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.