In today’s hyper-social world, many of us have mixed feelings about being alone. On the one hand, overwhelmed by deadlines and demands, it’s not uncommon to yearn for more solitude. Yet on the flip side, in these unprecedented times of wars and pandemics, we crave human connection more than ever.
It’s a contradiction that two years of lockdown has parodied on a global scale. With the effects of cabin fever hitting home, parents the world over felt crowded out during Covid – and couples living together also felt the pressure, as break-ups and divorces surged. Meanwhile, while some people embraced the newfound freedom of time alone, still more suffered, and – regardless of whether they were physically alone or not – we saw a major surge in loneliness.
Having come through the tumult together, it’s evident we need a better understanding of what it means to be joyfully alone – a notion that Francesca Specter (above), podcast host and author of Alonement, has been exploring for some years now.
Within her mission to understand what it means “to spend time, comfortably, within oneself”, Francesca is involved in an ongoing conversation around the delights, and challenges, of “alonement” – a term she has coined for the art of being alone. One aspect of alonement is something that Francesca refers to as being “alone, together”.
Freedom versus comfort
The concept of “alone, together” is something Francesca first mooted to her community in January, tweeting: “Don’t get me wrong, I love living alone – but sometimes I really crave being ‘alone together’ with a friend or partner e.g. watching a film/reading/cooking in comfortable silence. Anyone else?”
The message struck a chord, as dozens of people replied sharing their need to be “alone, together”; whether because, like Francesca, they lived alone, or they missed their work families; or they lacked the company of adults while looking after kids.
“I think there’s something very comforting about that ‘alone together’ feeling when someone is physically present but not interacting with you,” Francesca tells Flash Pack. “It’s almost the ultimate acceptance knowing that you can be with someone and they don’t demand anything from you.”
I love living alone – but sometimes I really crave being ‘alone together’
As Francesca points out, we tend to conflate the idea of being alone with loneliness, and also with being single. Whereas the reality is, plenty of us feel lonely in relationships, or when surrounded by other people; while others will feel at their best after some alone time.
The challenge then, says Francesca, is to “pay attention to what makes you feel energised” at any given moment, in order that you can strike that balance between alone time and time spent with other people – a balance that is constantly shifting.
Reinvesting in alone time
The first part of this challenge is to examine what it feels like to spend time alone; a notion that, in today’s crowded, 24/7 climate, we’re conditioned to be wary of. “It’s almost like we need to undergo this process of recalibration when it comes to being alone,” says Francesca. “I’ve noticed in the past few years that there’s lots of mental health slogans saying things like, ‘you’re not alone’.
“And of course, it’s a really important sentiment. But the counter to that position, and something that isn’t often expressed, is that actually it can be healthy to spend physical time alone.”
In a work culture that prides itself on teamwork, and an online landscape where social networks reign supreme, the idea of being mindfully alone has somehow lost its sway. “It’s really common to be scared of being alone; we avoid it, because we’re afraid of what we might find,” explains Francesca. “I was the same a few years ago. But when I finally learnt the skill of solitude – that capacity to have a meal by myself, or be a tourist in my own city – I found I really enjoyed it. In fact, it became a large part of me being able to live a meaningful life that’s true to who I am.”
We need to be more ambitious about what our relationships can offer us
Part of this transformation is about grasping how we need alone time regardless of relationship status. Having spent several years in a co-dependent relationship herself, Francesca is now happily single. But she also thinks that, moving forwards, we all need to be “more ambitious about our relationships, and what they can offer us”.
Key to this is the recognising that being alone doesn’t invalidate a romantic relationship; indeed the healthiest union will involve *not* compromising on what you, as individuals, want to do and achieve by yourself.
Finding the balance
Clearly, then, “alone, together” – like alonement itself – is something that can be enjoyed regardless of relationship status. We are all “constantly navigating” our need for solitude versus social ties, says Francesca. And this involves pushing back against false narratives that say “it’s not OK to spend time apart from your partner”, or “if you’re alone, you must be lonely”.
Of course, loneliness is a thing; it exists, and we all feel it from time to time. “Even last night, after a fairly quiet week, the one social plan I had got cancelled at the last minute,” Francesca recalls. “That put me off-kilter. In the end, I had a really good night – I went home, cooked myself some pasta, had a glass of wine and watched Being the Ricardos, which I’ve been wanting to watch for ages. But it did take me a little bit of time, and that’s the kind of barrier to alonement we might all struggle with.”
The rise of co-living
Against this backdrop, it’s perhaps not surprising that a wave of co-living options – including co-working and co-travelling – is now on the rise. The ability to join together with others as and when we choose is a valuable resource as we seek more autonomy in our day-to-day lives.
“It’s important to be able to nurture your social self; and you can do that pretty well with incidental contact – being around people, even if you’re not actively interacting,” says Francesca. “Sometimes having a chat with someone in a coffee shop, or at a co-working space, can really fuel you.
“In my mind, it’s so great to have like-minded people who share an independent lifestyle and who have similar values to you,” she goes on. “Sometimes, this might be about pre-existing friendships. I gained three close friends over the past year, and with one in particular, we’ve reached this sibling space where we can just be together and hang out without having any particular purpose in mind.”
It’s so great to have like-minded people who share your values
Equally, co-travelling and group travel with strangers can whet your appetite for that elusive balance between alone and social time. “I think group travel is this brilliant halfway house option,” says Francesca. “You can avoid barriers like the single supplement, or the logistical details of planning a trip by yourself. Yet you also have inbuilt socialising, with lots of free time. So it creates that balance.”
From this, it’s possible to envisage a future where we don’t define ourselves primarily as single, or otherwise. Whether you’re living alone or in a couple, working solo or travelling in a group, being “alone, together” may be *the* relationship status for a post-Covid era. No matter where life takes you, this could be the standard to aim for, for lasting freedom, friendship and a watertight sense of self.
Francesca Specter is host of the podcast Alonement – all about the positive side of spending time alone.
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