Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Alone Together

"Oppression is depressing."--Miriam Greenspan

A while back, I read the book A New Approach to Women and Therapy by Miriam Greenspan, who I think is pretty brilliant. It was published in 1983, so parts feel dated now. But, other elements are still relevant, sometimes scarily so. Recently I rediscovered the book on my shelf, and remembered that at least one section of the book was very relevant to stuff I've blogged about. It dealt with gendered ideas of "aloneness". Of course asexuals don't have a monopoly on "dying alone!"-type worries, but it's an idea that tends to be foisted on us, whether or not it's a personal concern. (Warning: Gender binary ahead.)

Greenspan gives two scenarios. In the first, she's sitting at a bar talking with a female friend. Two men approach them and comment that they are out alone. When Greenspan responds that they aren't alone, but with each other, the men assume that they're lesbians. In the second scenario, a woman is sitting by herself at a sidewalk cafe, reading a book. A man approaches and asks her if she's waiting for someone. Greenspan writes that this women is "perceived in relation to an absent other (214, emphasis hers)."

She claims that "Women in relation to other women are both culturally understood and actually perceived as being alone...Women internalize this social definition; in the company of women and children, we often experience ourselves as alone. Only with a man are we not alone (213-14)". Of course, she mentions the disparity in the images of bachelors vs. spinsters. My own mental associations support her point: When I think of the images that come to mind around the word "bachelor", I envision a man who is active, surrounded by women, male friends, or activities. On the other hand, I agree with Greenspan that "spinster" brings to mind a woman sitting alone in a dusty attic. She writes that "the very word [spinster] evokes black spiders in a corner weaving webs for no one...Solitude is a male virtue, a female affliction (213)".

(For another example of the above, see the unsolicited issue of Women's Health magazine that arrived at my house. In an advice column, a woman asks how she can get her boyfriend to respect her wishes for alone time. The response is something like, "Point to your stack of Glee DVDs and say it's your version of the fantasy football draft." This is problematic on more levels than you probably have patience to read about, but here, female aloneness finds legitimacy through stereotypically male terms, and it's assumed that men can only understand a woman's desire for solitude through a "male" analogy.)

In my own experience, I've seen this "alone together" concept borne out again and again. I find that often when women are talking with supportive groups of people, that's exactly the time when they're most likely to bring up how alone they feel. When someone of any gender says "I'm so alone" in a group, I know they're referring to their desire for a romantic relationship. But I think it's significant that general aloneness is mentioned, rather than the lack of a specific relationship.

Men can also feel alone without women, especially older or more isolated men who have internalized the idea that emotional intimacy is only appropriate or possible within a romantic relationship. But, I would agree with Greenspan that a man alone at a cafe table is still sending a very different social message than a woman. Over the years, I've blogged about the many social messages that I've internalized. This, oddly enough, isn't one of them. I've felt disrespected and marginalized for my lack of "a man", but never lonely for this reason. When someone assumes that I'm waiting for a man, it jolts me out of my own imaginary world where my gender is secondary to my personhood. Since childhood, I related to our gendered-male ideas about solitude: "But a man alone is a great artist, or a brave adventurer, a mind unshackled by convention, a free spirit (213)". This is no more inherently male than the color blue, but it's coded as male anyway.

Greenspan goes on to explore the concept of "ego boundaries" as they relate to gender. Basically, it's hard to have a strong sense of self if one is always waiting for an "absent other" to show up. Weaker ego boundaries can indeed have advantages, but they're devalued in this culture. Even though I don't feel like I'm waiting, I still wonder how much of my anxiety over external approval and disapproval relates to my gendered experiences.


Anonymous said...

Yes, to all of the above. I've never really pondered this, but my life makes a bit more sense now I had an actual think on this angle. The bachelor/spinster dichotomy I knew about already, but as I finally realize: that is only the tip of the proverbial iceberg.
I've always wondered why I seem to have less trouble doing things on my own than other female persons (be it seeing a movie or a road trip to Canada). Now I know that I perceive my being alone as just a thing that is, instead of something that needs changing badly.
I am usually hyperaware of the fact that other people might think I am sad/can't find a man/other unflattering things, however, I've never quite realized that men might not be regarded that way.

Ally said...

When I was in high school, this guy had a thing for me. I had told him no on several occassions, and he finally confessed, in a 'caring' tone, that he was concerned about me, because I always seemed so lonely, and he just wanted to help me with that. The thing about me and this guy is we had nothing in common except a few mutual friends. We didn't have classes together, since he was two grades behind me, and we didn't have similar interests. His friend was dating my friend, and he knew my brother. So we only ever spent time together when I chose to hang around in the group. So he had never actually SEEN me alone. I was absolutely dumbfounded that he thought "single" was synonymous with "lonely." And I thought it was just his way of trying to manipulate me into dating him. Years later, I was in college, and where I lived was about a twenty minutes' walk from a movie theatre. I was a film student, and I liked to go to the movies on the cheap matinee days if I didn't have classes. When I told a friend this, she commented on how 'brave' I was, how she could never go to the movies alone without feeling pathetic.

Now, I'm fairly well-travelled but I live in a small town. Most of my friends are far away, and I do get lonely for non-electronic company on occasion, and it's horrible, because I can't talk about it without people thinking I want THAT kind of relationship.

Carolyn said...

This is a new idea for me about being alone when with other women. Personally I've always thought the people who look the most lonely are the couples in the restaurant sitting sullenly and not talking. I'm usually the one chatting with the female friend or friends I have there and feel sorry for them because the only person they go out with is their partner and they have nothing left to talk to them about.

Ily said...

Thank you all for the comments!

@detorheitherberge: You know, I'm not sure if I have a harder or easier time doing things alone. I feel like I *can* do things alone if necessary, but would rather have company most of the time.

@Ally: Yeah, it's hard for me to understand that kind of, wanting to date someone without knowing if you even have anything in common. I used to go to the movies by myself sometimes, and I think I still would, if there was a good theater near my house. Although, I did see one too many movies alone that were too scary. :-/

@Carolyn: I one wants to be in a romantic relationship where they still feel alone, but it can happen. Although I always enjoy observing people who are obviously on first dates, it's wonderfully awkward :) I'm one of those people who is susceptible to feeling lonely in a group, but unlike what Greenspan is saying, it doesn't relate to my lack of a romantic partner.

Anonymous said...

Hmm. I know that having company is nicer than doing things alone - they're usually more fun that way.

However, a number of years ago I determined that me occasionally not finding company for some things, most likely action/sci fi movies, will not keep me from experiencing them.

I refuse to hole up, hide my single self and regret all the things I didn't do.

Ily said...

@dertorheitherberge, I agree. If I really want to do something, I don't want to miss out just because no one else is interested.

Fellmama said...

Oh so true. I think there's a flip side to the perceived otherness as well: when you're IN a relationship, people get all weirded out if you do things alone or with not-your-partner.

For example, I'm visiting my parents, and the Irishman isn't here. I keep getting all these questions that boil down to "But you haven't dumped him, right?" As if my ability to travel alone was somehow surgically removed when we started dating.

And don't even get me started on the whole "hanging out with people who aren't your paramour" thing . . . Strangely enough, I can continue having feelings of liking and friendship for people --even OTHER MEN--even if I'm not fucking them.

Ily said...

@Fellmama: Yep...that sounds equally frustrating. (So, are you saying that you are ENGAGED!... visiting your parents without your boyfriend?


Eric said...

This entry sparked a lot of thought and reflection for me. I've been fielding this question from friends a lot, and this helps to give some perspective on it.

Ily said...

@Eric: Glad to hear it, thank you :)

Eli said...

This sounds like an amazing book. And it's spot on.

Ily said...

@Eli: If you want to know a little more about the book, here's my review on Goodreads:

I think it's worth checking out!