Every year a new study announces that living together is better. And every year, I want to shout back: Better than what?
Take Robert Blake, for example. OK, he's an extreme example. And technically, he didn't live with Bonny Lee Bakley, but in close proximity to her. Nonetheless, a point can be made: Living together can be toxic or it can be life-enhancing. Living alone can be awful or a relief.
Maybe the social scientists ought not to measure people who live alone versus people who live together--but people who live with love in their lives versus those who live without it.
Do people who express love, and feel that it is reciprocated, live longer and healthier lives than those who have spurned the idea of love, have lost it, or have simply given up hope of ever finding it?
Do people who spend their nights alone, munching high-cholesterol snacks and watching "The Sopranos," die faster than those who spend their nights with someone they love, munching high-cholesterol snacks and watching "The Sopranos"?
Conventional wisdom has it that people who live together will prevent each other from doing unhealthful things. They will encourage better diets, more physical activity, and they will have more fun because they will do things together--and that very togetherness promotes a less stressful lifestyle, with burdens halved by being shared.
Conventional wisdom is sometimes wrong. And these are not easy questions to answer, especially since there has never been a successful, scientific dissection of love equivalent to, let's say, the Human Genome Project. Sex? They've been dissecting that since way back to the Kinsey Report and Masters and Johnson. Sexual pleasure is easily measurable in scientific terms, such as elevated blood flow and pulse rates, etc.
But the physical benefits of love, whatever it might be? Even Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary doesn't seem to adequately define it: "A profoundly tender, passionate affection for another person, especially when based on sexual attraction." With that last part we might quibble.
The ability to exchange "profound affection" with another extends way beyond ties based on sex. The love of parents and grandparents for their children, for example, defies definition. The sense of well-being and accomplishment such bonds provide might prove to be just as beneficial and life-prolonging as those elusive "living together" versus "living alone" categories. But does anyone attempt to measure it?
When spaceman Dennis Tito was asked on TV's "PrimeTime" show what was "the greatest thing about floating above the Earth," he replied: "The most moving part was when I talked with my boys because they said some things to me that they've never said before." Viewers next heard a tape of Tito's son, wafting through space, saying, "I love you."
Don't get us wrong. We applaud the idea of sexual attraction, especially when attached to lasting romantic love. In fact, our idea of love is close to the Harlequin Romance ideal--the notion that two individuals can find each other and be so attracted, so fulfilled and so attuned that even after decades they wake up each morning, turn toward each other and experience the physical lurch that encompasses desire, devotion and the sheer joy of . . . well, being together.
Insurance statistics say married men live five or more years longer than unmarried ones; married women live two or three years longer than their unmarried peers. This is why firms offer better rates to married folks than to singles.
But new census figures show a shift in demographics. More and more households consist of unmarried partners and of people living on their own. If these trends continue, it may become necessary for the numbers-crunchers to study which categories of unmarried people will live longer, healthier lives than others. And why.
I have some perspective on this. I have lived alone, I have lived together. I've enjoyed coming home to a raucous, multigenerational full house, and I've enjoyed returning to a blissfully empty nest. I have learned that a person can be ecstatic or miserable in either situation.
That's why I wouldn't think of whether I need to share my living space. I would think of whether I need to share my love.
Could there be new criteria for the statisticians--perhaps a love-detector test that would rank people's ability to care about others as much as they care about themselves? And to heck with whether they live alone or together.