You know the scene: A forlorn young woman walks to the fridge, grabs a pint of Ben & Jerry’s and eats straight from the container, dripping spoon in hand. The audience gets the message loud and clear: This girl’s been dumped.
Meanwhile, her ex-boyfriend is probably shrugging off the split and hitting the nearest bar, looking for an immediate rebound.
When it comes to breakups, we tend to think that women are devastated while men quickly move on. But a new study from researchers at Binghamton University and University College London reveals that breakups actually hit men harder than women.
The study, which surveyed 5,705 people in 96 countries, found that women may feel more immediate heartbreak at the end of a relationship, but men experience greater emotional trauma over time.
Many male respondents seemed to have never gotten over certain breakups, even decades later.
“When you move from the numbers to the actual stories, you can see that women are clearly talking about something in the past,” said Craig Morris, the anthropologist who led the study. “But when you read men’s responses, you never get that sense of closure — the breakup is always something that they’re just dealing with. It’s a constant wound, even if they’re now married with grandkids.”
This was also true for the respondents (nearly a third of the total) who identified as not exclusively heterosexual.
Morris attributes men’s lingering pain with the expectation in Western culture that they should be “tough.” (The majority of responses came from the United States, Britain and Germany.) Whereas women usually have strong support systems to get them through difficult times, it’s rarer that men will express vulnerability with their friends.
“If a guy shows up for Call of Duty night while his friends are all on the Xbox and he says, ‘Guys, I’m kind of sad, I really can’t play tonight,'” Morris said, “then the guys just say, ‘Oh okay, see you later.’ ”
“They’re probably thinking, ‘What do we say? What do we do?’ ” Morris said.
So give it up to your girlfriends, girls. They’re saving you from the miserable fate of not being able to talk about your feelings.
Meanwhile, many of the men surveyed described still being upset years later.
One respondent from Britain wrote: “Although I’m 63 and have not seen this person for 40 years, I still think of her regularly and imagine myself in conversation and love situations with her.”
Even though he is now married to someone else, he hasn’t been able to stop loving her. When he feels close to truly getting over it, something will once again trigger a sense of loss and the pain returns.
“I have never stopped thinking of her as my girlfriend although the only way I can express my love is in silent acceptance of the situation because she is happily married to someone else,” he wrote.
A respondent in Turkey feels his pain: “She cheat and after I breakup with her suddenly I will wake up [in the middle of the night]. I feel like [sic] I paralyzed in the whole body.”
Compare this to an American woman’s description of her breakup with her first boyfriend of 15 years. She summed up being dumped in one sentence: “It had a lasting impression on me, mostly negative.”
But she moved past it long ago. “I’ve seen him since, but even his mannerisms kind of make me sick now, and make me realize that some bad things happen for a reason,” she wrote. “My husband and I are very happy and very devoted to each other. Yay for me!”
The difference between how male and female respondents coped with their breakups runs counter to what evolutionary biology teaches us.
Since men can have as many children as they want with as many partners as they want, there’s no need to for them to be choosy like women, who only get a few chances to reproduce with the right person. So it makes sense if men move on quickly — they have less to lose from picking the wrong mate.
But this study reveals that men’s hearts can supersede their biology, Morris said.
“They do fall in love,” he said, “and when that person is gone, men can get very, very sad.”