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Whether you’re a man reeling from being unceremoniously crumpled up and lobbed into the trash can of love, or you’re a woman baffled at the behavior of an ex who you were convinced was sane, chances are you’ve happened upon this article in the middle of a frantic heartbreak-induced Googling session.
While the internet is awash with break up advice for women, there’s very little information out there on how men deal with breakups. For the most part, it seems men are left to figure it out for themselves. Therefore, in an effort to aid all the sobbing ex-boyfriends of the world, let’s pull on our lab coats and have a rummage around inside the average male head!
The science of men’s behaviour after a break up
In heterosexual relationships, the foremost study into the differences in how each gender deals with heartbreak comes from researchers at Binghamton University, who pried open the personal lives of 6,000 participants across 96 countries by asking them to rate the emotional pain of their last break up. On a scale where 0 was painless and 10 was unbearable, on average, women ranked emotional pain at 6.84, while men reported a slightly lower average of 6.58.
The twist comes, however, when looking at the break up on a longer time scale. While women are hit harder initially, the study also found that they recover from heartbreak more fully, rising from the ashes of their old relationship like a phoenix (albeit one with a fresh hair cut, an updated profile picture and a new subscription to yoga classes). Conversely, when it comes to how men deal with breakups, the study found that guys never truly experience this type of recovery, instead simply carrying on with their lives.
There are several reasons why women tend to sail into the sunset post break up while men wallow in their y-fronts for months on end. Several studies into men’s behavior after a break up have found that a married man is encouraged by his wife to partake in healthier behaviors, such as quitting smoking and reducing the amount of alcohol he consumes. Post relationship, a man is likely to slide (or nosedive) back into old bad habits, partly in an effort to ‘rediscover’ his old single self, and in part to numb the negative feelings that naturally arise in the wake of a split.
Beyond giving his liver a good kicking, a newly single man will also suffer from the loss of his spiritual ‘home’– his partner. Whereas women tend to have large, complex social support networks within which they can share their grief, men’s friendship networks are, on average, much smaller and less intimate. In a study that asked participants who they would turn to first if they were feeling depressed, 71% of men chose their wives, while only 39% of women chose their husbands as their go-to confidant.
As the stereotype of masculinity in today’s society dictates that men be aggressive, self-reliant, and conservative emotionally, males are discouraged from opening up to one another from a young age, and naturally this has a dire effect on how men deal with breakups. Consequently, their partners soon take the role of listener-in-chief, the one on whom all the man’s worries, hopes and fears are heaped. When a woman leaves her partner, often she unknowingly takes his entire emotional support system along with her.
(Actually useful) breakup advice for men
As you may have surmized by now, the majority of research points towards men being generally dire when it comes to handling break ups. So, then, the million dollar question: what’s a lovelorn man to do? Fortunately for you, dear reader, the answer is right before your eyes. In short, do the opposite of everything detailed in the above paragraphs. But where to begin? After a lifetime of ingesting maladaptive coping strategies, is it possible to get back on track? (Don’t worry, it definitely is.)
For many men, the first instinct in a break up or when trying to move on is self destruction – to pirouette back into the past, filling free time with unhealthy habits and cheap alcohol to numb the pain. Hint: don’t do that. Alcohol is a depressant. Exercise, however, is the opposite – it increases blood flow to the brain, releases endorphins, and boosts production of serotonin, which is largely responsible for our day to day happiness.
Instead of spending the sudden stack of empty hours you’ve acquired moping around in your sweats and scowling out at the world through cracks in drawn drapes, use your new free time to improve yourself, or get back into a hobby you’ve lost touch with. If you’re searching to reconnect with the old ‘you’, you’re much more likely to find the answer in your favorite pastimes than at the bottom of a glass.
What to do after a breakup for guys
Next, it’s time to fill that girlfriend-shaped void in your support system. The answer here (although tempting) isn’t necessarily to rebound and cling to the next potential partner who throws a sympathetic smile your way. Instead, swallow all that silly masculine fear of appearing weak, and open up. Whether it’s a cathartic vent over a drink with friends, or a teary phone call to your parents, opening up is the first step towards making a full recovery.
Your old support system was one person which, while a nice enough notion, is impractical for functioning healthily – imagine trying to build a cathedral using only one pillar. A problem shared is a problem halved, so keep sharing, and eventually, though it may not be possible to imagine it in this moment, you’ll feel your old self again – and not just that, but you’ll be more well grounded and secure than ever before.
If you’re still feeling blue, here’s one last nugget of advice from 19th century wordsmith Kahlil Gibran:
“Out of suffering have emerged the strongest souls; the most massive characters are seared with scars.”
And once you’ve made your recovery, and emerged blinking into the sunlight of a new day? Well, maybe it’s time to join Elite Singles!
Young, Larry J., and Brian Alexander. 2012. “The Chemistry Between Us: Love, Sex, and the Science of Attraction.” London: Penguin Books
Cassie Shimek and Richard Bello. 2014. “Coping with Break-Ups: Rebound Relationships and Gender Socialization”
Hewitt, Belinda, Mark Western, and Janeen Baxter. 2006. “Who Decides? The Social Characteristics of Who Initiates Divorce?” Journal of Marriage and Family 68(5): 1165-1177