What does it mean to live alone?

Today we’re going back to the start and looking at what it actually means to live alone. You’d think this would be pretty straightforward, wouldn’t you? Let’s dive a little deeper.

1. What does ‘living alone’ actually mean?

Living alone means that when you shut your front door, you are solely responsible for what happens within the walls of your home. You might rent your home or own it, or be staying somewhere for free. There might be some rules around some aspects of what happens in your home (e.g.: a landlord saying you can’t put nails in the wall, or rules on smoking indoors). But in almost all other respects, the decisions you take once you close the door are yours. This covers things like what and when you eat, how tidy you keep the place, how you decorate, or how often you do your laundry. It extends further too – to the people you socialise with, what you do to fill your spare time, and where you go on holiday.

This freedom to make decisions is one of the most appealing aspects of living alone. However that same freedom can become a burden when it extends to every decision, all of the time – especially if you’re not used to it. The ‘mental load’ is a term most commonly used to describe the invisible ‘cognitive labour’ involved in keeping a household running – the thinking, planning, organising, doing. When you live alone, you carry the entire mental load. We quite often hear about ‘decision fatigue’ as a result of single-handedly being responsible for absolutely everything, all of the time.

Part of the secret to living well alone is about learning to manage the mental load and finding ways to take decisions which are right for you without having someone automatically there who you can talk it through with.

2. I have children / housemates / Airbnb guests / a pet – do I live alone?

It seems counter-intuitive, but there are a lot of similarities between people who live alone and some groups of people who live with others. Very simply, if you are solely carrying the ‘mental load’ and responsible for all decsions about your life once your front door is closed, then you’re absolutely part of our community!

Single parents are like turbocharged superhero versions of people who live alone – not only are they responsible for taking every decision about their own lives, they’re responsible for taking decisions about their children’s lives too. That’s a huge mental and emotional load – and they do it brilliantly. And may, of course, spend periods of time without their children around.

If you occasionally rent a room out (e.g.: for short term lets via something like AirBnb), then you probably don’t hand over responsibility, e.g.: for sorting your household shopping, or paying the bills. That means you live alone, even if you occasionally have company with you for a few days at a time.

When you have housemates or let a room on a long-term basis, the definition can get a little trickier. I get asked about this a lot. Ultimately, it comes down to the degree to which you are managing the mental load, and have the freedom to control what happens within the walls of your home. If you are sharing a space and making joint decisions about what happens, then you probably don’t strictly live alone – though there are probably aspects of your life that make you feel as though you do (and lots of useful information via the Living Well Alone Project!) There are plenty of situations where people share communal spaces like bathrooms and kitchens while living very independently. There will be a lot of overlap in experience between these groups and people live completely by themselves. If that’s you, then you are absolutely welcome in our community!

And while pets are great company, unless they can make a meal for you or help you decide on what pattern of wallpaper to have, then you definitely count as someone who lives alone!

3. What if I have a partner?

If your partner lives with you for more than just the occasional sleepover, then they’ve probably started to share some of the responsibility with you for managing your household. Again, it’s down to the extent to which you carry the mental load, and manage your own space / time / decisions. That doesn’t mean everyone who lives alone is single. It’s very common for people to live alone while dating, sometimes for years, before deciding to move in together. For those in established relationships, ‘living apart together’ (LAT) where each partner has their own place is an increasingly common lifestyle choice. Either way, you’re absolutely a part of our community, and there’ll be useful information for you at livingwellalone.com

4. Will I be lonely if I live alone?

The idea that people who live alone are always lonely is probably the single biggest myth about solo life. I’ve written about this quite a bit before. Loneliness is a mismatch between the level and quality of social interaction we would like, and that which we actually have. It can affect absolutely anyone, including those living in couples and families. Loneliness can and does affect people who live alone, but this isn’t a community who see loneliness as their defining characteristic. Many people tell us that they feel far less lonely living by themselves than they did when living with others. And new research shows that people who live alone are actually more likely to be better connected than those in couples, and to play a more active role in their local communities.

Outside of Covid-19, research shows that people who live alone are no more likely to be lonely than anyone else, once differences in income are taken into account. Covid-19 has hit the solo community hard because we are so well connected to others, not the opposite. Think about it – would it have made a difference to us to not be able to go out, if all we did before the crisis was to sit around feeling sorry for ourselves?

So yes, you may experience loneliness when you live alone, or you may not. But living with others isn’t loneliness-proof either – the risk of experiencing loneliness when living alone is often outweighed by the benefits. There are also strategies you can learn to take control of the way you feel, and to get more comfortable with being alone.

Conclusion

That’s our whistle stop guide to what it means to live alone! There’s clearly a lot more to it, and we’ll go into more detail over the next few weeks. For now, we hope this give you a taster. Feel free to follow our Facebook page or find us on Instagram. Have ideas for a topic you’d like to see covered in a blog post? Let us know in the comments, or email us at hello@livingwellalone.com

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