Jane Mathews’ new book, The Art of Living Alone & Loving It, is both an ode and a guidebook for the two million Australians who presently live by themselves, whether through choice, or in the case of Jane herself, the result of a relationship breakdown. It’s her belief that to be truly content while living solo, one must examine each aspect of life, such as health, money, spirituality, and then take some action. Consider her book her thoughtful, considered and funny route to a more joyful, contented life.
We asked a few questions of Jane, including whether she sought a solo-living role model, the pitfalls of solitude she still struggles with, and how her relationship with money changed following her divorce.
When you first came to live alone following your divorce, did you have a friend or role model who you sought the advice of?
I am ashamed to admit that when I was married, I never gave much thought to the lives of my friends who lived alone, and I only knew a handful anyway. That’s changed! I didn’t ask their advice because I was too proud and thought, “It really can’t be that hard, can it?” As my solo months turned into years, I realised how naïve I was. There are joys, yes, but there are also many treacherous shallows. I looked for a book to help me navigate my solo life, embrace it, and teach me how to use it to my advantage, but surprisingly, I couldn’t find one. So I wrote the book I wanted to read.
You write that many view living solo as either a compromise or the ultimate luxury. Before you lived alone, how did you perceive it?
The former, a compromise, definitely. I mostly lived alone during my twenties in Amsterdam and Chicago, and, to be honest, I was so busy I didn’t think twice about it. It was only after I got married and complacency crept in that I equated living alone 100 per cent with being lonely. Nothing more, nothing less. How narrow-minded and wrong I was. Solo living is an experience I treasure and wouldn’t have missed it for the world. I don’t see it as a “stage” or a stopping-off point on the sunny road to coupledom – I fully expect to live alone for the rest of my life and I am happy to do so. But it took a while to get here.
In the list of learnings at the start of your book, you write, “Being alone gives you the time and space to unearth who you are and who you want to be.” This sounds incredibly empowering. Do you think those who live alone know themselves better than those who don’t?
No, I don’t think so at all – it is much more about having self-awareness and an open and curious mindset, and that has nothing do with your living arrangements. Having said that, when you live by yourself (although I like to think of it as “with” myself, not “by” myself), you do have more time for self exploration, and it becomes more important because you spend so much time alone. You have to like yourself and develop an unshakeable sense of self-worth. A bit of introspection and self-analysis pays great dividends (as long as it doesn’t teeter into self-absorption or dreary narcissism). If you don’t like yourself, nothing else will fall into place.
What’s one of the pitfalls of living alone that you continue to struggle with?
Funnily enough, it isn’t the big things (nailing the octopus of loneliness to the wall, money, going on holiday, solo Christmases) that trip me up these days, but little things, like not being able to unscrew the top of a jar, cleaning up dog vomit when you get in from work, or having no-one to sympathise when you’re feeling off-colour. You learn to avoid certain situations that you know will get to you. For example, putting your hall lights on a timer, so you feel welcomed to a lit home, or getting a friend to pick you up at the airport so you can walk, accompanied, through the adoring crowds of waiting families and lovers, rather than walking, head down, to the taxi rank alone.
In your research, did you happen to unearth whether introverts or extroverts handled the transition to solo living differently?
Not specifically, but living alone is a great leveller and we all go through the same ups and downs, extrovert or introvert. Studies have shown that people who live alone are much more socially engaged than couples – you just have to assess what level of sociability suits you and then make it happen. You certainly have to be much more proactive in every aspect of your life. For example, I am usually the one who initiates dinners, films with friends. I like having “markers” in my diary.
How did your relationship with yourself change once your marriage ended? Was it a return to yourself or discovering a new you altogether?
I think a bit of both. The unravelling of the relationship left me very raw, and very exposed emotionally. Looking back, I realised I had compromised to try and make the relationship work. Finding myself (unexpectedly) alone was very confronting, but I discovered reserves of strength I never knew existed. I built myself up and key to that is learning how important it is to be kind to ourselves, and be our own cheerleaders. We have 50,000 thoughts a day. Try to make most of them positive and stop the negative narrative going round in our heads. Negative energy attracts negative energy, and who wants to be a human shit magnet?! Suze Orman said she loved herself so much she’d want to date herself, and that’s what I’m aiming for!
How has your relationship with money evolved post-marriage?
I used to be ostrich woman with my head buried in the sand. I really didn’t have a clue. Now, I’m all over it. How we treat money is a reflection of how we treat and value ourselves. If we aren’t powerful with money, we’re not powerful. It really is a reflection of your own self-worth. I educated myself about personal finances (The Barefoot Investor is a good place to start) and wrote my own financial blueprint, which I outline in the book. I know to the cent how much money I have, including in super. I cannot stress enough how important it is for us to control money, not the other way round.
Your book features a recipe for a decadent cheese fondue for one. Aside from irresistible snippets like this, why did you write your book, The Art of Living Alone and Loving it?
I wish I’d had someone who really understood the nitty gritty of what it is like to live alone, and could give me inspiration, good ideas, tips and shortcuts – all the things I have learned by trial and error over the years. Also, I couldn’t find a single self-help book that didn’t patronise me or set off my bullshit antennae. I think it is important to write in a non-patronising, articulate, clear and witty voice. People have said they have both cried and laughed out loud reading The Art of Living Alone & Loving It. I’m just so glad it seems to have resonated.
To the two million Australians who presently live alone, what’s your shout-out to them?
We are a mighty army (and the fastest growing demographic in the world), but it doesn’t always feel that way, and it can be hard to hold our heads up in a society where living alone is viewed as the runner-up prize. It takes courage to live alone. We should be so proud of our strength, resilience and self-sufficiency.
We weren’t put on this planet to be small. Carve your own path and think big. Don’t order from the set menu. Set your pitch to a higher frequency; run a few volts through it; put running spikes on it. Challenge yourself and be ambitious in your dreams.
The Art of Living Alone & Loving It by Jane Mathews is out now through Murdoch Books.