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.

Illustration by Rob Donnelly.
What's the secret to living happily alone?

Illustration by Rob Donnelly.

Earlier this year, divorcee Dominique Browning published an essay in the New York Times positing a gender gap in the talent for living alone. She and her single female neighbors, she wrote, relish the freedom to eat at odd hours and monopolize the bed, while men are indifferent to these perks. Nesting at home, she went on to assert, women feel safe. “Men,” though, “are hard-wired to feel danger all the time … Being alone feels dangerous to a man.”

These generalizations incensed commenters and bloggers, one of whom offered this summary: “Binary gender norms are alive and thriving, except the roles have reversed (sort of).” But according to sociological research, Browning wasn’t entirely off the mark. On average, women may be better suited to solitary habitation than men, at least past a certain age. It’s not, however, because men don’t love to eat Cheerios for dinner and hog the bed. Nor is it that women are more self-sufficient or inclined to solitude. On the contrary: Women are more likely to have strong social networks, which enable them to live alone without being alone. Men are more at risk of withdrawing into isolation that, at the extremes, can be miserable and indeed dangerous.

The contrast emerges clearly in Eric Klinenberg’s new book, Going Solo: The Extraordinary Rise and Surprising Appeal of Living Alone. And it matters because the people in question are hardly a negligible demographic. Though they may not realize it, they’re part of a major societal shift. In 1950, Klinenberg reports, 4 million American adults lived alone, which accounted for 9 percent of households. Today, that number is 31 million, a whopping 28 percent of all households.

Klinenberg, an NYU sociologist, traces the development of a diverse, rapidly growing cohort. Sixty years ago, the typical solo dweller was a migrant male laborer out West in a transitional phase. Now, there are several main species in the genus. For young urbanites, it has become a rite of passage to leave behind the Craigslist roommates and sign a lease of one’s own. Divorce rates have soared since 1950, leaving many middle-aged people solitary. Then there are elders who survive their spouses and insist on maintaining their autonomy. Today, “singletons,” as Klinenberg calls his subjects, are more likely to live in Manhattan than Montana, and the majority are women—17 million, compared with 14 million men. (This imbalance owes at least in part to women’s longevity: More of them outlive their husbands than vice versa. Klinenberg doesn’t furnish other reasons.)

The nature of living alone has changed thoroughly over the past century, in ways that make social connections essential. At one time, it was an opportunity for reclusiveness. Religious ascetics and misfits like Thoreau fled human company to commune with God or nature; otherwise, people of all ages tended to lived with family. For women in the early 1900s, living independently was particularly rare.

But modern conditions make it possible to combine an active social and romantic life with the option to retreat to a solitary haven. When you can step outside your door and find three cafes, five bars, and streets teeming with acquaintances and intriguing strangers, living alone is no sentence to solitude. Still less so when, from your kitchen table, you can chat, text, email, or Skype with remote confidants. Meanwhile, women are no longer barred by custom or financial dependence from setting up house on their own. What’s more, sex is not contingent on marriage—and Americans face less pressure both to enter and to remain in wedlock. Klinenberg convincingly argues that the convergence of mass urbanization, communications technology, and liberalized attitudes has driven this trend.

It’s clearly feasible, then, to live alone and sustain thriving relationships of various kinds. But, especially in the later stages of life, it is far from inevitable or effortless. And here is where women enjoy an advantage. 

“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.

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.