Often, women – more so than men – attach a sense of shame and guilt to being unattached, psychotherapist Florence Falk says.
Falk places some of the blame on history: For generations, single woman have been stereotyped as reclusive eccentrics, living alone with their cats, while single men have been portrayed as carefree bachelors enjoying all that life offers.
“The whole archetype of being a spinster is still with us,” said Falk, who wrote “On My Own: The Art of Being a Woman Alone” (Harmony Books, $23) after hearing clients of all ages divulge their fears of being alone. “There’s no question that men can suffer and go through their own version of this, but with women, there is a stigma, and we tend to blame ourselves.”
Falk believes the number of women who encounter such issues will only increase as more of them remain unmarried, and she has the numbers to back her up.
In 2006, the Census Bureau counted 97 million unmarried Americans ages 18 and older, representing 44 percent of the total population in that age range. A quarter of the total population 18 and older had never been married, 10 percent were divorced, 6 percent widowed and 2 percent separated.
And a Pew Research Center study released last year found that many of those singles are not actively looking for a committed relationship. Some 55 percent of 3,200 single adults 18 and older surveyed in 2005 reported no interest in a relationship. Of singles ages 18-29, 38 percent said they weren’t looking for a partner.
Falk’s book doesn’t claim that being single is as hard as it used to be. However, for women specifically, the pressure to be all things in the work force and still be “Victoria’s Secret” sexy at home leaves some feeling overwhelmed.
Then there’s the need, Falk said, to be all these things and a caregiver to family and friends.
“Women are very hard on themselves and each other,” she said. “We’re capable of having wonderful friendships and being strong for one another. Then there is another side, where we can judge harshly and be envious of one another.”
Being involved in a relationship is no guarantee that you’ll never experience a feeling of being alone, Falk said. A woman can have someone next to her in bed each night, but if the relationship is failing, she can experience a sense of aloneness.
Falk said women particularly tend to divert themselves, finding a thousand ways to avoid being at one with their feelings, especially when they find themselves in a marriage that doesn’t seem destined for a “happily ever after” ending.
“We’re meant to be in relationships with other people, but, just as surely, we are meant to partake of aloneness,” Falk writes. “To deny this part of our existence is a little like trying to walk the earth on one foot instead of two.”
Falk’s advice is to confront the fear of being alone dead on, and embrace it. Only by doing so, she said, can someone get to know herself. It’s important for both women and men, Falk writes, to use this time to figure out the things that matter to them, which is critical in leading a fulfilling life.
Support is also crucial to moving beyond feelings of guilt and shame, according to Falk. Many clients have told her they suffer from always being the only single in their social network.
“There’s a need to know they’re not the only ones out there, on what they believe to be the margin of society,” Falk said. “Creating communities is key to finding connections. One of the most important things we can do for each other is help one another confront these feelings.”
By taking on such emotions and accepting aloneness, or the fear of it, one can harness true power in her life, Falk writes in the final chapters of her book.
“The power to prosper as women alone resides within us,” she writes. “As we begin to test the waters for ourselves and step out of our old ways of thinking – indeed, out of our old lives – and into the new, we should keep in mind three basic elements of transformation that will best serve our interests: knowing, naming, and speaking.
“We want to know our deepest feelings and desires. We want to name them so that we can call them forth. And we want to be able to speak on our own behalf through an informed heart.”