Loneliness in the age of freedom
One day in late summer I have a bad fall. I shred an ankle. It does not heal. After weeks of medical muddle, a scan shows ligaments snapped and torn off the bone. I am housebound for months. Yet my spirits are surprisingly good. But then, I'm not alone in this. Illness, injury, dependency - all bring their own strange intimacy. My husband has been with me almost every minute, tending, fetching, cooking meals and bringing cups of tea, insisting on new consultations.
Tony, a former Carlton Football Club physio, is my new hope. My husband drives me to see him and carefully eases me out of the car. As I flail along on crutches he calls out, his tone sharp with worry, "Your crutch is too close to the edge of the path." I realise he is walking right behind, watching my every step.
I lie on a long, thin table covered with white cloth. Tony bends over my wrecked ankle, head bowed, with a pensive expression. He cradles my heel between his large palms. His touch is kind, comforting. Just at that moment an unbearable thought sweeps out of left field, like an ambush. The thought is this: What if you were so utterly alone in the world that the only time you felt the touch of another human being was when a podiatrist trimmed a corn? Or a hairdresser brushed your hair?
My thought is about loneliness.
The day before a friend had rung to commiserate. The talk turned quickly, however, to what was really bugging her. My fall had aroused in her a primal terror - usually held in abeyance - of being alone. Her panic crackles over the phone and her sadness seeps into the air until I am drenched by it. What if it had happened to her? Who would care for her? How will she cope in old age?
These are real enough questions, and an ever-growing number of people face them. It is seven years since Robert D Putnam published Bowling Alone, his classic work on social disconnection in the US. The trend he identified has only intensified across the West.
In most Western nations, the number of people who live alone is rising. In Britain, 18% of all households were single-person by 2001; the figure is expected to reach a staggering 38% by 2026. In New York, while recent census figures showed a slight drop among those living solo, the figure still hovers at around a third of all households.
An American Sociological Review article reported last year that Americans have fewer close friends than they did two decades ago, and that the number of people who said they have no one with which to discuss important things had more than doubled. "The evidence," said the researcher, Lynn Smith-Lovin, a professor of sociology at Duke University, "shows that Americans have fewer confidants and those ties are also more family-based than they used to be."
In our nation, Australian Bureau of Statistics data published in 2006 forecasts that the number of people living alone will rise from 1.8 million in 2001 to between 2.8 and 3.7 million people in 2026. If the latter projection bears up, it is an increase of 105%. The reasons are manifold: relationships are more fragile, occur later, or never form at all. Cohabiting unions are on the rise, and have an even higher break-up rate than marriages.
Falling fertility means that demographers estimate around one-quarter of women currently of reproductive age are unlikely to have children. The number of couples with children is expected to increase slowly, or even decline. Childless couples, on the other hand, are likely to increase rapidly, from 1.9 million in 2001 to between 2.9 million and 3.3 million in 2026. When one spouse dies, there will be no adult child to care for the one remaining.
There has been a steady growth in lone-parent families. Single parents - mostly mothers - have risen from 7% of all families in 1969 to 22% in 2003, increasing at more than twice the rate of divorce. This means that the care of children will fall on one parent's shoulders, and when the children leave home the mother is likely to be alone. Only around one in three divorced women with children, according to Australian Institute of Family Studies data, re-partners after divorce. Those odds get lower as women get older. But while men are slightly less likely to be alone, their plight is often bleaker. All the clichés about women's friendship networks are true: far fewer women alone report isolation and the absence of someone to call on in times of need.
Living alone is not the same as loneliness. For some it is freedom, independence, solitude. One of my friends, nearly 60, has lived in all kinds of relationships but finally found happiness living alone. She tells me how she loves her small seaside apartment so much that sometimes she rushes back from work at lunchtime, just to breathe it in. The sun's rays, she says, slant across the kitchen at that time of day and she can hear the sea sighing in the distance. I could die there, she tells me happily.
Those beatific feelings, however, are far from common. A raft of bleak statistics reveals that we are social beings. Loneliness kills, reads one headline. Those who live alone are twice as likely to die of a heart attack. A study from the University of Chicago last year revealed that men and women 50 to 68 years old who scored highest on measures of loneliness also had much higher blood pressure. The older people got, the starker was the effect of being alone.
Then there is dying of a broken heart. Frequently triggered by the death of a loved one, ‘broken heart' syndrome mimics heart-attack symptoms: shortness of breath, chest pain and lungs clogged with fluid. In the ‘widower effect', if a wife dies, in the next 30 days the husband's risk of death from all causes increases by 53%. Wives are even more likely to die of a broken heart. Their risk of dying goes up by more than 60%.
Depression and anxiety are higher among those who are alone, and for those who have strong feelings of loneliness. And the more stable and enduring a relationship, the fewer mental-health problems one is likely to have. Although some feminists, like Jessie Bernard, have famously argued that marriage is a health hazard for women, the evidence points elsewhere. Patriarchy and male dominance are bad for women - whatever the relationship - rather than the married state itself.
When the sociologist David De Vaus analysed the data from the largest study of mental health ever undertaken in Australia, the National Survey of Mental Health and Wellbeing of Adults, he did not find too many desperate housewives. Rather, he found that married men and women were the least likely of any group to suffer mental-health problems, although it was also true that married working mothers had the least problems of any group. It was being single which constituted the biggest risk factor for mental-health problems for either sex.
It is not necessary to catastrophise, for it is clear from these figures that of those alone many more cope well than don't, and no one need underestimate the misery of an unhappy marriage. Nonetheless, singletons -whether never married, separated or divorced - have much higher rates of mental distress than married people. Twice as many divorced women, 22%, suffered from an anxiety disorder, compared with married women. Children mattered, too. Single, childless working women had almost double the rate of disorders as married working mothers.
"Only connect," wrote EM Forster in Howards End. All the rather dismal statistics listed above point out that human beings are, to use the dour, cyborgian title of one US report on social connectedness, ‘Hardwired to Connect'. Our predicament, in contemporary society, is that we live in and are attracted to what the Belgian psychoanalyst Paul Verhaeghe, in Love in a Time of Loneliness, called a "high-separation society."
By far the best thinker on this is the sociologist Zygmunt Bauman. His book titles capture his abiding themes: Alone again, Liquid Love, The Individualised Society, Life in Fragments. Bauman shares with the left-leaning, progressive side of politics a suspicion of the market, and he is often eloquent on the way that the principles of the market are steadily colonising the world of human relationships. He is much more than that, however. All of his books have the weight of a cultural pessimist's moral imagination, and contain a brilliance of perception about the restlessness and rootlessness of our age. It is that tension in his work which makes him so original and so interesting.
A seminal work of Bauman's is Postmodernity and its Discontents. He turns Freud's Victorian-age dilemma in Civilization and its Discontents - that the human condition is such that we will always be unhappy, because we exchange a certain portion of freedom for security - on its head. In our age, says Bauman, we have exchanged security for freedom; here lies postmodernity's discontent.
When "individual freedom rules supreme", a relationship is characterised by a "permanent temporariness and its readiness for cancellation for short notice or without notice." The move from ‘marriages' to ‘relationships' is revealing. In the institution of marriage, the vows contain little words which mean a great deal: for better or for worse, for richer or for poorer, in sickness and in health. That is, the vows attempt to institutionalise care. Bauman points out we have shifted to the idea that "the activity of choosing is more important than what is being chosen." "The life of a chooser," he cautions, "will always be a mixed blessing ... That life is fraught with risks: uncertainty is bound to remain forever a rather nasty fly in the otherwise tasty ointment of free choice."
Many of our social problems - family breakdown, social isolation, drug abuse, loneliness, suicide - are the unintended consequence of our high-separation society. So too do the ‘hysterias' of our time speak to the precariousness of relationships: anxiety, phobias, depression, narcissistic personalities (marked by a ruthless exploitativeness in interpersonal relations and an incapacity for love), borderline personalities (in whose emotionally chaotic world the only thing stable is instability). These are our contemporary maladies of love. Yet the "permanent temporariness" that Bauman speaks of is nowhere better illustrated than in the culture of hooking up.
In March this year the Washington Post journalist Laura Sessions Stepp published Unhooked: How Young Women Pursue Sex, Delay Love and Lose at Both, an examination of how the culture of bohemian free love has invaded Middle America. The point of the hook-up - a vague euphemism for sexual activity - is actually to remain unhooked. Stepp became interested in the issue when her son's high school called parents in for a meeting: eighth-grade girls had been regularly servicing boys with oral sex.
In a leafy Washington suburb, one of Stepp's interviewees sits daintily on a couch with her mother. Placidly she explains: "First you give a guy head ... and then you decide if you like him and if he likes you ..."
"A muffin, Laura?" asks the mother.
Zygmunt Bauman's point about sexual liberation is telling. The old sexual regime disciplined sexuality, often through guilt and shame, and meted out punishment to any transgressor. But the new regime is not free of shame or stigma; it is simply deployed in the service of a different mistress. In the postmodern version, Bauman argues, attachment is the weakness to be conquered. Where once sex was frowned upon if shorn of the connection of love, these young women continually try to purge the desire to form deep attachments, to purify the soul of the desire to fall in love.
"The C-word, commitment, is the dirty word," Stepp says. "They see relationships as draining you of everything, most of all of your time: You'll have no time for yourself, your girlfriends, your studies, your sports. They don't want to fall in love because they have too many other things they want to do." Yet Stepp found the young women were continually falling foul of the new ideal, frantically inspecting their mobile phones for messages and getting angry with themselves for caring when there weren't any. The fleeting connection of the hook-up, like a balm placed on the wrong limb, did little to assuage the loneliness they felt.
Artists, said Yeats, are the antennae of the human race. Perhaps that is why the collective unconscious involved in the shift from one generational world to another is often expressed in a novel, like Milan Kundera's The Unbearable Lightness of Being. Written in the early 1980s, it is one of those fictional works that has a prophetic quality. "What then shall we choose?" is the question Kundera asks at the beginning of his novel. "Weight or lightness?"
The sociologist Arlie Hochschild, looking at recent women's advice books, found that commitment phobia had created a new ideal: the "postmodern cowgirl", a mainstream female counterpoint to the old male fantasy, prevalent in the American psyche, of the roaming, unattached cowboy. These books counsel young women to invest in the "self as a solo enterprise", warning against getting involved with needy people. Any desires to rely on others - to be taken care of when ill, for example - are depicted as frightening. They encourage "emotional asceticism", where women "expect to give and receive surprisingly little love from other human beings". It is advice for a relational world that is characterised by an emotional Thatcherism; in the free market of bodies, women are encouraged to package themselves as commodities for sale.
All this can have poignant sequelae, for the hook-up culture affects women who want children. We are indeed fortunate to live in a society where, for the first time in history, women have real alternatives not just to marriage but to motherhood. It is equally offensive to those who do and those who don't have children to conclude that one or other is a second-class life. But before we wax lyrical about those living in perpetuity the Sex and the City lifestyle, we might reflect on the fate of the four fictional women in the show. Although (implausibly) they had all found happiness with a partner by the end, they had only one child between them. One struggles with infertility, even though she has long desired children.
When I was researching falling fertility a while back, I interviewed a group of women whose poignant, haunting stories stayed with me. The biggest issue was commitment and its absence. When I offered Bauman's phrase about the "permanent temporariness of relationships", the effect was electric. Their journey through the hook-up culture and into fragile relationships had meant serial experiences of loss, and a terrible struggle in their late thirties and early forties to have the kind of relationship with men that made motherhood possible. There was a painful mismatch between the urgency of their desire for children and the leisurely attitude of the unattached men they met. (A Rutgers University study on young men's attitudes, for example, found that none expressed a burning desire to have children: "Whatever happens, happens"; "I'll know when I'm ready"; "You can get married and have kids at any age." They expressed little sympathy for women's circumstances.)
For the women I interviewed it meant disappointment, anxiety and, at times, humiliation. Some grappled - in their early forties, sans partner and child - with the most profound feeling of loss and loneliness. One had an abortion on her boyfriend's insistence, and then the couple split anyhow. She told me of a recurring dream. She was floating in space, bound by thick ropes to those closest to her. But she was spinning slowly away from the Earth, into space. As she spun, the ropes were fraying and breaking, and she was spinning faster and faster, out of contact. She could do nothing as she was finally flung loose, whirling into the darkness and coldness of stellar space, utterly alone for eternity.
The Age's former opinion editor Paul Austin, who had a keen eye for a hot-button issue, once told me that the biggest reaction to any piece he published was to the journalist Virginia Hausegger's sharp and anguished rebuke to feminism. She had written, "I am childless and I am angry. Angry that I was so foolish to take the word of my feminist mothers as gospel. Angry that I was daft enough to believe female fulfilment came with a leather briefcase. It was wrong. It was crap."
Whenever I think of loneliness, an image flashes before me. I was in my early twenties, squashed with a crowd of friends into a car too small for our number, coming back from the snow. I wanted to detour and pop in on the old widower farmer who looked after one of my horses. I'd said a few months back that we might drop in on our way past. As we wound our way up the long dirt driveway, we saw him come lumbering up, almost running, craning his neck to see if anybody was there.
The whole car, a moment before bubbling with talk and laughter, fell silent. We went inside for a cup of tea, although none of us wanted to. He brought out a tin with a fruitcake he had made using his dead wife's recipe. As it crumbled in our hands we realised he had been making this cake each week, in the hope that we might come. We stared at it, appalled. Appalled at his loneliness, our carelessness, the disparity in power; at the bitter fact that his cup was empty while ours ran over. The chance visit meant nothing to us. It meant a great deal to him.
When I think of loneliness, I still see Bill's ruddy features looming out of the gathering dusk, intense, straining to see, his face full of hope.
It would be an egregious error to think of loneliness as a female complaint. Men are more likely to be alone at younger ages, usually because of a relationship breakdown. Michael Flood's research into loneliness for the Australia Institute found that men were more likely to be entirely without social contact or support. He reports that men "tend to be lonelier than women from early adulthood right through to their seventies ... The deepest levels of loneliness appear to be experienced by men aged 35 to 44."
Depression is higher for divorced and unpartnered men. The blokeyness of Australian male culture still means that men are more likely to rely solely on their spouse as their best friend, and hence to be bereft of a confidant if the relationship breaks down. Men's suicide rates are higher than those for women in every age group - and they are especially high for farmers.
The philosopher Raimond Gaita has a wonderful passage in one of his works where he calls attention to
‘the way in which human beings limit our will as does nothing else in nature ... the power of human beings to affect one another in ways beyond merit has offended rationalists and moralists since the dawn of thought, but it is partly what yields to us that sense of human individuality which we express when we say human beings are unique and irreplaceable. Such attachments, and the joy and grief they may cause, condition our sense of the preciousness of human beings. Love is the most important of them.'
The world of love and attachment has its own logic, but we have to look elsewhere for rationality. Ours is an age more comfortable with hard scientific evidence, and "love sounds incoherent in the court of reason," as Zygmunt Bauman writes in one of his best essays, ‘Does Love Need Reason?' He goes on:
‘As a defendant in the court of reason, love is bound to lose its case ... When reason sits in judgement, writes the rules of the judicial procedure and appoints the judges, love is guilty even before the prosecutor has risen to make his case ... Reason is a better talker than love, and so love finds it excruciatingly difficult, nay impossible, to redeem itself in discourse ... Argument is not love's forte.'
It is unsurprising, then, that when we try to make rational systems for relationship breakdowns, things get more than a little sticky. Many of our present social arrangements are based more on the court of reason than the unreasonable particularities of love, on the assumption that people are rather like commodities, replaceable and exchangeable. The cheerful little phrase ‘no-fault divorce' promises a matter-of-fact handshake before we supposedly move on. Such a coolness of language cannot get near the wild, raw, inchoate power of loss. That on sexual betrayal by a lover you might feel like picking up the nearest axe and sinking it between their shoulder blades. Or that a man left by his wife might drive his children into the nearest lake and drown them.
Depression, anxiety, panic attack, mood disorder: what plain, inexpressive little words they are. All are drawn from rationality and science, and are hopelessly inadequate for the task. The words of psychoanalysis are better: mourning, melancholia, hate, envy, love, despair. They capture the wild terror of madness. Loss, longing and loneliness can send you mad.
Loneliness is not the same as being depressed, but depression and anxiety are the two dark companions of loneliness: the former is twice as common in those who live alone. The best book I have come across on depression is Andrew Solomon's The Noonday Demon. It is a work of breathtaking power, openhearted and wide-ranging in its research. The fineness of his achievement, however, hinges on his capacity as a writer to let the reader step inside the space that is depression. One chapter in and you feel depressed, even if you aren't.
While I was reading it, the ebullient Jeff Kennett, patron saint of Beyond Blue, popped up on a TV program about fathers suffering from postnatal depression, saying airily that all you need is a diagnosis and appropriate treatment. It sounded as simple as getting a GP to tap out a prescription for Prozac. Andrew Solomon is no pharmacological puritan, but he is closer to the British analyst Adam Phillips, who says simply, "A lot of people are depressed because their lives are depressing."
Solomon opens The Noonday Demon by tracing the connections between depression and the experience of loss:
‘Depression is the flaw in love. To be creatures who love we must be creatures who can despair at what we lose, and depression is the mechanism of that despair ... Life is fraught with sorrows: no matter what we do, we will in the end die; we are, each of us, held in the solitude of an autonomous body; time passes, and what has been will never be again.'
After such a beginning, it is no longer possible to think of depression as a cog whirring out of control and in need of a mind mechanic. Instead, one steps inside the emotional space of depression and feels it. You are inside the skin of a depressed man looking out onto the world, observing it through a grey veil of sadness that imbues everything with an elegiac hue. Depression rises up like the fog in Charles Dickens's Bleak House, seeping into everything. Anxiety, an ineffable loneliness and nameless dread, hovers over every page. Yet, at the same time as he creates the precise emotional register of a depressed person, Solomon maintains the lucidity of a sharply analytic mind.
Anxiety is depression's twin, and the other dark companion of loneliness. Phobias such as agoraphobia contain a large measure of separation anxiety. Anxiety is often about an inability to face something; behind it, the thing not faced, or faced and found unbearable, is the deepest separation of all, death. We are the only creatures who are aware of our own death. We die alone. It is far from clear that we can come to terms with that irreducible fact. Being and Nothingness induces feelings of, in Heidegger's phrase, "radical astonishment".
Many new-age books attempt to place a soothing balm on that open sore in our soul. I wandered into a new-age shop a while ago. I entered feeling buoyant, and came out shivering with thoughts of death. There was so much manic effort directed at creating meaning and order in a chaotic universe that the effect on me was the reverse. Like the psychoanalyst who reads a countervailing emotional tone in the patient who lies on her couch stoutly declaring self-sufficiency, I felt I had just encountered a collective unconscious: thousands of souls gripped by terror.
Sitar music played in the background; customers asked for sweet-smelling aromatherapy oils to soothe them, or for a crystal for protection. The shelves creaked under the weight of health tomes on stress, detoxing, irritable-bowel syndrome, liver-cleansing diets, gluten- and lactose-free diets. The self-help books - with their covers showing plump, smiling Indians in yellow saris, or American doctors with preposterous names and ‘MDs' displayed brazenly - all promised a New Way of Life Without Stress. Decoded, they were all about how to deal with unbearable anxiety.
A tram rattled up the road and the building quivered. Even the salesperson had hands that trembled, which she concealed by slowly opening and closing her hands into tight fists. When she took my money (I took pity and bought a small crystal), I noticed her palms had marks where her nails had been digging in.
I am a natural sceptic on new-age stuff, and definitely not a person you want to take on your next colonic-irrigation retreat or introduce to your guru. Except for one thing. When people pick up those silly books, they enter a space where, just for a brief moment in their lives, they feel cared for. They feel hope. And that is not ludicrous at all.
Quite a lot of so-called alternative cures - massage, ear candling, acupuncture, reflexology - involve our sense of touch and smell more than the cerebral. Aromatherapy is particularly interesting, because the olfactory sense is one we experience from our earliest moments as a baby, alongside touch. A baby will turn her head towards the smell of her mother's milk rather than another's. Babies that are not touched (as in a Romanian orphanage) can fail to grow, or even suffer a failure to thrive so profound that they die.
In The Noonday Demon Andrew Solomon tells an arresting story about touch. One of the alternative cures he seeks out is a West African ndeup, an animist ceremony performed by an old woman. The blood of a ram and two chickens is smeared over every inch of his body, which is also rubbed with other objects of shamanistic power. After much chanting, drumming and ritual to exorcise the demon haunting him, he is washed clean of the blood by the gathered women, then tenderly dressed in a fresh white loincloth.
What struck me about the ceremony, since he clearly found it surprisingly comforting, was how it depended on a whole community, on magic, on a ritual and above all on the comfort of human touch, drawing the person back into the human circle. Characterising depression as an evil spirit to be expelled through ritual liberates the person from the stigma that accompanies those who ‘don't cope' in our culture. Conquering depression, in this context, was a social event - unlike a Western doctor in a ten-minute consultation coolly handing out a script to a man who has lost the farm and whose wife has taken off with the kids.
Solomon also makes a poignant and terrible point about old age, loneliness and depression. "Older people in nursing homes are twice as likely to be depressed," he writes. "One-third of those in resident facilities are significantly depressed." We suffer, he argues, from the "assumption that it is logical for old people to be miserable". Placebos are strikingly more efficacious in the elderly. The reason? The interactions, monitoring and close interviews cheer them up. As Solomon says, "Old people feel better when more attention is paid to them. The elderly in our society must be horrifyingly lonely for this small response to give them such a lift."
While researching loneliness I came across an endearing fact about the Danish government. Its Ministry of Justice is to introduce a bill that "specifies that keepers of horses should have at least two horses ... to recommend that horses have social contact". Some veterinary research had showed that horses not only like to see each other, but to touch each other. Horses are herd animals, experiencing an inconsolable misery when alone that only another of their kind can assuage. They scratch each other in places hard to reach, and stand nose-to-tail in the summer in a symbiotic arrangement so that each tail flicks flies off the nose of the other.
I like the idea of a government legislating that horses not be lonely anymore. When it comes to humans, though, matters are not so simple. A friend once said something to me that stopped me in my tracks. It was this: the vices and virtues of each age are entangled with one another. It is not always possible to have one without the other.
Loneliness is the malady of love in the age of freedom. Who will watch over us when our crutch falls too close to the edge of a path? That so many in our company are lonely is part of the way we live now.