When divorcee Dominique Browning published an article called “Alone again, naturally“, in the New York Times, she was talking about why men may find it so much harder to live alone than women do following a relationship break up.
In her piece, she wrote about the time she took a tumble on a slippery wooden deck.
It took her a good three or so minutes to regain her composure, but she noted that while her inner control centre was urging her to move and get up, her negative inner voice was ‘whimpering and scolding’. It was saying, “This is what happens when you live alone.”
However, despite the slip, she then goes on to say that most women, once released from marriage, seem to feel it would be madness to go back to a setup that ‘involves not only housekeeping in all its manifold time-sucking beauty but also husband-keeping.’
She highlighted some examples, such as how her single female neighbours relish their freedom and independence, and how they love to eat at odd hours – just because they felt like it.
What she explained well was the fact that most women feel safe while nesting at home and are quite happy to be alone, whereas men are more hard-wired to be on alert for potential dangers at all times.
Men don’t care less about the perks of being alone. Being alone to them feels dangerous and unnatural. Have you noticed how common it seems for men to quite quickly remarry after suffering a divorce or becoming a widower?
I can look to many of my family members, and it is remarkable how many of my aunts and female cousins remained single after a relationship break up or losing a partner compared to my uncles and male cousins who married again within a couple of years.
Why do men hate to be alone?
Judging by the evidence around me, men do not have such a big problem with remarrying or cohabiting with a new partner. In fact, it seems as if most men prefer not to live alone for any longer than a few short months.
Most of the single women I know really love their lives and would struggle to give up their freedom. Speaking as someone who cherishes my independence, I love doing whatever I want to do when I want to do it.
But surely, why men loathe remaining alone has to go deeper than an old-fashioned reliance on having a partner to do the shopping, cooking, cleaning and child-rearing?
Despite what some long-time married women think, men are entirely capable of taking care of themselves.
Living alone without being alone
While Browning’s article did stir up some resentment from commenters over her generalising about ‘binary gender norms’, according to sociological research, Browning wasn’t entirely off the mark.
Generally speaking, women tend to be better suited to living alone than men, especially once they get older. But it has nothing to do with women being more self-sufficient. It may be down to the fact that women tend to build stronger social networks than men do.
Having a strong network of friends that offer friendship and support enables women to live alone without being completely alone. Men, on the other hand, are not so naturally prone to reach out and make friends so can be left at risk of retreating into social isolation.
A societal shift towards solo living
According to Eric Klinenberg, an NYU sociologist, there is a major societal shift going on at the moment. He says that in 1950, 4 million American adults lived alone, which accounted for 9 per cent of households. Today, that number is 31 million, a whopping 28 per cent of all households.
In Klinesberg’s book, Going Solo: The Extraordinary Rise and Surprising Appeal of Living Alone, he outlines that sixty years ago, the average single person was ‘a migrant male labourer’ that was in a transitional phase.
Nowadays though the mix is far broader. You have young urbanites moving from shared accommodation to choosing to live alone, plus the rising numbers of divorcees seeing a more significant number of middle-aged people living alone, and of course, older people surviving their spouses.
The best of both worlds
There is no doubt that all the conveniences of modern living have made it much easier for people to live alone. These days you can combine a very active social life with the opportunity to retreat to your safe-space to be alone whenever you want.
We have so much at our disposal from cafe-lined streets on our doorstep to the constant contact offered through our smartphones with social media, text, chat, email and Skype.
Klinenberg argues that with the convergence of mass urbanisation, communications technology, and people developing more liberal attitudes, it is entirely possible to live alone while at the same time sustain many thriving relationships of all kinds.
Yet it seems that in general, men still find it harder to live alone than women do. But why?
Is it down to men’s primal hard-wiring?
Many notable evolutionary biologists such as Charles Darwin and Thomas Henry Huxley theorised that men still retained their primitive hard-wired desire to protect themselves and their family from danger.
Although we are not under constant threat of attack from wolves, bears and big cats in our modern times, you could say that a man is constantly on guard against danger because he evolved to protect and fight. That’s his primary job.
Man the hunter and defender
Going back a few thousand years, a man didn’t nest and nurture. He hunted for food and battled with predators. Being alone can feel unsafe for a man on a primitive level. Back then, you needed the support of your family and tribe to have your back in battle.
If men were truly designed to be alone, they wouldn’t have had anyone looking after them when they fell sick. They wouldn’t have been able to sleep while someone else took his watch looking out for danger. There would have been no one to look for him if he ever got lost.
For ancient man, the world was dangerous enough without the added pressure of being alone.
Evolution takes hundreds of thousands of years to happen. Evolutionary biologists believe that the men of today are still biologically and physically hard-wired in the same way as our ancient ancestors. So this could be the reason why men still favour company today, just so that they know that someone has got their back.
Fish, bicycles and water
You have heard the saying that ‘a woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle’, right? Well, Browning also said in her piece that ‘a man needs marriage like a fish needs water.’
I believe that if not marriage, men like to at least to co-habit with someone soon after a breakup.
Going back again to the article written by Browning’s article, she mentioned that single women don’t mind eating breakfast at 11 am if we feel like it. We also don’t worry about cooking unless we want to. But most of all we love not being judged for liking these things.
She also said that single men could not care less about any of the above lifestyle choices. Men might be okay about living alone, but they don’t cherish these things in the same way as we women do.
Man caves and she-sheds
Men do often seek a bit of solitude too. However, they have the unique ability to be able to go to their ‘man-cave’ and be alone even while sitting right next to their partner on the sofa.
Men seem to have a unique ability to switch off and tune out when they wish in a way that women seem to struggle with.
Women tend to need to escape physically and get some separation to achieve some alone time. We cannot escape to our ‘she-shed’ and be alone unless it is a real-world she-shed, like going to a day-spa or going for a long walk – alone.
We, women, are far too aware of our partner’s needs and feeling to be able to truly escape. We need to get away from people physically to feel truly alone.
While men can usually satisfy their need to be alone by escaping into their own head-space or getting away to do the things they love for a short while, they may feel safer on a primal level when they are doing these things as part of a couple.
This could go some way to explain why men may find it harder to live their lives alone following the break up of a relationship.