Are Women Better at Living Alone?

What women really think about news, politics, and culture.
Feb. 1 2012 7:00 AM

Are Women Better at Living Alone?

Sociologist Eric Klinenberg’s new book, Going Solo, explores the question.

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“The gendered nature of social isolation is, by now, a well-documented
social pattern,” Klinenberg writes, citing studies by Berkeley sociologist Claude Fischer and Cornell sociologist Erin Cornwell. On the whole, women are better at nurturing friendships, as well as relationships with their kids and other family members. Unmarried women over 35 are more likely than their male counterparts to spend an evening with neighbors and to take part in a social group. These disparities are probably more a matter of acculturation than of immutable wiring. Psychologists, Klinenberg notes, have scrutinized the ways that girls are urged to offer care and support to others, whereas the group activities of boys tend to involve competition.

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To be sure, not all women are thrilled about living alone, while plenty of men love it. Indeed, among thirtysomethings, it’s women who report more stress about their solo status, sensitive to acute pressure—from others if not themselves—to find a mate and reproduce, posthaste. But notably, despite the stigma and the badgering from grandmothers, most of Klinenberg’s female cases appear to be fairly satisfied with their lives. “Ella,” a successful public interest lawyer in her mid-30s, is not opposed to settling down, but she is opposed to settling. For now, she has bought her own Brooklyn Heights one-bedroom, found a community in her neighborhood, made friends at her local yoga studio, and enjoys cooking elaborate dinners for one.

In midlife, the boons and struggles of living alone are distributed unevenly between genders. Divorced women tend to have particularly robust friendship circles, often referring to their friends as “chosen family.” The divorced men Klinenberg interviewed typically had much less active social lives, in some cases verging on workaholism or hermitry. On the other hand, men have more sex, which no doubt strikes some of them as a fair trade-off. Many men, but even more women, prefer their single lifestyles to the standard alternative: In a 2004 AARP survey of divorced respondants age 40 to 79, 33 percent of men claimed to be averse to remarrying, compared with 43 percent of women.

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It’s the final stretch of life when the sexes diverge most starkly. Klinenberg invokes a macabre statistic from his own previous research on the Chicago heat wave of 1995. Although far more elderly women lived alone in the city than elderly men, many more of those who died alone in the searing temperatures were male, presumably because they had no one to check in on them. Of the unclaimed bodies at the morgue, about 80 percent were men.

Among the bleakest portraits in the book are of elderly male “shut-ins.” “We spent years combing New York City in search of shut-ins and socially withdrawn seniors who would speak openly about their situation,” Klinenberg writes, “and although each of the men we found had his own individual story, together they had much in common: a spouse lost to death or divorce; weak ties to children and other family, or no children at all; a small or nonexistent friendship network; physical or mental illness; a repellent personality.” Apparently they found no such women.

Of course, shut-ins are a minority. And one striking study shows that men are no less innately capable than women of finding contentment on their own. In surveys, elderly men generally express more interest in dating and remarrying than do elderly women. But the men who report reliable friendship support feel differently. They are about as interested in seeking a new partner as their female contemporaries are—that is, not very.

The lesson, then, is not that men are inherently less fit for solo living, or that they should couple up as soon as possible. It’s that all of us would be better off cultivating strong ties with multiple trustworthy confidants. As historian Stephanie Coontz has argued, marriages could also benefit if spouses relied less exclusively on each other for emotional sustenance. And Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam has famously demonstrated that social engagement bears an array of other fruits. The greater likelihood of living alone in our era merely provides another reason to make time for good friends, to greet neighbors, and perhaps to join that book club—whether you currently live with a loving family, a bevy of roommates, or a cat.

Rebecca Tuhus-Dubrow is a writer in Somerville, Mass.

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