In Dominique Browning’s New York Times piece “Alone Again, Naturally“, she explores why being alone after a divorce or breakup seems to be more unbearable for men than it is for women:
“Judging by statistics, to say nothing of the glaring evidence around me, men do not have any problem remarrying. In fact, most men seem unable to live alone for longer than, say, at the outside … three months.”
I had always assumed that it was the other way around, but reading her piece made me question whether or not my perception was a faulty gender stereotype. I decided to canvas some men I know and get their thoughts.
“I have known men that lived without showers, heat, and light for months, after a breakup because they really didn’t give a shit. I’m talking flashlights,” T. said.
“I think this is old-fashioned gender identity horseshit, in the same tedious vein as ‘women can’t drive,’ and ‘men don’t eat quiche,’” quipped J.
It might be horseshit, but looking back at my own trail of exes, none of them stayed single for very long. Most of them were in relationships within months.
All of my boyfriends fall in love with someone else immediately, I’ve often lamented to friends.
One ex, who got into a serious relationship basically minutes after we split, actually said to me when we got together for a friendly drink a couple of years ago, “You really opened me up to the idea of being in a relationship.”
Meanwhile, I was still single. I resisted the urge to tell him he had closed me off. I had always taken his statement as an insult, or as some sign of failure on my part. But now, I’m rethinking it. Maybe he was just worse at being alone.
My friend S. said:
“A breakup is often about ego, no matter who did the breaking up. My last major breakup was mutual, if anything I wanted to breakup more than she did, yet I am certain she handled the following months better than I did. She was much stronger and did not reach out to me as much as I did to her. I had a hard time with the thought of her with another guy, even though I knew it was the best thing for both of us. I felt less than a whole person for quite a while.However, my ex did not bask in her freedom, she went out and found somebody else.”
After most of my breakups, my instinct has not been to go out and find someone else. Quite the opposite. I’ve preferred to be alone and lick my wounds, having no contact with the ex. Even if I was hurting or missing him, it didn’t make me want to reach out to him or run out and look for a replacement.
My predominant feeling after breakups, once the grief passed, is usually relief. Relief to have my own space again, relief that I will finally have more time for the gym, relief that I won’t have to tote an overnight bag to work, relief that I will no longer have to worry about the relationship falling apart. It all takes a lot of energy.
Browning articulates the feeling well:
“Sometimes [women] suffer pangs of loneliness, sometimes we ache for the companionship of that mythic soul mate, but mostly we cherish our independence. We love doing whatever we want to do, when we want to do it … A man is a lot of work. Anyone who has been in a bad marriage knows that its defining characteristic is the unspeakable loneliness in which one feels shrouded, a sense of isolation amplified by not being alone.”
She goes onto to talk about the sprawling freedom a single woman can embrace once they are alone again:
“We love not being judged, not being criticized, not being hemmed in. We love the give and take of making our own decisions. We love putting things down on a table knowing they will be there when we return. And eventually, we come to understand that there is no reason to curl up on ‘our’ side of the bed while we sleep. We no longer have to take sides. We can sprawl across the expansive middle. Single men could not care less about any of the above lifestyle features.”
S. found the statement preposterous:
“I don’t get why this woman thinks men hate to be alone. Why would she think men don’t cherish their independence? Why would men think any less of being able to do what we want when we want? Why would women enjoy making their own decisions more than men do? That’s absurd. I am sure that someone who has been in a bad relationship might feel this way a little more than most once free, but to suggest that single men are oblivious to the perks of freedom is preposterous.This woman is trying to convince herself of something that isn’t true. Whenever I read something like this, I think, ‘This is someone who is trying to convince themselves that they are happy being single.’ No one who really is happy being single would assume that others who are single (an entire gender!) does not appreciate the solitude/freedom as much as they do.”
So how does Browning account for the different ways men and women deal with existential loneliness? “Men are hard-wired to feel danger all the time … That’s what makes a man a man. A man is on guard because that is his job,” Browning posits. She continues:
“Being alone feels dangerous to a man. No one has your back. No one feeds you. No one nurses you in your sickbed … Women do not walk around alert for danger. Nor do we feel that being alone is dangerous … Women are hard-wired to read the signals that keep us from danger, and, when confronted by trouble, we escape, fleeing into our homes … To a woman, being home feels safe.”
An interesting theory she presents. That post-breakup, women feel the urge to nest at home where it’s safe while men go out in search of companionship, as urged by our lizard brains. I don’t know if I agree, but I have spent many a post-breakup week watching “ANTM” reruns and eating chocolate.
So what do you think? Do you think men have a harder time being alone after a breakup? Share your opinion in the comments.