Much has been made recently of NYU sociologist Eric Klinenberg's research on living alone, probably because it's something that all of us, in some way or another—whether it's the desire for more alone time or less—can identify with. For our part on The Atlantic Wire, we've contemplated such questions as "Is Living Alone the New Shacking Up?" and "Is Living Alone Making You Weird?" (yes, and maybe?). These questions resonate because we all have our roommate horror stories, our tales of finally "growing up" and moving to our first single person abodes, and then, sometimes, pairing up again and living as couples, married or not.
Klinenberg's studies, however, reflect unprecedented levels of continued living aloneness, particularly in big cities like New York, where as much as half the population lives all by their lonesome (but not lonesome, surrounded as we are by next door neighbors, whether we know them or not). This surge in living single is counterintuitive because, as Nathan Heller writes of Klinenberg's book in The New Yorker, "Few things are less welcome today than protracted solitude—a life style that, for many people, has the taint of loserdom and brings to mind such characters as Ted Kaczynski and Shrek." And yet, living alone seems to keep getting more popular, "not a social aberration but an inevitable outgrowth of mainstream liberal values." This shift is so extreme that even committed couples are deciding to live by themselves—albeit maybe in houses right next door to each other. Yes, this is real, even if it seems odd. And has been for a while now, in fact; although the latest story about this "trend" appears Thursday in the New York Times, there are discussions of married people living in separate homes going back centuries. In 1971, when New York introduced Ms., Susan Edminston wrote in "How to Write Your Own Marriage Contract":
Agreements to disagree with the common marriage mores are nothing new. They have their roots in a fine old tradition that probably began with Mary Wollstonecraft, that first feminist of us all, who in 1792 wrote A Vindication of the Rights of Women. Though Mary and her husband, English essayist and political theorist William Godwin, submitted to marriage, it was on their own terms. Godwin took an apartment about twenty doors from the couple's house to which he "repaired" every morning. A letter of the time describes this arrangement: 'In order to give the connection as little as possible the appearance of such a vulgar and debasing tie as matrimony, the parties have established separate establishments, and the husband only visits his mistress like a lover when each is dressed, rooms in order, etc.'"
Odd. Or is it? Perhaps, in this time in which fewer people marry, and fewer still stay married, living alone is a simple way to maintain a sanctity of both individualism and marriage; perhaps trying to fit two people and their personalities and belongings and baggage into a shoebox-sized abode is actually the odder thing. Heller questions Klinenberg's hypothesis that living alone may be exactly what we need in order to live together, writing, "What turns this shift from demographic accounting to a social question is the pursuit-of-happiness factor: as a rule, do people live alone because they want to or because they have to?" and maintaining that those living alone don't, necessarily, seem all that happy. But if the couples are latching onto it, maybe there's something to it. As for these together-but-living-singles, as discussed in the piece about this phenomenon in the New York Times (which focuses on the living arrangement of Laura Ann Jacobs and her boyfriend Robert Pardo, who share two tiny bungalows, pink and blue, next door to each other), it was just a requirement of the relationship.
“I told him I’d never lived with a man,” [Jacobs] recalled. “And at 50, I wasn’t going to start. I said the only way I could imagine it was if we had two houses. Of course, then he bought these. It’s intoxicating to have somebody want you that badly. How can you deny someone with such good taste?”
Penelope Green writes, "Theirs is a new twist on a newish trend, particularly among boomer-age couples, known as living apart together, or L.A.T. for short, an acronym that describes those who commit to each other, but not to having the same address." And for Jacobs and Pardo, of whom one is messy, the other a "self-described neatnik," the separate but apart life appears to be working. As anyone who's lived alone or with terrible roommates for any amount of time can attest, perhaps the time eventually comes when living with someone else is just not really an option anymore.
The biggest takeaway to glean from this is that more and more there are no rules. Live how you want to, with whom, and where. Of course, in big cities, the question may come down to how many apartments a couple can actually afford. Certainly more common that couples living in two separate homes, at least in New York, are those couples who've moved in too soon, for real estate or financial reasons, only to return to living single when things don't work out.
Image via Shutterstock by luminouslens.