"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.