you for socialization and company, but you are electing not to take them. Thinking, while alone, of what else you could be doing defeats the purpose. The purpose of being alone is to enjoy being by yourself, with your thoughts and your solitary pleasures. After a full day of classes etc, it can often be a real joy for me to come home and be by myself; eat what I want to eat, read what I want to read, do what I will and go to bed when I want.
As much as I hate it when my spouse is away for a month at a time... I start to crave the solitude of home and anticipate leaving any social environment for it.
That said, I've got a wicked introverted streak so it is essentially necessary for me to achieve solitude at some point in my day. Also, my wierdass 17 year old self decided one day to train myself on tolerating and then enjoying being alone. 13 years running and it's still one of the more valuable autodidactic exercises i've done. If I find myself agitated at being alone I just pull up that original thought experiment and its merits... namely that I can sit and think, for hours if I want, about the various stimuli i've had to respond to recently and, because I'm alone, don't have to respond, simply process it leisurely.
If you want to start focussing on yourself, you can start by being selfish with your attentions. Alone time is for when you get to pay attention to yourself and internal universe.
Maybe ditch the TV and avoid the internet... they are just as distracting as other people sometimes.
posted by Cold Lurkey at 9:54 PM on November 10, 2009 [2 favorites]

My goal was a bit different from yours - perhaps a little more extreme? Anyway, I got some great feedback in my question towards this end.
posted by allkindsoftime at 10:18 PM on November 10, 2009

I'm in a similar position, and something that has helped me is listening to lots of podcasts while I do things.

It's nice to hear human voices and have entertainment, but I can accomplish other things while listening, so I don't get that "ugh, I just watched three hours of tv" feeling.

Also, just being productive--cleaning, fixing things. Also painting, writing, practicing music--making things. Works for me.
posted by stray at 12:24 AM on November 11, 2009

Humans are social creatures. Most people don't really love solitude.
posted by salvia at 12:38 AM on November 11, 2009 [2 favorites]

Being alone for a long time is lonely, period. It's not a personality flaw. Keep in mind that humans evolved living together with their parents, mates, children, and siblings in small communities all close together, in non-soundproof dwellings. Living all alone, in a sealed apartment-pod, mostly surrounded by near-strangers in other pods is a pretty new way of life for this species.

Often people who "really enjoy being alone" enjoy it as a contrast from a very social life with kids or an ever-present spouse or a really demanding job, etc. If your everyday life is fairly solitary and not as demanding on your social time, then being alone is less of a fun vacation and you start to feel loneliness. I really think it's totally natural and in fact, I'd guess it's probably a feature, not a bug, of human socialization. Try not to beat yourself up over it.

Anyhow, here are some ways to get more physical contact or evening socializing into your life:

Go for massages
Assistive yoga classes (where you stretch with partners)
Babysit or volunteer with kids
Martial arts
Get a dog, or dogsit (advertise yourself on Craigslist). Big, gentle, female dogs might as well be boyfriends, they're so cuddly.
Cats are OK too, but big dogs feel more like humans.
Start following a TV show and have a few people over that night every week to watch.
Hold play readings or book club meetings at your place.
Have "laptop dates" with friends or neighbours hang out in the same room and read, surf the net, or work quietly.

Consider platonic sleepovers with a friend. Not for everyone, but it's pretty nice. I used to do this on occason with a close co-worker on days when we had to get to the airport in the morning, because we were always afraid of sleeping in. We weren't at all cuddly or anything, but we both found that just hearing the other person's breathing was very pleasant, and we both slept better than if we'd kept one eye open all night afraid we'd miss the alarm.

And I really highly recommend this last one:
Sleep with a heating pad ($25 at any department store) and a big pillow (maybe even a body pillow) pulled against your belly or back so it feels like a person. I can't stress enough how much better you'll sleep when snuggled up to a warm pillow.
posted by twistofrhyme at 12:47 AM on November 11, 2009 [8 favorites]

Do you live alone alone? ie, just you in an apartment? If so, you may want to consider living with roommates. It doesn't have to be like college - right now I live in a nice house with two other "grownup" (we're all around 30 years old) roommates, a dog and three chickens in the backyard. We're not close friends, but we're friendly and it's nice.

Sure, there are hassles with roommates - sometimes they have the annoying habit of being home on that one night you really wanted to yourself, and there are the usual issues over cleaning, etc. But I have to say, it's really nice to have those other people there for the "incidental" interactions: watching TV together, sharing the results of a great recipe, etc.

Some people are certainly happy living totally alone, but it's definitely not for everyone, and for some people, the tradeoffs are totally worth it.
posted by lunasol at 12:50 AM on November 11, 2009 [1 favorite]

What's worked for me, by way of a bit longer explanation, has been moving overseas for humanitarian work. I travel pretty much constantly, I haven't been in my apartment in Nairobi in a month now, and I'll probably not spend more than 10-12 nights in it over the next 3 months, at least.

And, wherever I am, I'm working pretty much constantly when I'm not actually in-transit. Its just the nature of the work. I'm working from when I get up until when I can go down. I don't have any spare time to sit around in the hotel and have lonely feelings (although last night there was a cute white couple at the pizza place I picked up dinner and *another one* at the grocer's on my way home, which is kind of weird in a place where I hardly ever see even another single white person, let alone couple. WTF.). I have trouble just squeezing in a morning run, but when I do, I'm glad I did.

So...that's one idea. Move somewhere far away, where you're a minuscule minority, and don't really know anyone. Travel all over all the time. Let your work consume you near entirely.

Hell I'm so busy these days the idea of fitting someone else into my daily life seems more like just one more thing to add to the list, another thing I have to get done. I don't always want it to be this way...but its doing the trick, for now.
posted by allkindsoftime at 2:07 AM on November 11, 2009

It's simply acceptance and being ok with what is - not what *should, could or would* be. It's being in the moment and experiencing all that moment offers - from the sounds, smells, feelings, atmosphere - the weather and everything that surrounds you and supports you. Read any book by Byron Katie.
posted by watercarrier at 3:27 AM on November 11, 2009 [3 favorites]

Nthing getting involved in some kind of group activity... Bowling league, book club, whatever... Poke around and see what kinds of groups are meeting around you.
posted by usonian at 4:16 AM on November 11, 2009

Join a book club. Volunteer. Take Photographs. Attend a MefiMeetup... Hang - Out - With - Strangers.

As far as close contact with someone that cares about you? Well then... for that you want a best friend, family member or significant other. Since time restricts best friend, distance restricts family, and your stated desire to *not* have a significant other restricts the latter... you may have to change your desires, priorities or expectations.

You could accept the limited time with friends and supplement with first listed activities with strangers. You could job hunt and move closer to family - although that could verywell backfire "Hello Mefi - I'm in my 20s: How do I get my parents out of my hair?"). You could also date.... maybe a stranger you meet while doing an activity with strangers...
posted by Nanukthedog at 5:16 AM on November 11, 2009

I went through about three years of being alone and feeling isolated due to a exceptionally difficult period getting my Master's. It was never very easy, but the biggest thing was learning to be with myself.

One book that really helped me was "Party of One: The Loners' Manifesto" by Anneli Rufus. It helped put things into perspective and I got to the point where I was comfortable being alone and doing things I enjoyed or wanted to.
posted by rand at 6:34 AM on November 11, 2009

People get messed up because they muddle different kinds of contact and closeness together. Friends, dogs, lovers, social acquaintances, coworkers... each provides a different kind of interaction.

Try to separate and isolate what you need. Lonely or cold at night? Dog. Need to get out and do stuff? Join a club. Need to help someone? Volunteer. Need sex? NSA Hookup. Just need someone to complain to once and awhile? Bartender. Don't let one need tumble into another.

Too often, I think people needing one thing (for example, activities) end up getting something else (for example, an LTR) as a sort of misfire, and then struggle with trying to understand why they're still feeling unfulfilled.
posted by rokusan at 7:08 AM on November 11, 2009 [2 favorites]

It's important to distinguish between being single and being alone. I do get what you're saying though. It'd be nice to have someone around and not have to go out for it. But there's nothing stopping you from being around people any night of the week if that's what you want. There are lots of ideas above for social engagement - volunteering, meetup groups, classes, drinking clubs, whatever. And if you make it your habit, you'll get your social input all the time. I know some divorced women who aren't looking to jump back into anything, but have become social champions. They always know what fun things are going on and are always doing them. They've created large social networks and do big group things and small group things and one on one things and they always seem to have options because they're so plugged in. They hook up here and there, sometimes date for a bit, and seem to be getting the kinds of contact they want.
posted by kookoobirdz at 7:47 AM on November 11, 2009

I think that one of the misconceptions people have is that in order to go out - to the movies, to the mall, to eat at a restaurant, to walk in the park, wherever... we have to be *with* someone. I don't think that's true. There's no need to join a league if you don't want to - too much commitment for me. Whenever I want to get out among people I just go out among people - by myself.

It keeps the whole living alone thing from getting too lonely.
posted by patheral at 7:49 AM on November 11, 2009

Seconding a hobby. If there's anything you ever wanted to do but didn't have the time, the time is now. No matter how daunting it may be to do what you want, not much can withstand you digging at it five nights a week. Knit a jacket! Make a game! Raise a pig! Build a robot! Or something!
posted by ignignokt at 8:06 AM on November 11, 2009 [1 favorite]

Hobbies, pets, volunteering, some sort of group activity are all excellent ideas, but your life sounds pretty busy to me already. In fact, your weeknight routine sounds pretty much like everyone else I know whether they are single or in some sort of committed relationship. Everyone gets lonely sometimes, and that's okay. Enjoying being with yourself is a skill though, and some people come to it more easily than others.

As hokey as it sounds, "dating" yourself can be a lot of fun. Going to a nice dinner, a movie, the theater, a concert, or something similar alone might take some practice (I would suggest bringing a book for the downtime that you might feel uncomfortable or bored), but once you get the hang of it, it is incredibly freeing because if you want to do something, you can do it, even if you can't find someone else who is interested in joining you or available to do so. Social activities with people often involve negotiation and compromise, most of which we do gladly, but it can be really nice to decide occasionally that you will leave home when you want, you will go to the places and do the things that you want, and you can go home or change your mind without having to take someone else into consideration. Try to find the joy in those types of moments, and while it may take some getting used to, it will open up a whole other world of possibilities of how you might spend your time.

If you feel you really need the love and affection that a committed relationship brings, then yes, get a pet that fits with your lifestyle. Believe me, especially if you get a puppy, this new element in your life will take up a lot of time and real estate in your brain, but you also get the benefits or being unconditionally adored or loved. Good luck!
posted by katemcd at 10:19 AM on November 11, 2009 [1 favorite]

From the sound of your post, I think you're already OK with being alone. Take it easy.

posted by General Tonic at 10:36 AM on November 11, 2009

I was forced into this last year. Work sent me on a five month project where I was leaving Sunday afternoon and getting home late Friday. I fit a meager social life into my weekends, and had to learn to feel okay being alone the rest of the time. I didn't even have my cats.

I watched a lot of tv at first. Fake friends and all. But a hotel room is really small, and really dull.

Take yourself on dates. See a movie you want. Go out to dinner. If you're like me, you'll feel like the biggest reject in the world. I would apologize to the wait staff and try to explain why I was there alone. I would fiddle with my iPhone, either texting people to have e-company, or pretend I was waiting for someone.

Slowly I realized that the only person who cared was me. And part of it is because I realized that I was much more social than I realized. I claim to be an introvert, but really I'm just shy. But part of it is also that societal expectation of companionship (both romantic and platonic). Being able to let go of that expectation gave me a lot of perspective on what I wanted out of my social interactions. And if you're jumping from relationship to relationship, perspective sounds like it would do you good.
posted by politikitty at 10:47 AM on November 11, 2009 [2 favorites]

For that primal need to simply be touched, I recommend dance lessons. Ballroom, latin - anything where you'll be held. At least to me, the effect is clearly physiological, sating some of the skin hunger. I come home feeling like a primate that just got thoroughly groomed.
posted by sively at 12:10 PM on November 11, 2009

Agreed with some of the comments about that this is not abnormal. Being single and isolated sucks. Weeknights are the worst.

I mean, look. No one's happy all the time, and that would get awfully boring if we were. You don't have to be this healthy, shining example of a positive human being. You can just be yourself, mistakes and wrinkles all.

A good coping strategy is to laugh at it, turn it into black humor. Life sucks! Fuck this! Haha!

Try having more than one glass of wine. (Also, this is why people smoke weed... just sayin'.)

Also, dating does not have to lead to a relationship. You can date casually, as long as you're clear about it. But there's nothing wrong with serial monogamy. You're just built like that. As dan savage would say, that's not a problem, it's a feature.
posted by milinar at 3:21 PM on November 11, 2009

Best answer: I think all you really need is a couple of activities to break up the monotony of the week. I think what you are experiencing is really normal and I'm guessing since you've been in a relationship for so long you aren't used to having to put a little effort in to your day to day social life. Here is what I do/have done in the past as a single female around your age:

- Happy hour! It's a beautiful thing. It's really easy weekly tradition to get started with either coworkers or a group of friends.

- Weekly/Bimonthly dinner parties/potlucks or go to a restaurant with a regular group of people.

- Join a class with a friend.

- Start going to yoga/pilates with a friend.

- Study with a friend. Go to the library together or a coffee shop.

Just seeing some friends for even a short period of time once or twice a week really breaks up the week and gives you some human contact in between the weekends. Your life no longer revolves around making time for your relationship. It's time to solidify your friendships, make new ones, and do a lot of the little things you passed up on over the years.
posted by whoaali at 8:39 PM on November 11, 2009 [1 favorite]

Try this if you live in DC or New York. It's social and you'll do good at the same time.
posted by bananafish at 9:15 PM on November 11, 2009

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