In May of last year, Carol Marat wrote a piece called “How to Thrive While Living Alone.” Nearly everything in my response to this lovely piece could be construed as criticism of it, so I want to take the time necessary at the beginning to say that I have no criticisms to make of it. At all.
On the other hand, Ms. Marat pushed my thinking in some directions it would not otherwise have gone and I appreciate the help. Two of those directions are these.
- How is “living alone” different from living with a mate? Answer” not as much as you might think.
- And, is there a general model for meeting your own needs—not those of “elderly people living alone” but your needs in particular. Answer: Yes there is. Surprisingly, I have one in mind.
Bette and I had been married for a long time before we began to be married to each other. We were glad to have found each other and we have enjoyed the marriage fully, but both of us know that marrying each other was not going to be “the answer.” Neither of us, in Shel Silverstein’s well-known parody, was “missing a piece.”
Neither of us, in other words, was going to be “the answer,” the crucial resource to whatever problems each of us had been carrying for years. I think that only very young people imagine that marriage will do that for them. Another way to say that is that each of us is “alone” a good deal of the time and whether we feel lonely or not is really up to each of us. It is, in that respect, just like not having a mate.
That is what brought me to my first reflection about Carol Marat’s piece. If these are the things one ought to do to “thrive while living alone,” how does she imagine “living with a mate?” Let’s deal with the “what to do” part first.
How to live alone and thrive
- The first is to be clear about how you want to live.
- The second is that understanding what your needs are enables you to live authentically.
- The third is that it is crucially important to forgive yourself.
- The fourth is that honoring the special traits that make you who you are in crucially important.
Well…I like the idea of doing all the things she says are important if you are going to live alone. Those four ideas—some of them go too far for my own personal taste—are good guidance.
But when I try to think how she must construct the situation of living with a mate, it all begins to seem odd to me. So, let’s just negate each of those—not implying that this represents Ms. Marat’s views—and see where that takes us.
- The first is that if you live with a mate, it is not necessary to be clear about how you want to live.
I can see why that would be true if you planned to be completely subordinate to your mate. “I don’t need to be clear; she will be clear and I will comply.” Or maybe she imagines the opposite to be the union of the two persons in something like a Vulcan mind meld. 
If, on the other hand, you think of yourself as an active presence in the life of your mate, it is vital that you get some clarity about how you want to live. For one thing, he will want to know that because he will want to take it into account in his own choices. I would think that being clear about how you want to live is fundamental to living in love and harmony with your mate.
- The second is that if you live with a mate, it is not necessary to live authentically, therefore it is not necessary to have the understanding of yourself that would allow it. I think that saying that out loud is close enough to refutation that I can just let it go.
- The third is that is that if you live with a mate it is not necessary to forgive yourself. I guess the idea is that the mate will do the forgiving. If you have ever had the experience of having your mate forgive you for some transgression for which you have been unable to forgive yourself, you know that doesn’t work at all. Forgiving yourself is the foundation of your forgiveness or your mate on anyone else; it is foundation of your accepting and benefiting from forgiveness that is offered to you. 
- The fourth is that if you live with a mate, you don’t need to honor the special traits that make you who you are. This is the most difficult one, I think, because it is problematic even in Ms. Marat’s formulation of it. Just to finish off the exercise, I will say that she may be thinking that the mate will understand and honor those traits—I would call them constitutive traits—so that you don’t have to.
First, not all the traits that make up who I am—my constitutive traits—are good. I am defined by my sloth and my greed and my cowardice as much as I am by my energy and my satiety and my courage. So that relates to me as a person. If I go further that think of myself as one member of a partnership, some of my traits that are constitutive also for the partnership. They are important for me and important also for my contribution to the relationship.
Is there another way to approach this question?
Of course. Not that there is anything wrong with this one. It’s just not the one I use. Because I have a notion of what kind of life I am capable of living, I have a notion also of what kind of fuel I will require and how much of it, in order to live that life. I call those “psycho-social resources,” but that’s because I went to grad school late in life (I was in my mid-30s) and mined the literature for the language I needed. You can call it something else if you like.
This turns out to be a very complicated arrangement, so I am going to cut it back to the basics for today.  That little formulation requires that I know what I need and that I take responsibility for acquiring it. It would be easy to argue that I could be a better person if everyone were nicer to me, but that way of putting it doesn’t begin where I need to begin, which is: what choices do I have before me? 
It also requires that I exercise some discretion about the quality of the resources I am using—“empty calories” is a convenient analogy—and the quantity. I need “enough” of the right kind of resources if I am to be who I want to be and do what I want to do (or am called to do, as in Footnote 5).
If I know that about my own needs—not what I need to keep trudging on, but what I need to truly thrive—and if I take responsibility for acquiring those, then the distinction between “alone” and “with a partner” simply melts away. “Doing what I need to live the life I am trying to live” is, to say it this way, a more general formulation. It is more fundamental.
It doesn’t point to some different set of requirements of the single and the bound. It points to the common requirements of the two conditions, allowing that precisely how one goes about it will vary as one’s circumstances vary.
That seems like something worth knowing.
 I might be missing a few now, but that’s the matter of another post entirely.
 Just a note for non-Trekkies. “The Vulcan mind meld or mind probe was a telepathic link between two individuals. It allowed for an intimate exchange of thoughts, thus in essence enabling the participants to become one mind, sharing consciousness in a kind of gestalt.”
 If anyone imagines that “forgiveness” is the quick and easy way to restore equilibrium, he is in for a shock. That are many transgressions that require truly understanding what you have done and truly seeking the pardon of those you have harmed and even, in some circumstances, doing what is necessary to heal the harm you have done. All those re compatible with “forgiving yourself” and may sometimes be prerequisite to it.
 Just a plea for tolerance from the reader. If English has another word for “enough-ness,” I don’t know what it is. I know “satiety” is unfamiliar, but I’m going with it as the best word I know for that condition.
 And these basics will need to skip over the resources I need to live a life of Christian discipleship. That commitment changes both the resource base and the kinds of things for which I will need resources. No chance to deal with either here.
 It is also true that “making do with less” is a choice I might make. It isn’t only being responsible to acquire “enough” resources, it is also recognizing that there are not always going to be enough resources and that I need to deal with that situation, too.