AA: on “ending up alone”

The copilot sent:

Can you please write a post about “ending up alone?” That is all.

Well, I can try.

In my culture, the only context in which I’ve ever heard someone worry about someone “ending up alone” is when the phrase is used to convey “ending up” (presumably entering old age, however that’s defined) without a romantic partner (and sometimes offspring).  The idea, I presume, is that these are the kinds of relationships that are supposed to remain lasting and that these are the kinds of people who will be with you until your dying days.  “Alone” in this context doesn’t even mean total isolation (i.e. the proverbial deserted island) — it means going through life without stable, committed sources of emotional intimacy.

And doesn’t associating that with romantic and parent-child relationships seem kind of… arbitrary?


The other day, when I noticed my vehicle registration had expired, I realized something about the kinds of household arrangements my society is built for.  Now that I have a job like a Real Adult(TM) and am working during normal business hours, I don’t really have time to take my car to the shop.  Trying to take care of the issue on the weekend didn’t work out either.  My mother is busy with her job and all manner of other messes she’s gotten herself into; my younger sister is off at college.  As terrible as it is, I’m lucky that my father is in another unemployed phase at the moment, because he was the only one who was able to help me out by getting my car inspected while I was at work — an arrangement that required him dropping me off at my workplace like I was a little kid going to school all over again.

The point of that anecdote being: when you work normal business hours, and you need something done that’s restricted to normal business hours, having a domestic member of the household with no conflicting obligations is essentially a necessity.

I suppose you could ask a friend to drive the car in the same circumstances, but I was always taught that it was a risk to let someone drive your car if they’re not on your auto insurance.


Ending up alone is a relevant fear for a lot of people in the ace community and beyond, both because of the habitual prioritization of romance over friendship and the small dating puddles for those who are up for romance but face limited options due to “undesirable” traits (such as sex aversion, for instance).  I wouldn’t have noticed it from the way people talk, but my culture and my country have a built-in expectation of marriage.  As you’ll know if you’ve been paying much attention to same-gender marriage debates, marriage brings with it a lot of material benefits: tax breaks, social security benefits, better insurance and legal options, next-of-kin status granting the right to make medical decisions, and so on…

When I was filling out the forms for my new job and the basic health insurance plan they’re forced to offer, I remember being struck by the “marital status” question — because if I was married, the same health insurance coverage for me would also apply to my spouse.  There was no option for “I’m not married, but if we can have a +1, I want it to be my best friend.”

It doesn’t work that way.


I and many others have written before about the meaning of “consent” in circumstances where a “no” comes with consequences.  And it seems to me that financially and legally incentivizing getting/staying married amounts to practical negative consequences to divorce, singledom, and breakups, applying pressure for people to pair up and stay paired, even when it’s not what’s best for them as people.

But I also think that when someone expresses concern that someone might “end up alone,” they more the social and emotional impact in mind than the logistics of so-called “elder orphans.”  Some of that’s benevolent.  But some of it’s also about measuring up and proving worth.

One of the implications of the love-interest-as-reward trope is that involvement in a romantic relationship serves as an indicator that someone is fundamentally deserving.  It’s the romantic equivalent of “you have no friends” used as an insult — applying social proof to human worth.


Get married, have babies, rely on those for commitment and stability.  That’s the formula.  That’s the safety net.  That’s what you’re supposed to do to ensure you don’t “end up alone” (and all that entails).

But for one thing, that formula isn’t guaranteed to work.  Not all families do stay together.  Not all families are made up of healthy, supportive relationships.  Legal married status or blood kin status aren’t the sole prerequisites for an eternal bond.  Human beings are, and have always been, more complicated than that.  “Married, with kids” will not always save you.

And if there really is such reason to worry about the future and what isolation and practical obstacles it might bring — why the heck are we taking for granted that such needs have to be privatized into each individual’s responsibility to land a spouse?  If being single in old age and not forming The Right Relationships can get you in such serious trouble, then, I don’t know, doesn’t that indicate some kind of societal problem?  Shouldn’t everyone be guaranteed the same sense of material and emotional security human beings require as a baseline?  Why should that be something we have to earn on an individual basis?  Why shouldn’t there be more options than that?


In addition to accurate and responsible ace vis/ed, one thing I’d like to see more of, from the ace community, would be creating/collecting resources and hosting ongoing discussion on the topic of nonstandard households and unmarried adults and seniors.  I remember some aces acknowledging our points of common interest with childless, divorced adults a few years back, but I haven’t seen that pursued since.  I’m interested in expanding our critiques of amatonormativity to a critical eye toward the “nuclear family” as a whole, and challenging not just the necessity of sex within marriage, but also the privileging of romantic marriage over other relationship formulations in general — in a legal, financial sense as much as a cultural one.

And I may or may not harbor an interest in starting a commune.

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16 responses to “AA: on “ending up alone”

  • queenieofaces

    I’m surprised you didn’t link to Laura’s recent piece on the topic: http://loveinshallah.com/2015/07/08/what-does-it-mean-to-grow-old-alone/ She and elainexe have been writing a fair amount on the topic recently.

  • luvtheheaven

    I really appreciated this post, just as I have appreciated Laura’s posts on the subject in the past.

    One of the biggest things people tend to forget is that even if all goes perfect according to the script of get married and end up happily ever after with kids, ideally your kids have lives of your own, and it’s “till death do you part”, meaning one partner still has to deal with being “alone” again. My grandmother is a great example of a woman who is enjoying living life “alone” now that her husband has been dead for 6 years. She’s not dating, but rather forming new friendships all the time, some from new neighbors since she moved to a smaller apartment, some from her bereavement group, etc. She’s busy most days of the week, socializing and experiencing life, traveling, and yes, sometimes visiting family. She doesn’t have to work because she’s 80 but she still volunteers for The League of Women Voters and she even tracks me on twitter and tries to learn about asexuality and stuff. She could be doing pretty much all of these same things even if she was still pursuing a new romantic relationship, and whether a person ends up alone or not doesn’t mean they have to actually be “alone” if they don’t want to be. There are some skills involved in figuring out how to be more social/have more friends but if it’s important to you — and that is an if — there are ways to not “End up” entirely alone.

    • Carmilla DeWinter

      Yeah, though in my frame of work, I tend to meet more those people whose spouse has died and left them to muddle on, sometimes unable to leave their house because of some illness or other, with the children all over the country instead of near vicinity … Marriage and kids are no guarantee to not have serious troubles in your old age, especially if you didn’t network enough before being too frail to do so.
      Bleak. So yeah, somehow, society/the state still expects and incentivizes the “big family” scenario in some ways where several generations all care for each other, all the while telling people to accomodate the economy by being willing to move for a job, etc. It’s not working that well, but no one’s really talking about this yet.

  • epochryphal

    Communes yesssssss. Glacier Circle in Davis CA is my UU model for collective living, but it definitely seems upper-middle class…

  • Sara K.

    I think the best solution to the specific problem of health insurance is single payer / universal health insurance. Having spent a few years in a part of the world which does single payer, I can say from personal experience and direct observation that it works much better. With single payer, people don’t get married just to get health insurance.

    Of course, universal health insurance is just one example about how good social insurance programs offer citizens a lot more freedom to structure their lives as they wish.

    Coincidently, I also got a Real Adult(TM) job. My employer does offer something like +1 for paid sick leave. If I I had a spouse or domestic partner, I could use paid sick leave to take care of them, but not someone else. However, since I don’t have a spouse or domestic partner, I could designate someone – anyone I pleased – as someone I could use paid sick leave to care for them. And I did desginate someone. Now, as long I don’t get a spouse / domestic partner, I can use paid sick leave to care for him if he gets medical problems, though only the person whose name is on the form and nobody else.

  • salmelo

    took me a while to get around to reading this, but I’m glad I finally did. This topic is on my mind a lot in general, just as someone who’s mostly averse to the typical “nuclear family” household structure but feels like one, or probably multiple, “eternal bonds,” as you put it, are something my life is sorely lacking. I’m basically terrified of “ending up alone” and the fact that society on the whole barely acknowledges the types of relationships that I tend to most heavily value and prioritize doesn’t help.

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