Why women can go it alone

Fear of seeming friendless or single prevents many people, especially women, from socialising or travelling by themselves, but going solo has its advantages, says Caroline Allen.

DOING things alone, whether it’s travelling or something as simple as going to the cinema or eating out, can be something akin to root canal treatment for many people, especially for women. It’s acceptable for men to go to the pub alone, but women feel the stigma of appearing friendless or of fielding unwanted attention.

Yet many women have partners working abroad, so have to attend exhibitions and events alone.

They don’t want to stay in just because of the lack of like-minded company.

Niamh Delmar, a counselling psychologist in Greystones, Co. Wicklow, says people are taking action to prevent becoming restricted from going out.

“Women, in particular, describe being at a loose end, especially at weekends as friends may be busy with relationships, children, careers or have moved away, and I do think it is of benefit for such women to be proactive about getting out and about solo,” Niamh says.

Others, like PR and mum-of-two, Jill O’Herlihy, occasionally enjoy doing things alone.

The communications officer at Mental Health Ireland has blogged on the subject at Sittingonthebench. Society says we should be with another person for fear of seeming to have no friends or lovers.

Jill has friends who get jittery and find themselves reaching for their pals to organise company at the prospect of being alone.

She found herself going solo for a night out when a last-minute ticket for a Gary Barlow music concert became available through Twitter. She began the evening with dinner, sitting beside a gay couple and observing their relationship dynamic.

At the concert, she found herself standing beside a guy who was also on his tod, but she resisted the urge to strike up a friendly chat.

When a group of women in their 40s shuffled up beside her, she fought the urge to answer their questions.

“I got to watch every minute of it (the concert) without being distracted by anyone,” says Jill.

The moral of her post, she said, was to encourage people to do things on their own occasionally. “Take in your surroundings, savour everything. There is a lot happening around us that we are missing out on,” she says.

Gillie Walsh-Kemmis, who lives in Stradbally, Co Laois, has attended many international sporting events alone, from the Olympic Games, in Atlanta and in London, to the World Athletic Championships, and Formula One motor racing in Indianapolis, to the World Athletics Championships, in Moscow.

Gillie’s solo sojourns have taken her around the globe, to Australia, Japan, Uzbekistan, the Middle East and the US.

While doing things on her own comes naturally to her, she wasn’t always so confident.

“I was in that position of being fearful about going places alone when I was younger.

Then, suddenly, my interest got greater than my fear,” she says.

Rather than dipping her toe gently into the water, Gillie went overland to Pakistan when she was 23, with strangers.

“I was a recent graduate and they were teenagers, but, blow me, they were a damn sight more streetwise than me. They tricked me into smuggling cannabis into Iraq. I was a drugs mule without knowing it. If I had been discovered, I would have been in jail for decades. My children haven’t met them, but have never forgiven them,” Gillie says.

Other than that, she came to no harm.

“I travelled through Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Jordan and Palestine, and the worst that happened was that I had a snowball thrown at me in Istanbul,” Gillie says.

“In Atlanta, I was lucky to share a room with a stranger who turned out to be a very nice, married woman and we palled up with a Welshman, and his children, and the whole thing was quite jolly.

“On a trip to China, I shared with a roommate who was a total pain in the neck, but it didn’t spoil the trip.

“The Uzbekistan bus rides were marred by a very bitchy woman travelling with her husband, who complained that there were too many women on the trip and that it was just their little holiday. However, by coincidence, on the same trip, I met someone from Trinity College and we did a few things together.”

Having an ally helps, as Gillie found at an athletics event in Osaka, Japan. “I met a very nice woman from Yorkshire, who had been on the same trip to Moscow as I was.

“While I was watching Robbie Heffernan compete, I didn’t realise I had run of water and my blood pressure went clean off the chart. I was in hospital for two days. I managed to contact that woman, who made sure the plane didn’t go without me,” she says.

Being hit-on was never a serious problem.

“Women do get approaches in Italy, but in the Middle East it was the men who had the advances. I travelled on the greyhound buses in the US and sat beside a soldier, going to Vietnam, who was very disappointed I wouldn’t give him a kiss.

“I had a voyeur on the balcony of my bedroom in Turkey, who I had been chatting to earlier, but, overall, I had remarkably little trouble,” she says.

Although Gillie is a widow, she travelled throughout her marriage and her late husband, Michael, went on his own trips.

At home, she has eaten out alone and enjoyed films at the Irish Film Institute in Dublin. “Over the years, I have had approaches at events in Ireland, but they were easily warded off,” she says.

A biologist, Gillie has carried out biological sampling alone, in counties such as Laois, Carlow and Mayo.

“The only place anybody ever turned up their nose and sniggered at me was in North Tipperary. It was an example of men sneering at a woman because she was on her own,” she says.

Generally, people have been very respectful, she says.

“I was walking back to my accommodation in Petra, one night in 1967, when an Arab man on a pony rescued me, though I didn’t think I need rescuing.”

Attending boarding school, and moving from England to live in Ireland, fuelled Gillie’s sense of independence.

Being taller than the average Irish person and sounding different, she is used to standing out, but everyone, she says, should stick their head about the parapet and get out and try doing things on their own.

While there is less stigma for women today, it still depends on the venue and time of day, Niamh says.

“Lack of confidence, safety concerns and perceived judgements from others are cited as reasons that block women from engaging in experiences that could expand their world,” says Niamh.

Personally speaking, in Dublin, I find The Exchequer Gastropub welcoming to single diners, even though it can be a busy spot, and I leave the carnivores behind to dine alone in Cork’s Café Paradiso.

I find tables near the toilets and single supplements are some of the trials those going solo face — but it is worth it.

TIPS FOR GOING SOLO

- Niamh Delmar says it can help to make a list of activities of interest, grading them from the least challenging to the most, and work up through it. Props such as Kindles, mobile phones, iPads and books can ease the nerves.

- It can be tempting if you’re at a function to imbibe a few too many but nobody wants to engage with a drunken stranger.

- Social media can be helpful in providing an insight into who will be at events and what to expect.

- Choose your venue carefully — some can be friendlier to people on their own. If you’re in a pub or a restaurant, strike up a conversation with the staff. One woman I know ended up hitting the hotspots of Cork with the waiter and his friends.

- Wearing something unusual — whether it’s an eclectic vintage ensemble, a Save The Badgers t-shirt or an explosion of colour, can be a conversation opener.

Make eye contact with people, greet and chat with them, but know when to move on.

WHY WOMEN WITHOUT A PARTNER CAN'T BE LEFT AlONE

Single men get the thumbs up, but their female counterparts are considered desperate and are harassed about their status. The double standard is everywhere, says Suzanne Harrington

You’re a single man. Lucky you. Eligible, elusive, with a whiff of George Clooney (left). Even if you look like Homer Simpson, the very word bachelor has a desirable cachet — chocolate leather sofas, stainless steel kitchens, dimmer switches, shiny cars.

You’re a single woman. Poor you. Sad, desperate, a bit neurotic, and living alone. Or if you are a true spinster, maybe you have a cat and lots of pot pourri. You’ll be fine once you meet a nice guy though, so just keep trying.

This double standard is reflected everywhere from Hollywood movies through to Chinese social policy. In Hollywood movies, the single woman is a bunny boiler, an ice queen, a slut, or a ditz; from Bridget Jones to Carrie Bradshaw, the happy ending can only be via marriage. Hugely successful Hollywood actor Jennifer Aniston (right) has always been defined by her relationships with men, and when single, labelled ‘Poor Jen’; was Clooney ever called ‘Poor George ’?

Marriage is all women want, according to our ultra conservative mainstream entertainment culture; we can bide time with girlfriends and cocktails, but all we really want is a man, to make us complete.

In China, the government would like this to mean any man. Any man at all. There are more women than men — yet any unmarried female over the age of 27 is called a Leftover Woman. Thanks to a state sponsored media campaign of the same name, educated successful urban women are being shamed for being single, and harassed towards marriage with uneducated rural men, to whom they would then surrender property rights. Without a husband or children, these millions of independent working women are deemed socially worthless.

In the liberal West, the coercion is more velvet gloved. One of the self-help industry’s favourite topics is why — if you are a woman — you’re still single. American e-journalist Sara Eckel recently published It’s Not You: 27 (Wrong) Reasons Why You’re Still Single, as though being single were some kind of social disease. She acknowledges that many women remain single by choice, but for those who would like to couple up but have not met the right partner, she charts, with heartfelt exasperation, an extensive list of the reasons people gave her as the causes of her own longterm singledom.

Here are some of them. You have issues. You have low self esteem. You’re too negative, liberated, intimidating, desperate, picky, available, selfish, fabulous, sad, stuck, old. You need to be happy alone. You need to grow up. You don’t know how to play the dating game. You need to put it out there to the universe, have an action plan, keep trying. You need to practice. You should have married that guy. You don’t really want a relationship. You’re stuck. You suck.

Another American author, Tracy McMillan, wrote Why You’re Not Married, presumably aimed at those women who would like to be, offering the following six reasons why you remain without a wedding ring: You’re a bitch. You’re shallow. You’re a slut. You’re a liar. You’re selfish. You’re not good enough. McMillan, like Eckel, is playing around with preconceptions and stereotypes, but the message is still the same to single women everywhere. You are defective.

Except of course you are not. You are single because you are single. There are millions of reasons including you realise that actually, you rather like things as they are. Solo.

Perhaps it’s the fact that being single is just too tempting in its freedom, and where the word ‘unattached’ is inaccurate when you are deeply attached to a close circle of loved ones.

Being single means spending quality time in great company, either alone or with others. It is the deep peace of solitude. It’s something everyone should experience for at least a couple of years of their lives, unbroken by any romantic disruption.

We never ask couples why they are still married (even when it is obvious that they would be far happier apart), or say things like, I can’t believe you’re still married, but the inverse of these kind of remarks are considered almost the polite thing to say to single women.

Still no romance, eh? Pretty girl like you? Not men though. We wink at single men and give them the metaphorical thumbs up, but extend a sympathetic chin-up to the single woman.

Poor you, and you’re so lovely too. Why are you still single?

Maybe she does want a relationship. But maybe she is not ready to pair off with the first one who shows interest. Or the second, or the third, or the tenth. Which is why when someone does appear with whom you genuinely connect, you will be connecting for all the right reasons, rather than all the wrong ones. And that will feel very good indeed.


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