On My Own: The Art of Being a Woman Alone


At some point over the course of the average American woman’s life, she will find herself alone, whether she is divorced, widowed, single, or in a loveless, isolating relationship. And when that time comes, it is likely that she will be at a loss as to how to handle it. As a society, we have an unspoken but omnipresent belief that a woman alone is an outcast, inherently flawed in some way. In this invigorating, supportive book, psychotherapist Florence Falk aims to take the fear, doubt, confusion, and ...
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At some point over the course of the average American woman’s life, she will find herself alone, whether she is divorced, widowed, single, or in a loveless, isolating relationship. And when that time comes, it is likely that she will be at a loss as to how to handle it. As a society, we have an unspoken but omnipresent belief that a woman alone is an outcast, inherently flawed in some way. In this invigorating, supportive book, psychotherapist Florence Falk aims to take the fear, doubt, confusion, and helplessness out of being a woman alone. Falk invites all women to find their own paths toward an authentic selfhood, to discover the pleasures and riches of solitude, and to reconnect with others through a newfound sense of self-confidence.

Like so many women before her, Florence Falk found herself divorced, alone, and unsure of herself. Soon she realized that by embracing her solitude for what it was—a potentially enriching and life-altering experience—she could turn what once would have felt like “loneliness” into a far more positive and empowered “aloneness.” Falk notes that each of us has two opposing drives: one causes us to yearn to make close connections with others, and the other pulls us back into ourselves, into the need for selfhood and certainty that can only be shaped through solitude. In order to be whole, she says, we must heed both of those impulses. But in our modern culture, the former is stressed while the latter is neglected, even vilified. On My Own boldly shifts that paradigm.

With inspiring, intimate stories of women from all backgrounds, Falk illuminates the essential role that being alone plays in women’s lives. Whether she is in a stable relationship or on her own, every woman must learn to be by herself; for if she can be fully free, unfettered by society’s stigmas about being alone, life and all its possibilities will open up for her. And as Falk demonstrates, once a woman has discovered the richness of solitude, she is not likely to give it up so easily.

From the Hardcover edition.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“Florence Falk’s On My Own is a provocative, smart read for any woman who is alone, wants to be alone, or is figuring out how to be alone. An empowering, emotionally honest book that is long overdue.”
—Amy Sohn, author of Run Catch Kiss and My Old Man

“In On My Own Florence Falk bravely and soulfully invites women to reimagine aloneness—to see it as a gift rather than a failure. Her book is a call to wholeness, independence, and empowerment.”
—Eve Ensler, author of The Vagina Monologues

“Finally, an insightful and powerful book that guides us towards inner freedom that is possible when we befriend aloneness. This is for all women, single or not: The stories and practical guidance offered in this book teach us about living and loving fully.”
—Tara Brach, Buddhist teacher and author of
Radical Acceptance: Embracing Your Life with the Heart of a Buddha

From the Hardcover edition.

Publishers Weekly

After two divorces and more than two decades as a psychoanalyst, Falk is an expert on the concept of being a woman alone—a term she prefers because "as a distinct category within women's culture, it formally elevates our presence and status, helps us to achieve visibility and expression, and allows us to redress our marginalized state." Hyperbole aside, there's no denying that to embrace being a woman alone isn't easy in a society where "bachelors are always eligible," while " 'spinsters,' almost by definition, are ready for the dumpster." But as Falk makes clear in this useful and appealing manual, it's inaccurate, unfair and unhealthy to equate being alone with being unwanted or a failure. Some may cringe at her flowery language, but she offers plenty of evidence for her central thesis that "aloneness is an opportunity, a state brimming with potentiality, with resources for renewed life." Drawing from her own experiences, those of her patients, and examples from such writers as Marion Milner and cultural figures like Kitty Carlisle Hart, Falk offers plenty of material to help even women with partners to understand the distinction between being abandoned and choosing to be alone, and to appreciate the healing and nurturing benefits of solitude. (Mar.)

Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Many women fear being alone. Society not only often marginalizes women who are unattached, divorced, or unmarried, but women are also subtlety socialized to compare and define themselves in relation to others. Psychotherapist Falk discusses different types of aloneness and the role aloneness plays in women's psychological development from childhood to old age. Using examples from literature, popular culture, and her own practice, she shows how time alone can be positive and provides creative space for learning about oneself and for clarifying needs, desires, and goals. More a reflective psychological study than a guide for making changes, this book may test the patience of the self-help crowd. It's often wordy and lost the interest of this reviewer. Recommended for women's studies and self-help collections where needed.
—Lucille Boone
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781400098118
  • Publisher: Clarkson Potter/Ten Speed/Harmony
  • Publication date: 3/25/2008
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 304
  • Sales rank: 355,899
  • Product dimensions: 5.19 (w) x 8.00 (h) x 0.64 (d)

Meet the Author

Florence Falk has been a psychotherapist in private practice for the past twenty years. She has given lectures and workshops throughout the country.

From the Hardcover edition.

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

If I Am a Woman Alone, Who Am I?

It's January and breath-stopping cold, the kind of weather Lisa's Nordic blood thrives on. But today the tonic isn't working. Instead of her usual robust glow, Lisa looks wilted and solitary, as if she had rushed to get to a party only to find it was over. And in a way, this is true.

Four years after meeting at the hip downtown cabaret Joe's Pub and falling instantly in love, Lisa and Sam agreed to separate. The decision seemed to happen of its own accord, oozing out of their apathy like the insides of an egg from a cracked shell, and they were too battle-fatigued to bother cleaning up the mess.

Lisa used to say that in meeting Sam she had come as close as she could imagine to finding the right person for herself. Sam was a freelance journalist. Lisa thought he was the smartest, most exciting man she had ever met. "I fell in love not only with his mind but with his sexy bearishness--even his chipped tooth turned me on." She loved that he was left-handed and had a husky voice, the way he howled when they made love, how his body smelled. She marveled at his boundless energy, unfettered imagination, and a steady-handed discipline that allowed him to read an entire book or draft an article in one sitting. Above all, she loved that they were not only lovers but each other's "closest friend," often acting less like adults than five-year-olds, playing together in their own hermetic world, as if the one outside had ceased to exist.

A whole year had passed like that. Then slowly, subtly at first, things began to change. Was she imagining it, or was Sam becoming distant? He seemed less emotionally available. For the first time since they had been together, Lisa felt an empty space inside. She would have given anything to melt the distance between them. As time passed, the empty feeling came and went. When Sam was his lovable self, Lisa's world righted itself and she felt full again. But as soon as he seemed the least bit preoccupied or restless, she began to ache with disappointment and need.

Both Lisa and Sam had prided themselves on their independent spirits. They had even promised each other not to talk about their future. The problem was that despite herself, Lisa wanted more. She was surprised and disturbed by the feelings of longing Sam summoned up in her--feelings she didn't even know were there. But whenever she hinted at "longer-term possibilities," her cautious euphemism for marriage, Sam blocked her. "We're doing great," he'd say reassuringly. "Let's just see what happens." His resistance unsettled Lisa and made her doubt herself; in earlier relationships, she had always felt in control.

Lisa began to resent the very qualities that drew her to Sam. His writing seemed to take up more and more of their private time, and she convinced herself that Sam was using his deadlines as an excuse to "disappear." At first, Sam tried to smooth away Lisa's concerns, but as time went on, his anger flared. "Stop worrying about my work," he'd snap, "and worry about your own."

Before long, light kisses on the check replaced lingering kisses on the lips. Lisa complained that they hardly ever made love anymore. She and Sam began to argue all the time, hurling insults and accusations back and forth: his "need to be the center of attention"; her "crazy temper"; his insistence on always being "right"; her "godawful prying"; his "sadistic putdowns--especially in front of my friends"; her laziness. Fights that had once ended in renewed vows of love and bouts of passionate sex now drained all their energy.

But when Sam finally told Lisa he needed his own place, she was heartsick and filled with dread. For the first time since they'd been together, she let her mind stray to the one thought she had scrupulously avoided until now--being alone.

On the day Sam moved out, Lisa sat on the couch in stunned disbelief while he padded from bedroom to study to bathroom, sorting through clothes, books, CDs, even bottles of shampoo and vitamins, separating out his stuff from hers. When he was finished packing, Sam walked over to her. "Be good to yourself, darling Lisa," he said, planting a kiss on her brow. "No matter what, this has been a great adventure for both of us." The ease with which he had already seemed to slip back into his own life and away from theirs infuriated Lisa. She both marveled at and was enraged by his composure. "Just leave me the keys, you arrogant bastard," she shot back. With a sigh, Sam set them down beside her. Car service rang up a few minutes later, and he let himself out the door.

Feeling too drained to move, Lisa curled up on the couch and fell asleep. When she woke up, it was already dark. She had to pee badly, and her arm ached from lying on it, but she couldn't bring herself to move until a cramped foot forced her to sit up. Her body felt sluggish and weak, and she could barely lift her feet. The phone rang. Hearing her friend Katherine leave a message, she didn't bother to pick up. It was Sam's voice she was waiting for.

That night, Lisa couldn't bring herself to sleep in their bed, so she brought her pillow and comforter back to the couch and stayed there, zoning out on old movies. She slept on the couch the next night, too, and the next. With Sam gone, she found herself listening to the silence. It's odd, she thought. I've been by myself a thousand times when Sam was out. Only now it's different. Before, I was alone, but not really. I was waiting for him. Now I'm not waiting for anyone. She started to sob, and finally the pain and hurt came pouring out. She felt frightened and confused. This didn't seem real, but of course it was. He was gone and he wouldn't be coming back.

LISA IS A set designer who first came to see me when her "honeymoon" with Sam was over, and she was struggling to understand how a relationship so magical, so light and luminous, could have begun to collect the dust of ordinary existence. She wanted to be wanted again. She wanted Sam to feel her longing and respond to her longing with his own. In her heart of hearts, she wanted to hold on to the rosy candlelight glow of romance, rather than have to deal with the bright, sometimes glaring day-to-day life with another person. And who could blame her? To be spun off earth and float above it for a while is exhilarating. But real love must take root in the soil of reality; otherwise, it can't last or modulate into deeper form. Lisa and Sam's relationship didn't have such durability.

Still, for Lisa--and almost every woman I know--the problem is the hard landing that occurs when a relationship ends and she falls backward into the shaming belief that somehow she is to blame.

Today, the woman who sits across from me still feels too bruised to try to pick herself up. "It feels like there's something terribly wrong with me. I don't even understand why I feel so bad." Lisa speaks more slowly than usual, and in her eyes I see a threading of loss and bewilderment. "I think I knew for a long time that this day would come, but I didn't dare let myself think about it. I guess I swept it under the proverbial rug." She is silent while she struggles to make sense of her feelings. "It's not that I want to be with Sam. I mean, I do," she corrects, "but only if it could be the way it used to be, and I know it can't. It's just that . . ."

"Just that what?" I ask.

Lisa is staring at the floor. "That I'm alone, completely alone, and it's terrifying." She pauses for a moment, then looks at me helplessly. "I don't know how to be a woman alone."

I AM STRUCK by the intensity of Lisa's feeling--as if she had just described the greatest calamity that could befall a woman. What Lisa didn't know--at least not then--was that she was articulating the same fear, doubt, confusion, and sense of helplessness numbers of women feel at all stages of life when they must learn for themselves what aloneness is and what it is like to be a woman alone.

"I keep telling myself it won't be so awful after all, this living alone." Lisa sighs and straightens her shoulders. "All the same, I'm not sure I can do it. I'm really not." Yet, before she met Sam, Lisa was alone; she had a budding career, plenty of lovers and would-be lovers, good friends, and a lively curiosity about life. Her life. I remind her that she more than once described herself as "comfortable in my own shoes" before Sam came along. "Yes, but there were always other men around," she protests. "I never had to worry about what it would be like without one."

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. Striking a vein of black humor, Lisa wonders if she is like Typhoid Mary, carrying some unmentionable flaw that sends men fleeing and might be contagious. Without Sam, Lisa's self-esteem has plummeted. She no longer knows who she is or what she wants. She struggles against two bullying emotions: shame for being a woman alone, and fear that she will remain one. She cannot, no matter what her rational mind tells her, shake the belief that a woman alone is statusless: an outcast.

Although this fantasy sounds exaggerated, some version of it hovers in the imagination of most women--whether partnered or alone. Indeed, the famous scarlet letter A that once stood for Adultery might now be said to stand for Alone. How is it that even the most seemingly self-assured woman falls prey to feelings of inadequacy if she is not with a man? And where do her feelings of neediness and dependency arise from?

Lisa exemplifies a paradox that besets many women today who continue to live an "as if" story. A modern woman may be the very model of independence with respect to her worldly accomplishments-- education, career status, and the ability to earn a decent living--but this is only half the story. The other half, which is often hidden, is her fear of aloneness. To be alone, after all, is a breeding ground for thought. And if we are confused or unsure of ourselves, that stubborn weed inadequacy takes over the garden. Nowhere is this more apparent than when a woman enters a relationship. For no sooner does she feel an attraction to the other person than she begins to doubt herself. Suppose he thinks she is boring or a bad lover? That her legs are too short or her breasts too small? That she is not smart or witty enough? Spirited away by self-deprecation, she has already fallen out of relationship to herself. But her real fear--the hidden determinant that makes her needy and dependent--is her fear of being alone.

To say this burden is too heavy for a woman to bear is a gross understatement. And yet the fear of aloneness is enough to keep us in tow, often lagging behind our own desire for independence--despite the fact that we have been graced by the women's movement with a cornucopia of opportunities. Underneath, women are still terrified of standing on their own. Despite the tremendous gains of the last four decades in women's freedoms, too many of us still carry the baggage of women's long social and cultural history of being treated as second-class citizens and social rejects unless we are under the protection of a man.

I am often struck by the number of married women in my practice who are convinced that if they went out on their own, they would fail. That the thought of becoming a "bag lady"--or, in one woman's conjuring, "a Xerox lady feeding pages into a machine forever because that's all I'm good for"--can still provoke such dread indicates the pervasiveness of this fear in our age-and-status-phobic culture. Given the facts that more than a quarter of all single women over eighteen (13.5 percent) live below the poverty line, that 26.5 percent of single female-headed families live below the poverty line, that four times as many divorced women with children fall under the poverty line than married women with children, and that 19.6 percent of women alone over 65 live below the poverty line, the fear-based fantasies of these women unfortunately also have deep roots in reality. But the fear these women express is only partly about survival. They are also wrestling with deeply ingrained fantasies about what it means to be without the protection of a man.

From the beginning of recorded history, as Simone de Beauvoir reminded us in The Second Sex, woman has been defined exclusively in relation to man. As de Beauvoir explains it, man, caught between fear and desire, has deified and debased, adored and despised, woman, simply because she is "Other." In a primal, negative sense, woman, viewed by man as object, begins to see herself through his eyes. Fear of losing or never attaining social status leads her to gauge her desires according to his standards of measurement. Instead of asking Who am I? she asks, Who does he want me to be? Instead of pondering What do I want for myself? she asks, What does he want from me? No wonder, then, that aloneness is so terrifying to a woman. She regards it not as a state of potential liberty--what de Beauvoir called "sovereign solitude"--but of alienation, not realizing that the person she is most alienated from is herself.

For most women, being a woman alone is virtually a euphemism for being flawed--not with a modest flaw, mind you, some relatively superficial and fixable feature like a crooked tooth or poor eyesight, but inherently flawed, defective at the core. "To me being alone is--wow--what a loser!" says Martha, a writer in her mid-twenties who published a first novel based on her romantic relationships with men. "It means that, at bottom, you're not wanted. Because if you were wanted, you'd never have to be alone." Martha bounces from relationship to relationship, and, in real life, as in her novel, needs to be in control of everyone. Falling in love is how she escapes the aloneness she so fears. Her infatuations are short-lived, however, for as soon as she is sure the man adores her, her enthusiasm wanes and she starts planning her exit strategy

From the Hardcover edition.

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Table of Contents

The Many Faces of Aloneness     1
If I Am a Woman Alone, Who Am I?     3
What Is Aloneness?     21
Shame-in-Hiding: A Woman's Cultural Heritage     40
On Shifting Ground     63
The Awakening: Childhood     65
The Hall of Mirrors: Adolescence and Young Adulthood     96
Self-Possession     137
Befriending Aloneness     139
Stepping Out     161
Reaping the Harvest: Solitude, the Sacred, and the Rediscovery of the Self     201
Aloneness and Relationship     220
Notes     249
Select Bibliography and Recommended Reading     262
Resources     265
Acknowledgments     284
Reading Group Guide     286
Index     290
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Reading Group Guide

1. The book opens with this short quotation from Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s Gift from the Sea: “Woman must come of age by herself. This is the essence of ‘coming of age’—to learn how to stand alone.” How does this quote express the book’s intended purpose? Was this the author’s personal experience? How does it correspond to your own? Would you agree that aloneness is an interior state as well as an external condition?

2. The author suggests that the book’s subject matter concerns all women, inasmuch as all women inevitably find themselves alone, not once but many times during our lives. Does this strike you as true? If so, can you point to any moment in your own life where, by default, choice, or necessity you found yourself alone? Did you feel prepared for the experience? If so, how? If not, what held you back?

3. Do you think the book’s subject matter is as important for married women as singles? Why or why not?

4. Chapter 1 begins with Lisa’s story and this question: “If I am a woman alone, who am I?” How does it resonate for you? How do you feel about Lisa’s distress after her breakup with Sam? Do you think the experience was a turning point in her life? What did it teach her?

5. “We often mistake aloneness and loneliness for each other, but they are not the same.” How do they differ? Discuss the author’s point that the issue for women is not that we will never feel lonely—considering that some degree of loneliness exists in all our lives—but how aloneness makes us feel about ourselves.

6. Do you agree that we need to “befriend” aloneness? If so, what difference do you think accepting aloneness would make in your life?

7. “For each of us in different ways, aloneness is the portal we enter to find our way into solitude and to the harvesting of the self.” What does this statement mean to you? Do you agree that stable relationships with others—partners, parents, children, or friends—are based on the solid foundation of a secure self? How does harnessing solitude help us to establish this goal?

8. “Women in our culture breathe in shame like oxygen and don’t even know it.” Consider whether this statement applies to you. If so, in what ways? Do you agree that despite having more social opportunities and independence than ever before, we still feel guilty nurturing ourselves? How might you begin to change this?

9. How do cultural messages women receive aggravate our sense of shame, fear, and inadequacy? Do you think these messages play into our fears about being women alone? How do our negative feelings keep us from forging a strong sense of self? Do you think the media has had a debilitating effect on women’s self-esteem? If so, how can we stay more alert to negative messages in future?

10. Discuss some of the differences between the cultural messages women and men receive. How does the spinster vs. bachelor dichotomy help clarify some of the differences?

11. Discuss a moment in your childhood or adolescence when “you first knew you’re you” and no one else. Consider how your childhood and/or adolescent experiences made you aware that you had to protect your “private self.” Do you remember feeling inside or outside a “magic circle”? What was that like for you? How might being a woman alone bring up some of the same kind of feelings?

12. Consider the secret garden as metaphor for a place of solitude in which to begin growing our private self. Do you remember your own secret garden? As an adult, do you feel you’ve lost touch with the solitude it provided? Discuss ways to retrieve it for yourself.

13. What does the author mean by the “art” of being a woman alone? Can you think of ways in which harnessing solitude might help you to find your own path to selfhood. Why does the author use the terms “active” or “creative” solitude? How would practicing active solitude help you?

14. The process of transitioning into aloneness begins with acceptance. Discuss some of the obstacles a woman faces that can interferewith that process. What does it mean to “start where you are”? How would faith and patience help you “revision” your story? What would “stepping out” mean for you?

15. The last chapter explores the relationship between aloneness and relationship. It suggests that rather than seek “rescue” by another person, we learn to accept aloneness. How can harnessing solitude to hear our own “voice” enhance our relationships with friends, partners, family, and the community at large—or, as the author says, from being alone to all one?

16. Describe some of the benefits that await a woman—with or without a partner—who has learned how to be on her own. Do you think the stories in the book help clarify the value of being on one’s own? If so, which ones were helpful to you? How might you help other women alone achieve some of the same benefits?

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 26, 2008

    All about finding your center

    I will be purchasing many copies of this book to give to the women in my life. Some of the women are married, some are divorced 'or about to be', one is my niece who is not yet an adult. All of them, like me, spend a majority of their time as caretakers. As women, even now, we devote ourselves to others: husbands, children, parents... and I think this book is necessary reading for us. Many of the women I know are alone, in their marriages, in their lives and I think most of us have absorbed 'through society's paradigm' that there is something wrong with us because of it. Here is my question to you: Why is it that it is okay for men to be alone but not women? If a man retreats from society or is unmarried then he is contemplative, thoughtful, bachelor 'bachelor pad is never a dirty phrase'. But a woman doing the same thing is: a spinster, to be pitied, damaged, unwanted. Women need to reclaim our contemplation and I think this is a great book to start your journey. I will be rereading it, passing it to friends, gifting them with it, sharing it with my daughter. It is a good paradigm shifter. I have been reading a lot of the current dalai lama's writing and I think this fits in. This is a thoughtful analysis of our place as women in our own space written in our own voice. It is good for every woman to read. It is about finding your center.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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