How You Can Tell that Deep Down, Solitude Is Your Thing

What does it mean if you crave a lot of time alone?

Posted Oct 27, 2015

If you are someone who likes having time to yourself and space to yourself, and just never felt in tune with all the relentless matrimania (the over-the-top hyping of marriage and weddings and coupling), there have always been other people like you. But now, more than ever before, those people are speaking out and getting heard. What's more, what they have to say sometimes, in an instant, becomes wildly popular.

An example is an article first posted by John Warwick at EliteDaily in March of 2015, "Alone isn't lonely: 10 signs you're perfectly happy with solitude." It has been shared more than 69,000 times. More than 2,300,000 people have Liked it.

I, too, appreciate Warwick's 10 signs. I relate to many of them and I like how some of them dovetail with what I've learned about people who are single at heart. So I'll share them first. But then I will share my reservations, not with the signs but with Warwick's framing of what this says about the people who read the 10 signs and realize that yes, I am someone who is perfectly happy with solitude.

Here are the 10 signs that you are perfectly happy with solitude. (For Warwick's discussion of each, take a look at the original article.)

  1. You love free weekends.
  2. You'll go to the movies on your own.
  3. You're comfortable with eating out by yourself.
  4. You prefer drinking on your own.
  5. You travel the world solo.
  6. You hate sharing beds.
  7. You find driving alone calming.
  8. You neglect your phone, a lot.
  9. You can be socially MIA for long periods of time.
  10. You see "clingy" as an unattractive trait.

A good example of the single-at-heart sensibility of some of these signs is what Warwick says about traveling alone: "The idea of discovering the world on your own doesn't scare you – it exhilarates you." Stereotypes of single people insist that they are alone and lonely, cowering in their apartments, too fearful to face the world. In real life, many singles fit Warwick's description: they are exhilarated even by experiences that other people find intimidating.

Warwick's discussion of #10 also resonates with the single-at-heart in important ways. For example, he notes: "You need that space to be alone, physically and mentally." The "need" word is important here. People who vastly prefer living with other people and being with people a great deal of the time just don't get it about how wanting to be alone can feel more like a need than a mere preference. But it can.

Also in the discussion of #10 is this: "Your decisions are wholeheartedly your decisions, and you love that." There is research to support the significance of this preference for handling things on your own. In my preliminary research on people who are single at heart, I've found that they differ from people who are not single-at-heart by their desire to make their own decisions. And in a study of people who were 40 or older and had been single all their lives, the trait of self-sufficiency served them in a way that it did not serve comparable people who were married. For the always-single, the more self-sufficient they were, the less likely they were to experience negative emotions. For the married people, the more self-sufficient their personalities, the more likely they were to experience negative feelings.

Now for my reservations. Speaking of people who are perfectly happy with solitude, Warwick says that "there are a select few who don't feel relationships are their top priority." In fact, though, we have no idea how many people feel this way. No one has ever done the relevant research. And even if researchers were to approach a big, nationally representative sample of adults and ask them about such things, there would still be a huge impediment. Because craving time on your own is so rarely acknowledged or appreciated in our cultural conversations, because matrimania is rampant, and because wanting to be in romantic relationships is portrayed as normal and maybe even inevitable, it is difficult for people who love their solitude to own that. Too many of them are wondering whether they don't really like their time alone, they just haven't me the right person. Or maybe they have internalized the cultural narrative that if they are not goo-goo over romance and coupling, there's something wrong with them. So I'm not sure how many people who really do love their solitude more than they love romantic relationships would say so to a researcher – or even to themselves.

My biggest objection, though, is with something else Warwick says about people who are perfectly happy with solitude: "Their focus is satisfying their needs, and their needs only." But think about people who really need to be with other people. When they spend time with other people, they are satisfying their own need to do so. Are they fulfilling someone else's similar need in the process? Most likely. But I don't think that counts as something for which they deserve extra credit. If the other person isn't fulfilling their needs, they will probably flee. (Unless they stay because they are scared of being alone.) And I think that means that what they are doing really is about their needs, and their needs only.

So who is more attentive to the needs of others: People who put romantic relationships at the center of their lives or those who are more inclined toward solitude? If we take the difference between married and single people as one (imperfect) way of assessing that, then we already know the answer. There are many relevant studies. Single people are more likely than married people to support, stay in touch with, and exchange help with their parents, siblings, neighbors, and friends. They are also more often the ones to provide the long-term intensive care that other people need when they are sick or disabled or elderly. Follow the same people over time as they go from being single to getting married, and you will see the development of insularity. The same people who were caring and connected as single people become focused mostly on their spouse (and children, if they have any) once they marry.

So don't tell me it is the solitude lovers who are focused solely on their own needs.

[Note: Readers of this blog may be interested in knowing that Singled Out, singlism, and matrimania were the topics of a TED Ideas Blog. Also, most recently, How We Live Now, which includes a chapter on solitude, has been in Harvard Magazine, the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, and the Washington Post. Finally, more of my writings on solitude are here.]