A friend tells a story of how as a child, if he dared utter the words ‘I’m bored’, they were met with swift rebuke and the instruction to go and find something to do, such as ‘read a book!’. My experience was similar. I sometimes think back and wish I’d known how to enjoy my free time, even though I wasn’t a fully autonomous (adult) person. Thought I’m sad to say it, I think boredom might be an unavoidable rite of passage for a child.
Some people avoid living alone. They think it would be unbearable and tip them over the edge. I did it when I was 26 and, being slightly isolated at the time, I think it did send me into some dark maddened place, psychologically. I read too many books on mindfulness and sat in silence, trying to come to terms with my terror.
But when things picked up and I had a more sociable, full-time job, it was the best thing I’d ever done. It freed me from all the annoying, rubbish things about flat-sharing. And it was a way to create my own space and feel grounded in my own identity. I chose what went on the walls and where to put the furniture and organised the drawers in the freezer. And it was all just for me and my eyes. I didn’t need to care what anyone else thought.
That said, weekends and holidays posed a significant challenge. I never wanted to see people because I had to, out of desperation for human contact. And I also wanted to do my own things. I tried to find balance between both but you have to watch yourself carefully; a wrong move can tip you over the edge.
The solution I found was (excessive) planning and timetabling. Though arbitrary, I had to believe that my timetable was something important and must be followed, otherwise you spin out into aimlessness and self-destruct. So I’d go for a run at this time, go for a coffee at that time, learn something, do gardening, call someone, have a walk or a jaunt. I got satisfaction from doing these things. Perhaps sometimes, I also got stressed because I hadn’t quite achieved what I’d intended, but it was regimented fulfilment. I was acutely aware of the stillness and nothingness of the world around me; it could make me feel insignificant but it could also bring a feeling of calm.
When I hear people say that they like being alone, I think back to my single life. It would be tempting to idealise it. Yes, a long-term relationship isn’t the same as the initial exhilaration of longing for and discovering someone. But then there are some tangible and practical reasons why it is good to be in a (good) relationship, and why a relationship can enhance an already happy existence.
- My home is a sociable place, not a place where I am confronted only with myself, in silence. Instead of having to be strong and manage my mental chatter, as a person in a relationship, time for myself is something I must steal and negotiate, and it is made all the sweeter for it.
- Eating becomes more of a pleasure than a chore and can be enjoyed, as well as moderated, in a team with someone else.
- I have someone to do things with. We must always be careful not to expect too much from holidays or special occasions, but they can be most agreeable; perhaps even more so without the weight of expectation.
- Lastly, if you manage your relationship well, and give this other person enough space and respect to be themselves, you get to look at them and be glad. You get to appreciate their good qualities and their vulnerabilities and their history. But none of this is a given. This will only come if your relationship is not burdened by your own need.
Whether single or in a relationship, we all need to find a way to cope with being alone. Being single is not plain sailing. But while you can be single and be fulfilled, you can just as easily be in a relationship and be unfulfilled. A relationship makes things a bit easier but the fulfilment ultimately must come from within.