Watch a movie or TV show in which two characters break up, and you’ll see the same narrative every time: the guy is happily hanging out with his bros the next day watching football, while the girl sobs over a carton of ice cream (Take Gilmore Girls, for example, when Rory’s ready to wallow with the most massive tubs of Ben & Jerry’s ever).
As it turns out, that portrayal is only half-true. Though women tend to feel the pain of a breakup more intensely at first, over the long-term men may be less likely to fully recover, according to a new study in the journal Evolutionary Behavioral Sciences.
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“There is already a very robust body of literature on human pair-bonding from an evolutionary perspective: what cues attract us to a mate, strategies we employ to establish a relationship; what has been lacking is a detailed look at what happens when a relationship fails,” lead author Craig Eric Morris, PhD, of Binghamton University, explained to Health.
To investigate that, Morris and fellow researchers from Binghamton University and University College London surveyed 5,705 men and women from 96 different countries on the amount of emotional and physical pain they felt following breakups, having them rate those two on a scale from one (no pain) to 10 (unbearable). They also had participants recount their memories of a significant breakup in their past.
For both physical and emotional pain, women rated their agony higher in comparison to the men. But interestingly, in the free form responses about their memories, the researchers found that women were more likely to say they got over it, whereas the men still seemed to feel many of the negative emotions associated with the breakup.
“I feel that, and this is a broad generalization, that women are more perceptive and responsive to their own feelings,” Morris explains. “I think women ‘know’ that the relationship is over (whether or not they initiated the breakup) much more quickly than men do. With men, we see a bit of emotional lag in registering the breakup.”
Morris also believes it’s possible that the guys’ reluctance to grieve a relationship has a lot to do with how they think they’re supposed to act (see: the aforementioned movies and TV shows). “Men, at least in our culture, seem taught to not express their feelings following a breakup,” Morris adds. “I think men don’t feel the pain initially, but they will eventually and this lag leads to a great deal of internalized suffering that is expressed as depression, anger, and self-destructive behavior rather than a tacit expression of ‘I had a rough breakup and am sad.’”
In other words, instead of dealing with their feelings, they move on, probably before they’re actually ready for it.
“I believe that men are also enculturated to feel that being single again is ‘cool,’ so they should just ‘man up’ and find a new partner,” Morris says. “As they go through this process, perhaps many times, it may start to sink in just how valuable a partner they lost and how ‘uncool’ that they find being single to be.”