Olivia Laing, the acclaimed author of The Lonely City, on loneliness, marrying the poet Ian Patterson and the challenge of intimacy

The Sunday Times,

At the age of 39 I was fairly sure I would spend the rest of my life alone. I lived alone, I worked alone. No matter what I did, or who I dated, I didn’t seem to be able to find the relationship I longed for.

I’d first joined the vast ranks of the lonely five years earlier. In 2011, I moved to New York in the wake of a break-up. A new relationship had come to an abrupt end. I’d pinned far too much hope on it, and though lovers had come and gone before, this particular departure left me desolate, my self-esteem on the floor. In a strange city, 3,000 miles from my family and friends, I was rapidly overwhelmed by loneliness.

Being so lonely was agonising. Worse, it felt actively repellent. It didn’t take long to realise that one of the worst elements was the omnipresent shame — the gnawing belief that being lonely was bad and wrong, a humiliating failure that could never be confessed. But the more I thought about it, the more illogical this seemed. After all, millions of people are lonely. Why was it so unspeakable?

Part of the reason I decided to include my own experiences in The Lonely City, my 2016 book about loneliness, was that I wanted to break this taboo. I hoped that by confessing to my least admissible feelings, I might dismantle something of its painful stigma. I wanted to reposition loneliness as a natural human state, part of the everyday texture of our lives, uncomfortable, but not beyond the pale.

Researching the book necessitated delving into psychological studies. Loneliness, I discovered, is caused by a lack of intimacy. It isn’t the same thing as solitude, though they do intersect. You can be lonely and have plenty of friends. You can even be lonely in a marriage. What matters is not the type or number of relationships a person has, but their depth and closeness.

Once I’d understood this, it seemed the least I could do was put my knowledge into practice. I decided I needed to put down more roots. I’d been drifting back and forth between Brighton and New York for two years, unhappy and unsettled. This was the period I wrote about in The Lonely City, and it had to stop.

The people I most liked were in Cambridge and I could afford to rent a tiny house with a garden there. I was still alone. I couldn’t conjure up a partner. Maybe I’d be single for ever, maybe I’d never marry and have children, but I could build myself a warm, companionable, green life, even so.

I moved in January 2013. That first weekend, as I was unpacking in my dank Victorian cottage, a Twitter friend who lived nearby DM’d me with an invitation for dinner. Ian Patterson was a poet and Cambridge don in his sixties. He lived with his wife, the writer Jenny Diski, a few streets east. He was a celebrated cook, and it turned out he’d invited all our mutual friends in the city to a feast of roast pork and chocolate nemesis, all of us squashed around the table in their beautiful book-lined house. It was such a generous gesture to a stranger, such a kind, warm-hearted thing to do.

Ian was nearly three decades older than me, but all the same we quickly became friends. We were both passionate gardeners, and we’d take tours around our patches, pointing out the plants we were most proud of. At some point that first spring, he realised I didn’t have a car, and offered to take me with him on his Sunday trips to Waitrose. He’d make up songs with amazingly dexterous lyrics, weaving the events on the street into impromptu musicals.

One of the nicest things about being friends with someone so much older than me was the perspective it offered. It was obvious from how he spoke about her that Jenny was the love of his life. They’d met when he was 50. I found it so comforting to know that it was OK to be a late developer, that love could strike at any time.

Then, in 2014, Jenny was diagnosed with lung cancer, which she documented in a series of wry, devastating essays in the London Review of Books. In the wake of her death two years later, I saw a whole different aspect of loneliness, the obliterated planet of bereavement. Now it was my turn to repay Ian for his many kindnesses, sitting with him as he worked through the grim bureaucracy of death. The Lonely City was published that same spring. I hoped the book would be useful, but I hadn’t bargained for the intensity with which it was greeted. At readings, I was regularly embraced by tearful readers, often very young, who would tell me about their own struggles with isolation, their fear that there was something uniquely wrong and ugly about them. I became the poster girl for loneliness. Just as I’d hoped, it turned out that craving love and closeness was not a unique failing, but something that we share.

Head over heels: Laing with the poet Ian Patterson at their wedding in August 2017
Head over heels: Laing with the poet Ian Patterson at their wedding in August 2017

Our friendship sustained us both, but it took a very long time to realise I loved Ian. A series of random events gradually nudged us closer together. My landlord decided to redecorate my dilapidated house substantially. I had to move out for three weeks. I went to Ian’s, though both of us were deeply nervous about sharing a space. To our amazement, we fitted together like toast and butter. I’d never cohabited with anyone, not properly. I had no idea that sharing daily life could be so joyous.

I was supposed to move back home, but somehow I never did. The food was too good, the company too jolly. Then Ian had surgery, a knee replacement, which left him needing care for weeks. As I sat beside his unconscious body in the hospital bed, an hour after the operation, his face pale, a blood bag dangling by his side, I realised he was the person I loved most on earth. But I still persisted in thinking we were just the dearest of friends, an odd couple whose minds happened to move in similar ways, who capped each other’s quotations and laughed at the same lamentable puns.

For my 40th birthday I rented a big house in Suffolk for a weekend of celebrations. An hour after I arrived, the man I was seeing texted me to say he wouldn’t, for perfectly good reasons, be able to come. It was Ian who cheered me up, who gave me one of his spotted handkerchiefs to dry my wretched tears. That weekend, I started to realise that I was as responsible as anyone for my own loneliness — that I kept making the wrong decisions, picking people who through no fault of their own couldn’t possibly give me what I really wanted.

Meanwhile, there was Ian, dear and delightful, loyal to his bones. He spent the weekend in the kitchen, making beef fillet and a cake dyed red, blue and yellow like a Mondrian painting that took three days to construct. Sometimes you need love to be presented to you in physical form. Sometimes you need to taste it to really recognise it’s there.

We didn’t just love each other. We were in love with each other. We were the foundation of each other’s lives. We decided to get married that summer. Suddenly there was no time to waste. We sloped off to the register office in Cambridge and tied the knot. I panic-bought an Isabel Marant minidress online; Ian looked sharp in a seersucker jacket and shades. He’d lost three stone since we got together, a combination of happiness and the bionic knee. He danced up the aisle, his face all sheeny with tears. We giggled so much, we set the registrar off too; she said afterwards she’d never laughed in a wedding before.

I was overjoyed, but all the same I found the shift far harder than I could have anticipated. We’re told wedding bells are the end of the story, not the beginning, and it rapidly became apparent that I didn’t know very much at all about what “happily ever after” actually required. After all those years of longing for love, and especially for settled, permanent commitment, I was amazed to discover how difficult it was.

In many ways, solitude had been easy. I didn’t have to think about anyone else. I was at complete liberty. If I wanted to eat muesli for dinner and ignore the washing-up, if I didn’t feel like speaking for days on end, no one else would care, or even know. It’s hardly news for the serially monogamous, but if you get as far into adulthood without cohabiting as I did, multiple emotional skills go unlearnt. Worse, you don’t even know they’re missing.

I was completely unused to living with anyone. I didn’t know how to compromise. I had no idea how to have an argument, and found disagreement so threatening, I kept escalating to shouting within seconds. All the things I’d believed about myself were wrong. I thought I was a peaceful, possibly slightly melancholy person, but it turned out I was practically deranged and appallingly controlling. “Soften your borders” became my mantra. Luckily for me, Ian possessed the magical gift of patience. He’d been married twice before, he had three adult children, he was seasoned at the act of intimacy. I’m sure someone younger or less relaxed would have ditched me immediately. I’m sure it also helped that he could see I was trying, that I really didn’t have a clue. I’d never had to negotiate over even simple things like what to cook for dinner, let alone how to squeeze two households into one in a matter of weeks.

Ian is fanatically tidy, but at 68 he had a house completely stuffed with possessions, as well as 15,000 books. I had a fairly substantial collection of my own. It wasn’t so much a marriage of true minds as a fusion of two libraries. We got rid of so many, we were practically banned from our local Amnesty bookshop and had to dump them at local charities on strict rotation. The weeks of lugging tote bags and boxes felt mildly symbolic; making room for each other as sweaty physical labour.

That first summer of marriage, I started writing a novel at high speed. I wanted to capture what it was like to fall in love when the world was becoming borderline apocalyptic, and I also wanted to explore this strange antechamber to intimacy. I wrote down everything that happened, both in our small domestic life and in the world at large, from arguments over the garden deck to Trump’s tweets during the white-supremacy march in Charlottesville. I was paranoid and terrified, and I wanted to get it onto paper and out of my head.

One of the best things about this weird act of art-making was that I started to see the ways in which I’d been the author of my own past experience, including the loneliness that had dogged me for so long. Loneliness is political, loneliness is caused by social exclusion and stigma. At the same time, there are ways in which avoiding intimacy can be a choice. I knew I was terrified of getting hurt, but I hadn’t realised how this was affecting the kind of relationships I had. I was nearly pathologically afraid of abandonment and so I’d repeatedly picked people who were absolutely incapable of giving me what I needed, to ensure I was never really at risk of substantial loss.

I gave these embarrassing traits to Kathy, the character in my novel. “Finally,” it says in Crudo, “she understood all the aloof boyfriends, the endless appeal of people who were only half there. She’d liked it that way, she’d liked being by herself, kept company by her old pals hankering and craving. She’d liked living in a perpetual adolescence, never having to be responsible for anyone else. Were other people as bad as Kathy? Did they wake up out of it, in shock at their own intractability, their own bad taste?”

I certainly did. I wrote Crudo in seven headlong weeks. All my non-fiction books have taken years of painstaking research. This one was like riding an enormous, horrifying wave. I finished it in Heathrow airport, on my way back to New York. I felt as if I’d come out of a fever, as if I’d coughed up a snake. The world is still just as crazy, but the relationship at least has settled down. It’s calmer now, a little more regularised, a little more steady. But I’m glad I took a cast of those first weeks, that I captured what the tumultuous early days of marriage actually felt like.

I recently did the BBC Loneliness Experiment, a survey that assesses your current levels of loneliness. I was startled to see how much my life had changed, that feelings that had been true for years had disappeared without my even noticing their absence. I don’t feel isolated now. Ian and I talk all the time, chattering like the sparrows that live in next door’s brambles. I always wanted to have a relationship like this, in which you can discuss anything, from the nature of Byron’s limp to how to plant an apple tree.

I do think my years alone helped in some ways. I might have been inexperienced at compromise and care, but on the other hand doing so much on my own did mean I was independent, confident and worldly, that I had no problem doing things Ian still finds alarming, from dealing with solicitors to negotiating strange cities. Working through loneliness also made me come to terms with myself, to touch the bottom and realise I liked who I was. I’m not sure you can have a relationship without that kind of basic affection for yourself. Without it you are always needy, requiring your partner to convince you of your own basic acceptability.

We’re getting married again this summer, a proper fete, with all the people we didn’t have time to invite before. The “save the date” was an Annie Leibovitz photograph of Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon reprising their characters from Some Like It Hot: two battered old bodies, both in lipstick, Curtis pert in Y-fronts, Lemmon sturdy in a lacy white nightie. They were tightly clutching hands, another odd couple, merrily extending the boundaries of love.

We’ve been picking readings. The one I chose was from the end of Far from the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy. It’s when Bathsheba Everdene finally realises she truly adores Gabriel Oak. They have a brilliantly awkward conversation, and then Hardy sets out a sort of philosophy of mature love — the kind that is seasoned, that takes place between adults who have been hurt before, who have been friends first, who know each other thoroughly and who decide to risk their hearts and try again.

This camaraderie is, he says, “the only love which is strong as death — that love which many waters cannot quench, nor the floods drown, beside which the passion usually called by the name is evanescent as steam.” It makes me cry every time I read it, though it’s usually Ian who bursts into tears at the drop of a hat. Being friends with my partner, that feels foundational, a thing I wouldn’t swap for all the world.

My life has changed so drastically in the past year. I still spend a lot of time alone, in my study, as any writer must. I still travel, though nothing like as wanderingly as I did before. If I visit New York now, it’s for a crammed week or two, not great islands of time, and the trips are anyway populated with meetings and friends. Friendship is another thing that’s much easier to manage from the security of a relationship. Because I’m less anxiously reliant on my friends, because I don’t need them so much, I’m more confident, more rooted, less scared to voice divergent opinions, to let myself be seen, which makes the relationships much more healthy.

That isn’t to say fear has been banished entirely. I used to worry I’d never meet anyone and now I live in terror of Ian’s death. He’s the same age as my parents; I know it’s likely that I’ll lose them all at around the same time, a loss so cataclysmic I can barely begin to fathom it. I worry about my sweet husband vanishing into the blind alleys of dementia. I worry about blood clots, bowel cancer, a heart attack, a stroke. When I first met him he had crippling arthritis in one knee, which before the surgery was so bad he couldn’t walk five paces without yelping in pain. At some point the other knee will go too, and our liberty will be restricted once again.

There are more serious concerns. He has two aneurysms, though they are still tiny now. I worry that one could rupture and kill him. I try not to google it too much. He has sleep apnoea, too, the same thing that killed Carrie Fisher. I wake him repeatedly in the night to check he’s breathing. He bats me away with a big paw, mumbling sleepily, “I’m still alive.”

Our best collaboration has been the garden. In a way, I suppose it’s the model of our relationship — carefully enriched and tended by us both, an explosion of flowers followed by quiet fallow periods. We’re in it for life, this marriage, though that might not be the longest stretch of time. We both know what love costs, and what it’s worth. We both know that it doesn’t always come and will most certainly go, but for now, for us, love is the world.

Crudo by Olivia Laing is published on Thursday (Picador £13). Olivia Laing will be discussing her book with Elizabeth Day at the Rialto Theatre in Brighton on Tuesday 26 June. Tickets are available at rialtotheatre.co.uk