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Living Alone In The Era Of Social Distancing

Do couples even know how quiet it’s getting?

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Woman sitting alone on her back porch surrounded by nature
Trinette Reed/Stocksy
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“I love your mask!”

I’m not sure what was weirder about this overheard exchange at the pharmacy: the fact that we’re now complimenting each other on the adorableness of our surgical-grade face masks, or that this was the only human contact I’d had for days. My friend Natasha understands — her only recent human sightings have been of essential employees, too. Like me, Natasha is living alone in the era of social distancing.

“It’s definitely been weird,” she said in a recent phone conversation.

In the spirit of full disclosure, I do have a significant other who visits me periodically (we never interact with anyone else). When I mention some mild finger-pointing I have encountered from married Facebook friends about these visits, Natasha, who is single by choice, dismisses this with a laugh. Cohabitators don’t quite understand. From inside their lively, sometimes chaotic homes, they may not have even noticed the dystopian silence on the streets outside.

“During the day, I’m usually not aware of it; when I’m at work, I’m in my office and I tend not to see that many people anyway,” Natasha said. “At the end of the day, though, I notice how quiet it gets outside now. It’s completely silent.” Natasha is not a lonely person. She has a good job, possesses a wide circle of friends, and is a double threat of musical and artistic talent. She volunteers for an animal shelter. She doesn’t need a relationship to make her life complete.

Yet even for the most autonomous of us, being on indefinite lockdown and seeing no humans except for the occasional masked stranger is surreal, to say the least.

“I think it’s because it’s involuntary,” she said. “Even though I’m independent and used to living alone, I’m realizing that suddenly, it’s not up to me when I get to see other people. That’s the part that’s kind of frightening.”

To a large extent, it is this lack of choice that is most disorienting to singles adhering to social distancing, according to Bella DePaulo, PhD, a social scientist and author of Singled Out: How Singles Are Stereotyped, Stigmatized and Ignored, and Still Live Happily Ever After.

“The time alone is imposed, rather than chosen,” DePaulo said. “People like to have a choice about how they are living, and single people — perhaps especially single people who are single at heart — value their freedom and autonomy even more than other people do.”

DePaolo, whose TEDx talk, “What no one ever told you about people who are single,” has had more than a million views, has studied single people for more than two decades. She said a single person’s feelings about social distancing will likely correspond to how they feel about their single status.

“What social distancing requirements mean for people who are single, especially those who live alone, will depend very much on how those individual single people feel about being single,” she said. “So many people seem to assume that if you are single and living alone, the social distancing rules must be devastating. They imagine a landscape of single people huddled in their apartments, desperately miserable and lonely.”

Desperately miserable and lonely, no. A bit weirded out and off-kilter, yes. Then again, who isn’t? My married friends certainly are weirded out and off-kilter, too. And as DePaolo pointed out, being stuck at home with the wrong person can be worse than being alone.

“Lots of people who are coupled are now pulling their hair out, stuck inside with someone who is not the knight or princess they imagined,” she said.

Of course, everyone seems to be grappling with some unpleasantness during this pandemic. And as we wait for things to return to “normal,” whatever that even is, we can find ways to step out of the mundane, and maybe reconnect with the profound.

Natasha already seems to be doing this. I tell her I like the music I can hear in the background as we talk.“It’s Miles Davis,” she said. “I’ve been listening to a lot of music lately, more than ever before. It's been great.”

DePaolo said solitude can provide us with a meaningful opportunity, if we’re open to it.

“I know we’ve all seen the tips about how we can use this time to do those projects we always meant to get to, or organize our stuff, or just watch Netflix guiltlessly for hours on end — and all that is fine,” she said. “But solitude is also an invitation to step away from the ordinary preoccupations and distractions of everyday life and think about what really matters to you.”