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Do Men Handle Breakups Worse than Women?

Medically reviewed by Steven N. Gange, MD, Susan Kerrigan, MD and Marianne Madsen on January 28, 2023

It’s easy to be anxious about the internet. In just the past few months, Instagram has been called out for its negative effect on young women’s self image. TikTok has been criticized for massively promoting pro-anorexia videos to teens recovering from eating disorders. Meanwhile, extremist websites influence everything from vaccine resistance to the Capitol riot


Yet, beneath the cloak of online anonymity, men may have discovered a safe space to be their true selves. Far from promoting violence and bullying behavior, recent research suggests that these online forums are shattering stereotypes. Instead of being the cold, unfeeling males still depicted in much of popular culture, these men seem invested in their romantic relationships. So what does the study say about gender roles–and do men handle break ups worse than women?


Big Boys Do Cry


The time-honored cliches about men not caring about their relationships, being emotionally unavailable, or unwilling to display their feelings has endured well into the 21st century. Do men conceal complex emotions because it’s in their nature to do so? Or do they learn at a young age that most of society is uncomfortable with such displays? When studies rely on traditional couples counseling to examine this conundrum and how it affects relationships, they must overcome an inescapable bias. That’s because their sample is primarily composed of people with the time, money, and willingness to participate in couples’ counseling. 


Just as online political surveys can draw a more diverse and representative sample than traditional landline polling, by scouring online forums like Reddit an international team of psychologists led by researchers at Lancaster University was able to reveal some surprising insights about how men and women deal with problems in their relationships. Researchers harnessed the same type of “big-data” analysis that has driven studies on everything from diet to driving. As far as they know, this is the first time complex algorithms and key word harvesting software has been leveraged to analyze relationship problems.

Dr Ryan Boyd, the project’s lead researcher explained that it was only when the study was underway that “…we realized that this was an important opportunity to put a lot of common ideas about gender differences in relationships to the test. For example, are men truly less emotionally invested in relationships than women, or is it the case that men are simply stigmatized out of sharing their feelings?” Utilizing natural language processing methods that scoured the writings of the nearly 184,000 people who anonymously posted their relationship problems to an online forum, researchers discovered that women were more likely to use self-focused language. When they discussed their relationships, women more often used the “I” pronoun. The words they chose reflected negative emotions and anxiety along with fewer couple-focused words. Men by contrast chose words indicating a more “secure attachment state.” They used the “we” pronoun more often while choosing expressions that reflected a positive emotion.


Of course, the stronger attachments felt by men may have been influenced by the age of the posters. Although the mean age of people in professional counseling is in their late 30s, the mean age of the online help seekers was under 25. Further, the men who discussed their relationships online were, on average, younger than the women. Whether male or female, immature partners often romanticize early love and make it the center of their lives. 


The Different Ways We Bond


For men of all ages, a central issue is that often their only close relationship is with their partner. Not only did a study suggest that almost 100% of women had a best friend versus just 85% of men but, perhaps more significantly, the male friendships were less intimate.The problem of a man’s “best friend” being his wife or girlfriend (much to her dismay) is so common that it was “solved” by a recent Saturday Night Live sketch promoting a “Man Park.”

The Lancaster study also revealed that conversations about sex occurred far less often than many would expect. Indeed, words like “porn” appeared less frequently than ones like “money” or “laundry.” While school, housework, and finances were popular themes, the most common ones were communication and shared feelings with themes of heartache earning the top spot by appearing in over 20% of the samples. If the study is any indicator, men online are far more willing to discuss their sadness, their tears, and their fears of a breakup than previously believed. This suggests that men are more open than they are often given credit for once the risk of revealing their true feelings is removed. Because the forum skewed considerably younger than the general population, it could also suggest that Gen Z males are more emotionally open than older generations. 


Both this study and previous ones suggest that a lack of close friends or other support groups may be why men seem to suffer more after a break up. Many may be completely alone while women are more likely to have a strong support system. This is why an earlier study suggested that while women experience more emotional pain in the immediate aftermath of a breakup, they tend to become stronger after the experience. While men may move on, they never fully recover.


If the man’s intimate partner is their main relationship, they may become completely unmoored when it ends. While this may not be a primary driver for the suicide rate, it’s worth acknowledging that while this has been increasing for young women, middle-aged white men continue to kill themselves more often than any other group. Studies like the one done at Lancaster could encourage counselors to examine their own unconscious biases which may not account for the depth of many men’s feelings. For couples, the study should encourage more open communication. And for men, it is perhaps permission that it’s okay to feel, to cry, and even to mourn for lost loves.


Written by John Bankston

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