Living alone after divorce can feel like liberation. But trust me, it turns into aching loneliness
07:31 GMT, 5 July 2012
Like a pit pony breathing fresh air for the first time after years underground — that’s how I felt when I started living alone after 20 years of marriage and bringing up two sons.
It was 1987. My husband Neville and I had separated and my sons Tom, 18, and Will, 19, had gone to university, all at the same time.
The sensible solution was to downsize from our beautiful Georgian house by the river in Richmond, Surrey, to a three-bedroom flat in fashionable Notting Hill, West London.
Empty nest syndrome can be worse for divorced parents
The sensation as I fled the former marital home and opened the door of my very own flat, chosen and bought all by myself, was a mixture of relief and fear.
There were immediate bonuses — no longer were there piles of enormous boots and smelly trainers in the hall and no messy shaving gear in the bathroom.
It was a joy that the toilet seat was never left up and the toothpaste was always just where I left it — and with the lid on.
And I certainly didn’t miss the laundry basket overflowing with dirty jeans and stinky socks or the loud music played by hulking teenagers lolling on sofas.
But fast forward 25 years, and at the age of 68 I am still on my own, living in a large Victorian flat in Oxford. And I have to admit that my attitude to living alone has changed.
While the heady excitement I felt on my first day of moving into my first solo home lasted several years, my days are now often intensely lonely. I can spend whole weekends on my own without seeing a soul.
As you get older, the novelty of being alone can wear off. According to the latest statistics, I am far from alone in my aloneness — one in three people are living alone. Most single dwellers are middle-aged adults aged between 34 and 64 — the vast majority of them women.
It strikes me that this represents a huge sociological change. Before 1950, hardly anyone, male or female, lived alone. Those who did were widely considered misfits, misers, freaks or oddballs. They were shunned by polite society.
After World War II, things began to change when the bedsitter was invented for soldiers returning from conflict and without a home to go to.
People living alone are 80 per cent
more likely to be depressed than
those who cohabit
Then in the Sixties, what were known as ‘bachelor flats’ or studios began to be built, aimed at single occupancy. They heralded a social shift that has continued to grow ever since.
I took my first faltering steps into singlehood in my mid-40s — like many women of my generation, I had never lived alone before.
I’d left my family home to go to university at the age of 18, shared student flats with friends and then got married on graduation at the age of 21.
Of course, there was sadness at the end of my marriage as well as the bliss of unfettered freedom. My split with Neville was amicable in that no one else was involved but, over the years, we had become different people and no longer wanted the same things out of life.
Once I got back on my feet, I celebrated my newly single status by having the flat decorated the way I wanted: frilly and feminine, in pastel shades and with pale carpets.
The drawback was having to tackle traditionally male chores for the first time. I had to manage the mortgage, the car, the credit card payments and DIY as best I could. There was no one to turn to for a bailout if my finances went awry.
Worse, if the ceiling fell down or the basement flooded — which had happened in the family home — I would have to cope by myself. Gradually, though, my confidence increased and I discovered there was nothing to most of the tasks I had dreaded.
It was a proud moment when I bought a new car, without any male advice or input. And I found I felt in such a good temper all the time; there was no one to argue with, no one to mess things up, no clutter to clear away and no grime to clean.
I found that I had created a serene environment for myself, and this would have been impossible in a shared home.
As a freelance journalist and author, I worked from home, so valued the quietness.
Many of my female friends were getting divorced at the same time — in 1988, it seemed there was an exodus from marriage — and we went on wonderful adventure holidays together, trekking in the Himalayas and even going on camel safaris.
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Few of my women friends were keen to remarry; they were enjoying life too much on their own. Like me, most had rushed into wedlock in their early 20s and thus had never known what it was like to simply please themselves.
We were belatedly, in middle age, doing the things that are standard for today’s young women: exploring the world and savouring our hard-won independence.
At that point, I was never lonely, and I enjoyed inviting friends into my own domain.
There were just so many pluses, I discovered, to this single living lark.
I felt so proud of myself for having the courage to break out and embrace being single.
Then, after four years of being alone, I met fellow journalist John Sandilands, who had also lived on his own since his divorce. We hit it off instantly and wanted to be together. But how
He lived hedged in by his many collections of marching soldiers, Dinky toys, model ships and nautical paintings. I did not want to deprive him of his quirky objects, yet was not keen to be surrounded by them myself.
We devised what was, for us, the perfect solution. We lived only three miles from each other, so we retained our own homes and met when we wanted to, not because we had nowhere else to go.
This meant my grown-up sons and their partners could visit me without John being there.
Though he got on well with my sons and I with his relatives, John had no children of his own and I did not want to impose on him a family set-up he had never chosen.
If he wanted to watch sport — cricket was a particular obsession — he could sit in front of the TV to his heart’s content without me fussing around.
One in three people are living alone.
Most single dwellers are middle-aged adults aged between 34 and 64 — the
vast majority of them women
It’s true I did have to listen to his impression of cricket commentator Henry Blofeld, but that was a small price to pay.
It seemed to us that we had the best of both worlds, relationship-wise; alone when we wanted to be, together when we wanted to be and never crowding each other’s space. It felt like a sophisticated and modern way to live.
But sadly, John died in 2004 after 12 years together. And now, as I near the end of my 60s, I have to admit that living alone is no longer so blissful.
Indeed, it is more often bleak and miserable. The freedom that once felt so wonderful can now be oppressive as day after lonely day stretches in front of me.
I face weekends and holiday times alone and ask myself whether I can be bothered to make the effort to go to the cinema, theatre or a party on my own.
Even cooking for myself seems too much trouble. My late mother-in-law lived on nothing but Pot Noodles and cheap ready meals from Iceland after she was widowed, and I vowed I would never do the same.
But it is tempting. I might be a little more upmarket than she was, but I find I am increasingly buying gourmet frozen meals, saving myself the chore of buying ingredients to create a dish.
I sometimes get a glimpse of what it can be like to have someone else in the house, and this makes returning to living alone all the more poignant.
A friend from Australia, whom I have known all my life, occasionally comes to stay when working over here.
We go shopping together and I am reminded how much fun mundane tasks can be when they are shared with good company. There’s a world of difference between going round the supermarket with an entertaining friend and trudging round on your own.
Of course, I am lucky to have a family. My sons and five grandchildren come round occasionally, but they live too far away — Devon and London — to be frequent visitors. Though I’m sure they are interested in my welfare, they don’t need to be spending their time worrying about whether Mum is lonely.
And that’s one of the worst things about living alone when you’re older — the feeling no one really cares about you that much.
Yes, I have good friends, but it’s not the same as having someone intensely interested in you, not just your health, but your achievements.
If I have a new book out, there is no one at home to offer congratulations. The increasing loneliness I feel is not helped by the fact that it seems that every week, another friend or former work colleague dies. Almost all my social occasions these days are funerals.
I don’t wish to be morbid, but this is a reality of growing older. My circle of friends is diminishing instead of increasing.
It is for this reason that the TV presenter Esther Rantzen, who is reluctantly living alone at the age of 71, has founded the SilverLine, a befriending service for the over-65s who have no one to talk to.
Luckily, I’m not quite at the stage where I want to be befriended by a stranger, but I’ve certainly reached the point where I understand the need for such a service.
The agony aunt Marje Proops once told me that though women often want to be alone in their 40s, by the time they are 70 they long once more for the big shoes in the hall, the shaving kit in the bathroom and the men’s jackets and jeans in the wardrobe.
I didn’t believe her at the time, now I know only too well that she was right.