this week's problem

Sian's marriage is over and she lives separately but in the same house as her husband, resentfully cooking and ironing for him. For ages she has been longing for him to go. But now he is moving out, she is terrified of living on her own. Even the constant rows seem better than the void ahead. She doesn't want to join clubs or take lodgers, so how will she cope?

For some, hell isn't other people, however ghastly they are; hell is no other people at all, no one with whom to share a grumpy morning cup of tea, or a mutual anxiety about the cat. Without another person as a sounding board, it seems Sian feels that she will cease to exist, that she is someone defined only by her contours rather than the presence inside.

She'd rather share her life with a vile and selfish intimate companion than bliss out in the hammock of an intricate network of friends - far more reliable than one person alone - or discover that solitude might actually be a riveting companion in itself.

The whole idea that our lives can only be fulfilled and realised by union with one other, a Miss or Mr Right, is quite a new one in our social history. It leads to an even more muddle-headed idea, that the "one other" becomes so crucial that even a Miss or Mr Wrong is better than nothing at all.

Perhaps it's worth looking at Sian's situation before worrying about the question she asks. If you were to visit a GP with constant burns, he'd be pretty hopeless if he only recommended iced compresses without suggesting, too, that you stay out of the sun or away from the stove.

Sian has for some reason put herself into the role of victim. Despite the fact that she obviously dislikes him, she has continued to cook and iron for her dreadful husband. Why on earth does she allow herself to be put into such a humiliating position? Does she enjoy it? For months she has been actively willing her husband to leave. But now that he is leaving, does she feel like the laurel-wreathed victor full of plans for the future, longing to fill her dancing card with the names of thousands of new admirers, or buying her rod and line and booking her one-woman jaunt up the Orinoco? No, she again puts herself in the role of outcast. In reality, her husband is the one moving out of the house with nothing but his spotted handkerchief on a stick over his shoulder; but internally, she manages to feel as if she is the one thrown into the wilderness.

Many people live alone, fulfilled and warmed by their own company and that of friends. As Thoreau wrote in Walden: "Solitude is not measured by the miles of space that intervene between a man and his fellows."

But the pattern of Sian's life suggests that to feel out in the cold, to feel a lowly, lonely worm, whether in her marriage or on her own, is a habit, if not almost an addiction. Perhaps it is something she has been conditioned to feel since she was a child.

It really wouldn't be hard for her to cushion herself with lodgers, evening classes, new friends, more external activities. It's really not difficult to make friends who would radiate love and warmth like the midday sun.

But oh, no, Sian will have none of that. Out in her own particular freezing hell she'll have nothing to do with overcoats or log fires. She has a real determination to shiver to death. Why, I wonder? Taking comfort seems to be anathema to her and her constant refrain is isolation and abuse, whatever her actual situation.

Being alone can feel either terrifying or blissful, depending on Sian's attitude. Until she gets this sorted out, her new-found freedom may turn out to feel just as much of a curse as her marriage.

readers' responses

Sian's suffering what we have felt over the selling of our house. We have it on the agent's books for months, we resent keeping it clean and tidy all the time, we can't wait to get rid of it. Then, out of the blue, the agent phones, there are prospective buyers, they come, they love it, when can you move? Suddenly, you remember all the good times, you feel sad and uncertain, do you really want to move? Of course you do, get out there, find a new home, be happy in it.

Mrs DV Baird

East Sussex

Don't be afraid. You are in a void now. But nothing is worse than being in a dead and potentially destructive relationship. I was in a similar situation three years ago. I felt terror at the time but also a sense of relief that the suffering was at an end.

My saviours were the local Samaritans. Even before he left, I paid them several visits simply to talk to someone impartial and to offload some of my immediate pain. Three years down the road, I have a brilliant job and my own home, where I have lived alone for two years. It has been a time for me to rediscover myself and to realise that being independent has many compensations without having to worry about the needs of another, whether you love or resent them. Start living again!

Alison

Hampshire

Break the old habits and patterns set by your marriage, and find different structures to put in their place. Let people know you now have more free time to see a film or go to a concert. Take the initiative (offer to get the tickets). Or invite someone who might be on their own to come round for supper (but try not to be a bore about the marital problems!). Start with your own sex first - the company of female friends is a support network and you need never feel lonely again, as long as you offer them support and friendship in return. Pick up any opportunities at work for self-development - a new project, a course, attending a conference. Get yourself a solicitor early, and set the pace when it comes to arranging a divorce. Get some good (recommended) financial advice.

There will be some lonely evenings, but reassure yourself: pretty soon you'll have a newfound sense of freedom, new friends, new interests and a sense of self-esteem. If you find a new partner, it will be because he's right for your new life, and not someone you clung to in desperation, out of fear of loneliness.

Welcome to the start of your new life.

Sara Jennett

Devon

Inevitably, people disappear throughout your life. Children leave home, elderly parents and faithful spouses die. Most people, men as well as women, wonder what they will do alone at some stages of their lives, after their settled aims and patterns are disrupted by events.

Your modus operandi has become your raison d'etre (which is quite usual after 10 years), but when old habits are pulled away you have to find new aims. You have to find out who Sian is, solo. It might take time, but I promise you that you'll delight in her when you meet her, maybe several times in your life.

Forget "No man is an island". It may be true in the ways we interact, but from the cradle to the grave we are all alone in our individuality and in responses to whatever being human confronts us with. Forget clubs and lodgers. Find any interest under the sun, and follow that.

Anne Crocker

Avon

next week's dilemma

Dear Virginia,

A year ago my sister and her husband won pounds 2m. I don't grudge them their win, of course, and we wrote congratulating them. We were genuinely happy for them. But they have given absolutely nothing to their siblings, some of whom have serious financial and health problems. Do you think they should give away some of their fortune? Should their extended family hope for a little "trickle-down"? Is it unreasonable?

Yours sincerely,

Carrie

Comments are welcome; everyone who has a suggestion quoted will be sent a Dynagrip 50 ballpen from Paper:Mate. Send your experiences or comments to me at The Independent, 1 Canada Square, Canary Wharf, London E14 5DL (fax 0171-293 2182) by Tuesday morning. If you have any dilemmas of your own you would like to share, let me know.

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