Can Men Live Alone?

Image André da Loba
I was asked by the New York Times to write a column that would address the growing trend towards adults living alone. The context was two prior pieces in the NYT about the phenomenon:
Two recent New York Times articles, “Alone Again, Naturally” by Dominique Browning and “One’s a Crowd” by Eric Klinenberg, extol the virtues and perks of living alone. While Browning theorized that women have an easier time living alone than men, Klinenberg noted that in the developed world, both more men and women are choosing to live alone, and are loving it.
I was actually pretty offended by Browning, a middle-aged divorce who says in part, “many women, once released from marriage, seem to feel that it would take an act of madness to move back into a setup that involves not only housekeeping in all its manifold time-sucking beauty but also husband-keeping…A marriage is a lot of work. Strike that. A man is a lot of work.”  She goes on to talk about how all the women she knows who live alone are thrilled to be rid of us men, but men can not stand solitude (yeah, she doesn’t use any qualifiers, she’s talking about ALL men).
Klinenberg’s piece is actually more interesting, citing statistics that in most U.S. cities 40% of households are single people, with NYC approaching 50%, and many European cities 60%. He posits that technology has a lot to do with this and doesn’t try to make it a gender issue (I suppose Browning would argue these are all women, though I am not quite sure how that would work if the men who are not living alone would need a woman to scratch their back by her theory, unless we are all cuddled in giant homosexual communes somewhere).
Anyhow, my piece was about how I had lived alone for 6 years, am a profound introvert, but found in the end that the tactile contact of being with a partner, and my kids, was more important to me than the tranquillity of the garret I loved so much on my own. And, yes, I really adore a good cuddle once in a while (okay, whenever I can get one).
The comments I got on my column were very interesting.
There was the obligatory:

“Perhaps you could get yourself a teddy bear for those trying nights without wifey/mommy? Man up, pal.”

–poor but debt free, Columbia, PA

And the sweetness of:

“Amen. After 37 years of marriage, cuddling is the glue that holds it all together.”

–Stu, Connecticut

But then there was this:

“This is my main reason for contending that men are less able to live alone. Generally I have found that men don’t like solitude. They don’t like eating alone, sleeping alone, coming home to an empty house. They need affection — “cuddling”. Again, not all men, but this has been my observation for many years. I’ve concluded that it has to do with men being forced to be “manly”… Public displays of affection are more tolerated in society among women than among men, so men crave that human touch in private as much as possible. Dating sites are loaded with men who list among their desires “cuddling on the sofa with a movie…” or similar.

I’m single and I love my solitude. Beyond my need for intimacy, I really don’t care for the cuddling. I like my space.”

–Ginger, Philadelphia

I found myself considering what Ginger said.  It was a lot more thoughtful than Browning’s “men are a lot of work” theory.

I’d be interested in what other men have to say. I know plenty of guys who do like solitude. Who like to spend time by themselves. Heck, I spend as much time in my study by myself just because I like the quiet and space. But this idea that it is the societal expectation that we “man-up” which leaves us starved of human contact makes a certain amount of sense to me. The idea that us guys all really just want to cuddle cuts against the stereotype that what we really want is sex with no strings attached except perhaps a pop tart in the morning if things end up going all night.

I don’t really know if other guys like to cuddle as much as I do. I admit in my piece that perhaps I am “a particularly needy and sometimes neurotic man of a certain ilk.” But maybe the need to show so little emotion in public means that guys tend to want more rather than less non-sexual affection in private.

I do think this idea that men are less capable of living alone than women is foolish. If we are talking about heterosexuals, the math would indicate that men and women are living together in equal numbers. And the inverse is also true, heterosexual men and women are living alone in equal numbers.


About Tom Matlack

Thomas Matlack is a venture capitalist.


  1. Now I’ve been married 45+ years and live alone. Its a strange set up but I live in the house and my husband lives in his apartment garage. The only thing we share is the property the two structures sit on.
    We only had sex or any kind of intimacy once on our wedding night, The day after I was told to leave him alone and don’t ever bother him. We would fight for weeks and I told him that I wanted a marriage with a family , kids, 3 bed room house! He said right it will never happen, just leave and find a boy or girl friend that will make your life complete. Just don’t bother me and I want and will be left alone. So I just hung out in the shadows of life. I should have left but I didn’t I’ll never forgive myself. Now were in our mid 60s and things are the same except I don’t care about or myself any more, putting up with this crap all my life ruined me.

  2. Ah yes, we humans love to categorize, don’t we? It gives some semblance of order to a world that we can’t completely comprehend. So it is with pretty much everything I’ve read about this.

    I do not know why *all* single men are living alone. I can only speak for myself. Quite simply, I love my freedom, my independence, and the constant challenge of having to figure everything out for myself. It makes life interesting. Does it come with a price? Sure. Sometimes I think I’d be happy with a companion or kids. But, married life has its prices too. To suggest that simply because single life has a price, that it is not worth living is as ridiculous as making the same argument about married life.

    There’s one more thing to consider: marriage is, and always has been, an economic institution. The union of a man and a woman produced children for labor, created a stable domestic arrangement, and thus gave an overall economic benefit to society. It was not about uniting people in romantic love and marital bliss.

    It should be very obvious to us by now that humans can and do fall in love with more than one person. So, I see nothing wrong with dating someone for as long as you want, breaking up, and then moving on to another person if you find yourself no longer in love or wanting to be together. You should only get married after considering *all* aspects, including the economic and financial ones. Too many people get married just for the sake of getting married, only to have it end in divorce, heartache, and financial ruin. I do not fall into this category, so my “happiness” could simply be relative to my circumstances and not linked to some abstract idea that it can only come from lifelong union to a female, eh?

  3. Of course men can live alone. Anyone CAN live alone. The question is, do they WANT to.

    I happen to agree with AnthonyZarat there are fewer reasons for men and women to co-habitate with our current rules of marriage and interaction in developed nations as women acquire more opportunities for autonomy and as the judicial system appears to punish men who divorce women.

    Okay, that said, does this mean Men and Women are unable to live alone if they were to find themselves suddenly without the opposite sex?

    Nonsense. Humans have consciously made the choice to live without the opposite sex in communal relationships for thousands of years. The only difference today is we have created a culture of ALONENESS.

    People are accustomed to living by themselves for longer periods before they marry (if they marry) because of the economic challenges of even leaving home. So they stay in their parents basements or they live in group protocols for longer periods until they can get on their feet or find themselves in long-term partnered relationships. These may last for long periods, often long enough to raise kids, and when they break up, these people are usually in their late 30’s or early 40’s starting over alone.

    I find most of my friends and associates who are in this condition are NOT COMPLETELY UNHAPPY. They remark it is difficult sometimes because they miss their significant other but they also remark they like the peace and quiet they are able to experience, which allows them to find themselves at this point in their lives.

    I lived alone after my divorce from my first wife and I personally found it, at first, quite difficult. I slept on the sofa because my bed had too many memories, most good, but a lot were not so good. Once I worked through the emotional part, I got a pet cat, went to work, got rid of my television and focused on where I wanted to be next.

    This was a very peaceful part of my life. I dated occasionally but I was in no hurry to put anyone back into my home. It was another three years before I decided to consider another person seriously. Quiet as it’s kept, I could have lived alone for quite a bit longer as I had come to enjoy the serenity of my home environment. It was ordered, clean and easy to maintain since I was the only person living there.

    Now, I remarried, I have a nine year old, my life is noisy, busy, filled with wife, school, work, dealing with the challenges of a life with family again. Occasionally I miss that peace and quiet of those years. When I meditate to maintain my center, I often find myself transported to that place of quiet in my past.

    Living alone is about our choices and how we deal with them. Sometimes a period of reflection, whether it be a moment, a month or years can be what a person needs to find out what is important to them. Being a man means you are often out of the social loop of touch, and if you are a man who needs, likes, or wants touch, living alone may be a challenging time. But not impossible to surmount. It is ridiculous for anyone to assume anything about an individual who chooses to live alone. Other than it is a choice that person makes for themselves.

    Gotta go, my kid is home from school…

  4. “Dating sites are loaded with men who list among their desires “cuddling on the sofa with a movie…” or similar.” – Ginger, Philadelphia

    Yeah, I’ve been noticing this a bit. There are quite a few women that forever reason are trying desperately to flip the script by stereotyping men the way that women have been stereotyped, I guess it’s some way to reassure themselves. Ginger takes men putting in personals profiles that they want to cuddle and watch a movie as proof that men are more physically needy. I guess if she also comes across men saying they love to take a walk on the beach (assuming that’s what they believe women want to hear), then men love the beach more than women as well.

    I was at a meeting a few weeks ago where we were discussing monogamy. An older woman kept insisting that men were really needy and wanted women to come home to, that they were lonely. A younger man kept trying to tell her that he didn’t want to settle down and was appreciating having his options to date different women – didn’t see any reason to dedicate himself to one yet. The older woman didn’t have anything to say. She just couldn’t deal with it – an actual man explaining that he wasn’t like that. She’d settled on her narrative about men – and would continue to see confirmation about it everywhere and ignore that which falsifies it.

    This analysis is hardly new. Yes, us men are not supposed to have certain types of bonding outside of with our female partners. We’re not supposed to express certain emotions. But, women don’t want to accept their responsibility in this and their talk of “emotional cheating,” being jealous, and attempting to shame a man into giving attention to only her – not thinking of others, not being happy about things unrelated to her.
    Should I do a Ginger and say “Oh no, I’m not talking about all of them. It’s just my experience, and there’s proof of it right here!”?

    Too many blame the patriarchy, when most of what men pick up on how to act is through interactions and being told not only by men how to be, but also their significant others, or picking up on how their mothers speak about their fathers when they are absent.

  5. Luis Garrido says:

    As a recently divorced man who is living alone for the first time in his life at the age of 39, I can say that at some point in your life, it is actually impossible to live alone.

    In fact, I live with multiple ghosts.

    There are the ghosts of my three children who come visit me weekly. My first ‘bachelor pad” is actually a nice three bedroom apartment in the suburbs. Close to the library and the parks, not the bars and city nightlife. During the week when they’re not there, I can feel their presence. Through the relics of their last visit, through their possessions which get so carefully put away after they leave – something that rarely used to happen when we all lived together.

    There’s the ghost of my ex-wife who I still struggle to reconcile with in my mind because we haven’t been able to reconcile in the physical world. She surfaces when I least expect it. When I drink from the faucet or make a dish she didn’t like, when my girlfriend pays a visit, but mostly at night when I try to figure out why things ended up the way they did. How it got so ugly.

    The last ghost I live with is all too familiar. He’s there reminding me of what I long ago was determined to accomplish and who I wanted to be. Reminding me of the things that got in the way and how I’ve navigated to where I am. He’s a friendly ghost, like the kids. And along with the kids, he makes it possible for me to continue to keep living alone but without an expectation that it will always be this way or that there is one singular path forward. He reminds me that I am resilient and, ultimately, have done a decent job of navigating through life. I think my younger self would be alright with living alone right now and that helps me to embrace what is.

    • Tom Matlack says:

      Luis thank you for this profound, moving and sad comment. I have been right where you are and in the end it was a constructive and positive period for me which lasted 6 years. But there was plenty of pain along the way. I wish you well. And, yes, send you a hug.

  6. some generalizations: a woman’s relationship with other women is qualitatively different than a man’s relationship with other men … when it comes to the level of intimacy, touching, and ‘nearness’ … on the whole. for a man to act with other man like a woman would act with other women would be considered gay. (period). … and that would be considered bad.

    consider the facts of fidelity and monogamy in our society. one girl at a time, right? thus, a man is left with one option for intimacy: one woman. a woman’s options for intimacy: one man, or all other women. (and by intimacy, i am speaking of the deeper needs for soulful communication.)

    thus can a woman make the claim that a man is needy. perhaps it’s obvious. the norms of society starve him of physical, emotional, intimate contact with essentially the rest of the human race … but for one other woman. perhaps, also, this is why that woman felt a little leached upon.

    so, for a man to feel as at peace without a woman in his life (as well as a woman would feel at peace without a man in her life), he needs to develop the kind of depth of relationship with his male friends.

    however, all this being said: for heterosexuals, there is undeniably a difference between same-sex friends — no matter the level of intimacy — and opposite sex partners. duh. different ingredients, different cake.

    perhaps all this was stated above, but i just wanted to make the point of the normalization of male isolation.

  7. AnthonyZarat says:

    I think in the future most men will live alone, for these reasons:

    1) Marriage offers fewer and fewer advantages to men.
    2) Divorce is increasingly devastating to men (automatic loss of property, income, dignity and — most importantly — their children).
    3) Divorce is more and more frequent, as more and more wives jump at the favourable economic and legal opportunities that divorce offers to them.
    4) Technological alternatives to marriage continue to improve, and increasingly offer the same benefits as marriage (friendship, companionship, and intimacy) without the horrifying risks.

    Many young men already live, predominantly, in virtual worlds. The real (physical) world is a place where the new generation periodically comes up for air and money. Their virtual lives offer meaning, friendship, companionship, and intimacy. This will continue to increase, and in a few more years relationships between men and women will end.

  8. I think that sometimes people make the mistake of building vast generalizations on not much more than the evidence of their personal experience. Personal experience is valuable, but when you’re making claims such as “men cannot stand solitude,” a whole lot more research is needed than just what you observe in your everyday life. I happen to know many men who don’t do well without partners, but I wouldn’t make the error of applying that observation to all men or even to “men” without a qualifying term of some kind. It’s that kind of sweeping unsupported generalization that causes trouble, no matter who or what the topic is.

  9. I have heard that men tend to not form as many close friendships as women do. If that is the case, it would make sense that they would have difficulty living alone, because they wouldn’t have a good emotional outlet when they are all alone. In that scenario, even women who are alone will be able to connect to people emotionally through close friendships.

    Obviously these are broad generalizations. There are variations within each group. But does anyone know if this is true in their experience? That men do not tend to have as many close friendships? By that I would mean, someone with whom you can talk about emotions with.

  10. Ruth Martin says:

    I agree this woman is confused and rather sexist. First of all there’s typology: introverts and extraverts-each of whom have distinctly different needs. The idea that men as a group (‘all men’) can’t live well being alone is again, not credible. ‘Rid’ of men? Sorry, can’t go for this. As an older women living alone I don’t think it’s the end all and be all. I miss the affection, caring and sex one has as part of a couple, for one, and also the conversations with a man.
    But to go deeper, it takes work, important work to live together with a chosen member of the opposite sex. ( or same, depending on your orientation.) We don’t develop all our capacities by living alone. There are ways to “work through’ differences of opinion, style, etc. To live and let live. These are important lessons for character development, certainly, but even more so for soul development. The argument above by Browning especially, seems soul-less to me. As we age, “tending to soul” becomes extremely important! It is a vital developmental stage. It may seem like we could do that in solitude-but the challenge is to do it in relationship!

  11. She goes on to talk about how all the women she knows who live alone are thrilled to be rid of us men, but men can not stand solitude (yeah, she doesn’t use any qualifiers, she’s talking about ALL men).
    this woman is confused.
    there more alot male than female loners.

Speak Your Mind