clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile
A figure lounges comfortably on a couch, floating in a bubble isolated from the outside world. Illustration.

Filed under:

Living alone and liking it

More women in the U.S. live alone than ever before, but our conversation about solo-living women has a long history

My second apartment in New York will go down as one of the great loves of my life. Not because it is perfect, by any means, but because of how much effort and dedication I’ve put into my relationship with it.

After I decided it was The One, I learned to spackle, prime, and sand so that I could spend a long weekend wearing a cheap dust mask on a borrowed ladder, painting it my favorite shade of charcoal gray; I outfitted it from end to end with multiple vectors of Bluetooth and wireless speaker systems; I ordered and assembled furniture in sleek black and playful yellow to sleep and eat and sit on; I hung tasteful black-and-white framed photo prints on the walls.

And when I got a raise, I mounted an LED TV whose size in inches I have to admit I have uttered aloud on a few occasions opposite my sofa. In return, my apartment has become the steadfastly welcoming presence in my life that I cannot wait to come home to.

One night, I sighed happily to a friend, “It’s all coming together. It’s like my own real-life, grown-up…” and the phrase that nearly came out of my mouth was “bachelor pad.”

I am not a bachelor, nor was I at the time. I was a 26-year-old single woman. But as I struggled for a phrase that better suited my living situation—a Carrie Bradshaw apartment? a woman cave? there was the “she shed” concept, but that didn’t seem quite right, either—I wondered why I couldn’t aptly describe the aspirational single-woman home sanctuary I was building with a catchphrase, and why no particular image came to mind when I said the words “bachelorette pad,” except for perhaps the kind of luxury apartment you rent on Airbnb to throw a pre-wedding party for a bride.

In the United States, more than a quarter of households were single-person households as of 2015; in urban areas like New York City, that figure is estimated to be something more like half. And as the Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies pointed out in 2015, “In the 19th and early 20th centuries, single-person households consisted mostly of men, but the greatest gains in living alone during the past 50 years have been among women. Today, women head 54 percent of all single-person households.”

There are, in other words, more women living alone in America than ever before. The male bachelor pad—that is, the home that’s specifically, lavishly outfitted for a single man to relax, entertain, and possibly seduce female guests in—doesn’t occur in nature as frequently as some like to imagine, says Charles A. Waehler, author of Bachelors: The Psychology of Men Who Haven’t Married. But by now, it would seem, we should still have some kind of familiarized term for a woman’s spin on the bachelor pad.

The fraught nature of the “bachelorette pad” ideal, though, could be rooted in layers upon layers of historical anxiety about women living alone, and it takes only a rudimentary knowledge of the world’s power dynamics to understand why.

Solitude is often considered a privilege when we can afford to choose it and a punishment when it’s thrust upon us, and the same seems to extend to solo-living situations: Moving out to a place of one’s own for peace, quiet, and privacy is an occasion for congratulations, while living alone as a result of being abandoned or left behind is a much more pitiable affair. In other words, there’s an assertive, active image of living alone and there’s a sad, passive image of living alone.

And as anyone who’s read Simone de Beauvoir might intuit, it’s easy to assign a certain masculinity to the “active” and a femininity to the “passive”—hence, for example, the disparity between the mischievous way one might say “bachelor” and the pitying or scornful way one might say “spinster” (no matter how much work women like Kate Bolick have put into arguing that spinsterhood is something to aspire to).

There’s been a tendency over the last century or two to imagine the solo-living man as someone who has chosen peaceful privacy and the solo-living woman as a sort of flawed societal leftover. Or perhaps more alarmingly, a woman who has chosen to reject her preordained role as helper to a husband and family.

I have lived alone, across a couple of different cities, for the better part of six years. After college, when a friend I’d talked about getting an apartment with suddenly changed plans and took a job in a different city, I hastily signed a lease on my own studio apartment, with my mother as a co-signer for that first year. Was I up to this, moving to a new city with no roommates? Neither of us knew. I’d never even had a single-occupancy dorm room before.

Two months later, I was living the teenager’s dream of independent adulthood. I had the sleep schedule of a college kid and the dietary habits of an unsupervised fourth-grader; I spent my late nights burrowing into writing assignments for the job I’d grown to love immediately, weekend mornings sleeping late and feasting on stacks of 11 a.m. pancakes I’d make just for myself. It was heaven. After a year, it occurred to me anticlimactically that I hadn’t been on a date in… a year. I loved living alone so much I forgot I aspired to one day not.

A lady with headphones on stands on a ladder happily painting a wall with a paint roller. Illustration.

My experience of living alone, in other words, was not a lonely one. I learned to relish my freedom and privacy; I was flourishing creatively, joyfully unburdened by other people’s temperature preferences and alarm clocks and laundry piles and bathroom-sink grime. (Your own grime, I’ve learned over the years, is much more tolerable than the grime of others.)

By my mid-20s, I was dedicated to spreading the gospel of living alone, even writing a spunky, service-y essay recommending certain simple steps that would make living solo feel like a privilege and not a punishment—like investing in good-quality bedclothes and treating yourself to brunches and vacations whenever and wherever you could afford to.

Little did I know that my life-changing tips for the solo-living single gal were right out of the literal book on life-changing tips for the solo-living single gal—which was published in 1936, when women living alone was a much more radical prospect.

Marjorie Hillis’s Live Alone and Like It billed itself as a guide for the “extra woman” on how to enjoy living alone—because, Hillis reasoned, “the chances are that some time in your life, possibly only now and then between husbands, you will find yourself settling down to a solitary existence.” Even in 1936, she noted, “You may do it by choice. Lots of people do—more and more every year.”

Hillis lived alone in New York while working as a writer and editor at Vogue, and her Live Alone and Like It aimed to educate the “live-aloner” on topics like how to outfit one’s apartment for maximum enjoyment (she recommended as comfortable and inviting a bed as one could afford and the loveliest dinner settings available on one’s budget), how to cultivate a robust social life, and what supplies and skills to have on hand in the event that company came over.

Hillis’s slim handbook aimed to convince her reader that, with a stiff upper lip and a healthy dose of economic self-indulgence, being an unpaired woman could be not just tolerable but liberating. For the woman who was feeling lonely or sorry for herself, she offered this prim bit of wisdom: “To be sure, you will have nobody to make a fuss over you when you are tired, but you will also have nobody to expect you to make a fuss over him, when you are tired. You will have no one to be responsible for your bills—and also no one to be responsible to for your bills.” She also devoted an entire chapter of Live Alone and Like It to advocating for outfitting a bedroom for maximum comfort and glamour:

If you can’t go in for a modern mirrored bed, or an old mahogany four-poster, or a good reproduction of some other type, then take the bed you have and have the head and foot cut off and a really charming cover made to fit it. … And it’s not a bad idea to have the dressing-table mirror … hanging directly opposite the foot of the bed, so that you can see yourself when you sit up. This is sometimes depressing, but it acts as a prompter when you feel yourself slipping.

Although, as Joanna Scutts points out in her 2017 book The Extra Woman, Hillis’s sense of what was a feasible splurge for most single women in post-Depression America was a little unrealistic, Live Alone and Like It still claimed the No. 8 slot on the year’s best-seller list. Her follow-up guidebook on money management, Orchids on Your Budget—which optimistically assumed its target reader had an annual salary of what would equal about $150,000 per year today, and contained one chapter cheekily titled “Can You Afford a Husband?”—ended up at No. 5.

Of course, Hillis’ books proved to be a product of their time. By the time the late 1940s and early 1950s rolled around and women had seemingly receded from the wartime and post-Depression workforces back into kitchens and laundry rooms, publications for women had begun to cast a skeptical eye toward single women and women who lived alone. As Betty Friedan, author of The Feminine Mystique, noted in New York magazine in 1974:

The short stories in those women’s magazines we read under the hair dryer were all about miserable girls with supposedly glamorous jobs in New York who suddenly saw the light and went home to marry Henry. In “Honey Don’t You Cry” (McCall’s, January 1949), the heroine is reading a letter from her mother: “You should come home, daughter. You can’t be happy living alone like that.”

Some 80 years later, Hillis’s Live Alone and Like It, with its sharp focus on how to manage and enjoy a home of one’s own, remains a rarity. Today, if you search Amazon for the most popular self-help and advice books on living alone, you’ll find a vast selection of soothing pastel covers and curly fonts; even the titles that aren’t specifically written for female readers look the part. (It takes a good bit of scrolling to encounter even one living-alone guide clearly aimed at men; the first to come up is book one in a series by one Peter Mulraney directed at men who “find themselves on their own” after “having shared their lives with someone else for a long time.”)

Many of the most popular advice books on living alone interpret “living alone” as “going through life alone,” and are essentially advice books on being unpartnered. Their titles and subtitles often offer comfort to widows and divorcees and those who are “single again,” alternatingly insisting that it’s perfectly okay to be alone and that the reader is not really alone at all.

Several offer advice on coping with the shame and sorrow of manlessness; Florence Falk’s 2007 book On My Own: The Art of Being a Woman Alone, for example, describes a fearful, newly single woman named Lisa thusly: “Like many of us, Lisa assumes that a woman alone must be miserable, and, worse, that she somehow deserves to be, as if she bears full responsibility for her manless state. … Lisa wonders if she is like Typhoid Mary, carrying some unmentionable flaw that sends men fleeing and might be contagious.”

Barbara Feldon’s 2003 book Living Alone and Loving It, unlike its apparent namesake, devotes just one chapter of its 12 to making and maintaining a home of one’s own, instead advising readers to stave off feelings of loneliness by rekindling old friendships and forming “goal groups” (sort of like DIY group-therapy groups) with other women living alone.

Is there a corollary for men, a genre of self-help books aimed at helping men cope with the stigma of their living-alone status? I asked Waehler, author of Bachelors, who told me, essentially, no. Though, as Waehler points out, the book market—and particularly the self-help book market—is known to be heavily driven by female consumers.

In a way, though, you could say it’s advice guides for men living alone, often published in magazines and online, that best uphold the legacy of Marjorie Hillis. Esquire, GQ, Men’s Journal, and Men’s Health, for example, all have well-stocked archives of guides to building and maintaining your own bachelor pad.

The Deadspin guy-self-help column Adequate Man ran a 2015 listicle feature titled “How to Live Alone,” with brisk, Hillis-esque chidings such as “Make your place interesting to look at,” “Make your home welcoming to visitors,” and “Get out of the damn house.” The first item on Deadspin’s list, though, is “Figure out if you’re the kind of person who can handle this,” framing independent living as a matter of choice, not happenstance.

Though women living alone are more common than ever, they still make people nervous. For starters, the high rate of live-aloners in America is emblematic of the delay and deprioritization of marriage—an alarming notion to many who consider the nuclear family unit foundational to the organization of society.

Women who build their own homes present a telling case study. A home designed for a woman to live in by herself is a rarity, and as architectural historian Alice T. Friedman writes in Design and Feminism, the very concept presents a challenge to the perceived natural order of things. “Houses designed for female heads of households, with and without children,” she writes, “demonstrate a radical shift away from the conventional domestic program and the values and power relations structuring that program: the separation of home and work; the focus on reproduction of the family and socialization of children.”

Often throughout the 20th century, when single female clients wanted to incorporate work space and private space in their homes, they found themselves “challenged by a [male] designer who [was] unwilling or incapable of responding to their needs as workers.”

Furthermore, male architects have been known to fail to recognize the specific privacy and safety needs of solo-living women. Mies van der Rohe’s “Farnsworth weekend house,” for example, was built (amid now-famous architect-client tensions) for Dr. Edith Farnsworth, a nephrologist, in 1951. It had glass walls and an open plan, which, Friedman writes, “rendered the client completely visible, particularly at night, where the rectangle of light glowed like a television set in the rural Illinois countryside, with the miniaturized figure of Edie Farnsworth inside.”

Still, as far as the quest for the single-woman dream house goes, there are certainly some historic success stories. The artist and art history professor Constance Perkins, for example, was adamant when she began working with the acclaimed architect Richard Neutra that her home in Pasadena would not have a bedroom. As Friedman explains, “She wanted to sleep next to her drawing board to be close to her creative work.” Neutra went for it, the bank did not; you couldn’t re-sell a house without a bedroom, the lenders argued.

As a compromise, her home ended up with one bedroom when it finished in 1955, a guest room in which Perkins never slept. But it also featured, upon her request, two desks (one for drafting, the other for administrative tasks), an ample amount of wall space where she could display her colleagues’ work, and low-hanging kitchen cabinets built to accommodate her small stature.

Today, women who live alone don’t necessarily need to rely on male architects; they can turn to other women for design help. Chiara de Rege only occasionally advises women on how to outfit places of their own; most of the solo-living spaces she gets commissioned to design are for men. But she finds there’s a philosophical difference between what the men and women she’s talked to want out of their apartments.

One client and friend, she recalls, bought a house of her own in Los Angeles, and instead of “harping on the height of the island or the mini fridge or the TV watching,” she says, “my friend was thinking about entertaining; thinking about the flow of her home, all these corners and nooks and moments.”

De Rege helped her friend create a library with a meditation nook, transform one spare bedroom into a dressing room, and add a few elements that brought the outdoor garden she loved into her home. “There was a lot of thought and detail,” de Rege says. “She was just wanting to make sure that she had really pretty places of repose, basically.”

And since de Rege’s friend likes to throw small dinner parties, they had many conversations about how to tailor her kitchen to her entertaining needs. (De Rege now serves as the lead interior designer for the various locations of the women’s club The Wing.)

When 44-year-old New York art writer Yumiko Sakuma moved into her own place six years ago, after the dissolution of a marriage and a turbulent long-term cohabitating relationship, it felt like a refuge.

Sakuma travels frequently and has a penchant for bringing home vintage art and artifacts she finds in shops and on the street. “I’m a hoarder,” she says with a laugh, “and I think that has always been a source of contention in relationships: my stuff.” After a few years of living alone, in an apartment with a second bedroom she repurposed into a walk-in closet (and perhaps more importantly, no neglected-feeling partner waiting for her), she “committed to being single.” “At this point I don’t know if I’m capable of living with somebody,” she says. “I’ll probably keep living alone as long as I can.”

Sakuma touches on an important aspect of the appeal of solo living for many women: the freedom from the extra labor, both emotional and physical, that comes from living with a partner or spouse. Historically, for women, one perk of living alone was the absence of a husband whose schedule would dictate her own.

She would be free to decide when (or whether) to do the laundry, when (or whether) to cook, and when (or whether) to clean, not to mention when, whether, and with whom to have sex. Even now, in a time when gender plays less of a role in deciding whose responsibilities are whose within a household and a relationship, a woman living alone has more freedom in deciding how to handle home maintenance than she might if she were sharing it—and only her own anxieties and stresses to cope with when the day is done.

And indeed, for those hoping women like Sakuma will “see the light and go home to marry Henry,” so to speak, the statistics don’t paint a promising picture. One often-cited 2004 Sociological Research study found evidence to suggest that living alone was not a temporary phase for most adults who do it: Once a person lives alone, the study found, they are more likely to continue to live in that arrangement than any other. Plus, the chances of continuing to live alone rose significantly with age.

Additionally, “once women were living alone in their 30s, they were more likely to continue to live alone than men.” (In recent years, research on the attitudes and outlooks of Americans living alone has been harder to come by than simple demographic information. Australian data from 2008, however, also showed that “The older a person is when they begin to live alone, the greater the chance is that they will still be living alone 10 years later.” But in these studies, it was women living alone over 40 who more often expected to still live alone five years down the line.) It’s not specified whether that’s due to women aging out of a certain marriage-desirability window, or simply declining to start sharing space or resources after having not had to.

Other anxieties about women’s solo-living arrangements are rooted in concern for women’s safety and security. Google “tips for living alone as a man” and you’ll find a multitude of guides and forum pages where men share and compare “life hacks” designed to make eating and cleaning more efficient endeavors; Google “tips for living alone as a woman,” by comparison, and you’ll find pages and pages full of ways to bolster your home security systems as well as sponsored links from self-defense classes and locksmiths.

Which, to be fair, is not entirely unfounded. Women living alone have historically been favorite targets of thieves and violent criminals (though thanks to the popularity of shows like BBC Two’s The Fall, about a sexy serial killer who seduces women and then preys on them, the threat probably looms larger in the public imagination than it should).

Kasia Somerlik, 27, lived with her parents for a few years to save up for a down payment on a condo in Seattle, and when she did, her mother slept over the night she moved in. “My mom was a little nervous,” she recalls. Somerlik’s mom got used to the idea, though, once she spent some time scoping out the situation for herself. “My building is pretty secure,” she says, “and I have great neighbors. So that eased her anxiety.”

And while many young people find living alone to be empowering and educational, some worry, justly, that the dark side of solo living will emerge as live-aloners get older and less mobile. In the United Kingdom, for example, where a “loneliness epidemic” has inspired the appointment of a Minister for Loneliness within Parliament, living alone has been identified as a leading cause of loneliness.

Studies have linked living alone, especially among the elderly, to the kind of social isolation that can cause heart disease, reduced immunity, poor sleep, and inflammation. (When Sakuma broke her leg while living in a third-floor walkup in Brooklyn, however, she discovered the opposite was true for her: “All my girlfriends showed up at my door, so ready to take care of me,” she says. Her landlady called and burst into tears, so relieved was she that Sakuma “wasn’t dead.” “I was like, wow, I do have a good support system,” she remembers.)

Still, in 2018, a home of one’s own is a more alluring prospect to many women than the literature or chatter around the subject might suggest. Ann Murray, a 29-year-old product marketer for Amazon, lived alone for a year in Washington, D.C., after her first post-college roommate moved in with her boyfriend. When she told her friends she was moving into her own place, “Most of them were jealous,” she laughs.

Murray had been curious for some time about living alone, and when it came time for her to decide, well, she was single. “If you end up settling down with a long-term partner, then you’re going to presumably live with that person for the whole rest of your life,” she says. “So it was kind of like, ‘Now is the time it makes sense to do this.’”

She now lives alone again in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood, where, she says, “almost all of my female friends live alone.”

For Murray, the great promise of a place of her own was the solitude it afforded. “I’m a pretty independent, sometimes a little bit of a private person,” she says. “I like to just come home, throw down all my stuff, and do my thing, with nobody else that I have to make small talk with.”

For Somerlik, similarly, a home of her own offers a rejuvenating private space she didn’t have before. Though Somerlik, a flight attendant, has a handful of close friends who live in her neighborhood, “With my job it’s nice to have a place where I don’t have to talk to a single person,” she says. “I make small talk with hundreds of people when I fly, so it’s nice to be completely alone when I come home.”

Somerlik fondly remembers getting to paint the various rooms of her condo purple, gray, and pink. Murray, too, relished having a space in which she didn’t have to make compromises. “I really loved having the sense of, ‘This is my own space. I control everything about it. I can kind of start turning it into my little sanctuary, my little home.’”

Chiara de Rege, too, uses the word “sanctuary” to describe the apartments she’s helped furnish. Her friend’s home, she remembers, “needed to be her sanctuary.”

By a dictionary’s definition, a sanctuary can be a place of refuge, a protected natural habitat, or a holy place, and it’s not hard to imagine why women who live alone in 2018 might compare a space of their own to any one of the three. Maybe the feminine counterpart to the bachelor pad, then, is the singleton sanctuary. Or, perhaps more radically, the spinster sanctuary.

Ashley Fetters is a writer living in New York.

Editor: Sara Polsky