Women. Stereotypically, they are obsessed with marrying. That’s supposed to be their life goal. Much more so than men, they are expected to feel crushed by the prospect of living single. That’s probably why, when scholars and writers in the popular press talk about single people, they focus overwhelmingly on single women.
And yet, when people marry – including both women and men — they typically do not become lastingly happier or healthier than when they were single. There are even indications that overall health may decrease. When studies do find sex differences, it is more often the men who seem to need marriage more.
Maybe, counterintuitively, women are the ones who are especially likely to want to live alone. In our cultural imaginations, men are supposed to be the rugged individualists, the solo explorers and the swaggering cowboys. But maybe, in fact, they are the ones pining for a live-in partner.
You wouldn’t think that from looking at the rates of solo living among young adults. As Lynn Jamieson and Roona Simpson pointed out in Living Alone, in the younger age groups, men are more likely than women to be living alone. That’s true, they note, “across all the regions of Europe and in the United States.” There’s an important reason for that. Of those who do marry, women typically do so at a younger age. That gives men more years when living on their own is more of an option.
In later life, the trend flips, and there are proportionately more women than men living alone. There’s an important reason for that, too. On the average, women outlive men. As they grow older and older, there are many more women than men left standing. They are widowed or divorced or they have always been single, and for the heterosexuals among them, there are fewer men around to live with, even if they did want to do so.
The really interesting people are the adults in the middle – no longer young adults, but probably not retired yet, either. In research published online in October 2019 in the Journal of Population Research, Jianye Liu and his colleagues studied just those people. Drawing from Canadian surveys conducted between 1996 and 2010, they focused on 6,675 people who were living alone when they were first contacted, and then followed up on their living situation for each of the next 6 years.
The study was chock full of noteworthy results, which I’ll discuss some other time. Most relevant to the matter of gender differences was this: The people more likely to continue living alone over the entire 6-year period were the women. It was as if, once they got a taste of a place of their own, they found that they really liked it. They no longer wanted to find someone to live with, if they ever did.
1. Women enjoy spending time alone more than men do.
In Germany, Birk Hagemeyer and his colleagues have been studying people’s feelings about spending time alone. In a series of studies, they have asked participants about enjoying alone time as well as trying to avoid it. In a diary study in which participants reported their experiences every day for 2 weeks, people indicated whether they had gotten enough time for themselves.
Items measuring enjoyment of being alone included:
- When I am alone, I feel relaxed.
- I like to be completely alone.
Items measuring avoidance of being alone included:
- I feel uncomfortable when I am alone.
- Being alone quickly gets to be too much for me.
In every study in which there was a significant difference between the men and the women, it was the women who appreciated their time alone more. They were more likely to enjoy being alone and less likely to try to avoid it. In the daily diary study, it was again the women who were more likely to say that they had not gotten as much time to themselves as they would have liked.
In all of those studies, the participants were in romantic relationships. Of course, I’d love to see how uncoupled men and women compare in their appreciation of solitude.
One of the reasons Hagemeyer and his colleagues focused on couples was that they wanted to understand which ones lived together and which lived separately in LAT arrangements – “living alone together.” They found that an important factor distinguishing the heterosexual couples living together from those living apart was the woman’s wishes. Women who wanted to live alone were especially likely to get their way. (Men’s wishes mattered, too, but in different ways.)
2. Women who live alone do better than men at friendship.
I’m interested in people of all ages who live alone, but societal concern focuses on older people, who are considered at greater risk for social isolation or loneliness. In 2016, the Pew Research Center published a report based on a representative national sample of Americans 65 and older. One of the questions in the survey asked participants how satisfied they were with the number of friends they had. Among those who lived alone, a much greater proportion of the women than the men said that they were satisfied, 71% vs. 48%.
Being good at friendship makes it easier to live alone and not feel isolated. Other research suggests that women sometimes prefer to live alone, even if they are in a committed romantic relationship or a marriage, because they want to feel free to meet up with their friends without running it by their partner first. They don’t want to feel obligated to include their romantic partner in all their social plans, either.
3. Women who live alone spend more time pursuing their interests and hobbies.
The same Pew survey asked participants if they were spending more time pursuing their interests and hobbies as they grew older. Among those living alone, a greater proportion of the women than the men said yes, 65% vs. 49%.
The women were a little more likely to be pursuing their interests if they lived alone than if they lived with others, 65% vs. 63%. The men, though, were strikingly more likely to be pursuing their interests and hobbies if they lived with someone else (73%) than if they lived alone (49%).
4. Women are concerned about doing more than their share of the chores if they live with a man.
Couples are getting more egalitarian in how they divvy up errands and chores, but they are not yet equals. Typically, women do more than their share. In my research for How We Live Now: Redefining Home and Family in the 21st Century, I found that women seem especially hesitant about giving up a place of their own to move in with a man. Those who were once married don’t want to get stuck doing their unfair share once again, and those who never were married are not eager to start cooking and cleaning up for another person who is not going to do as much in return.
5. Women are concerned about doing more than their share of caring for others.
Among heterosexual couples who have kids, women still do a disproportionate share of the childcare. In later life, husbands are more likely to get sick and die before their wives. That means that the women are more likely to do the emotionally (and sometimes physically) strenuous work of tending to their spouse. Often, they do so willingly and even lovingly. But they may not be all that eager to give up a place of their own to start doing so again, as Zosia Bielski explained in her recent article in the Globe and Mail about the over-65 set: “Men want to live together; women don’t.”
Source: Woman sitting on floor, Unsplash
As is always true of social science studies, the results are just averages. There are plenty of exceptions to all of these trends. I think these findings do suggest, though, that it is time to update our stereotypes about men and women, who “needs” marriage, and who loves living alone.