How often do we hear that “men are from Mars” and “women are from Venus?” Societal and popular culture messages definitely push the pervasive narrative that significant differences between men and women exist. And we sure love to focus on these differences even though research strongly suggests that men and women are more similar than they are different.
But, who are we kidding? That does not stop us from believing it, right? So let’s put this to the test, in a specific, yet highly relevant aspect of our relationships: breakups. Do men and women react differently to heterosexual romantic relationship breakups?
Breakups are more salient today
In North America, the average age of people entering their first marriage is rising (Hebert & Popadiuk, 2008). Many are constantly reminded by their parents that by the age of 25 they were married with two children (Implication: hurry up and get married!). Today, those of us in that age range are still in school, just entering the workforce, or just not ready to settle down. This change means that today, people are involved in more non-marital relationships and by extension, are more likely to experience multiple romantic breakups.
It is no surprise then that in colleges/universities, the most common problem that counselors face is dealing with the psychological difficulties that come with breakups. Breakups can have a negative impact on us both psychologically and physically. For example, breakups are associated with anxiety, depression, insomnia, loneliness, physical injuries and accidents, and in some cases suicide or homicide. Put bluntly, breakups can hurt.
Who experiences more distress?
Historically, women have been stereotyped as the more emotional and sensitive sex in comparison to men. This view has led to the belief that women are more likely to experience guilt, anxiety, sadness, and anger after breakups. Although some research has supported this, a larger body of research has suggested that it is men who suffer more after breakups. Why? One reason for this is the idea that men may have more of their emotional and practical needs met in their love relationships, so they tend to “lose” more when a close relationship ends.
Choo and colleagues (1996) conducted a survey asking university students to recall their emotional reactions immediately after a breakup. They found that though men and women both have emotional reactions to breakups, including anxiety, sadness, and anger, and ambivalence, women experienced more joy and relief following the breakup than men did.
How can this be explained? For starters, Choo and colleagues (1996) argued that women are typically more attuned towards possible difficulties in a relationship. They are able to anticipate breakups and are more concerned about warning signs. This enables them to prepare themselves in advance for the potential breakup. Secondly, women express their emotions and feelings more readily with their friends, thus making it easier to process and cope with their feelings, and ultimately come to a resolution. Men, on the other hand, do not typically share their feelings with their friends, usually keeping these feelings to themselves. In other words, women can foresee the “writing on the wall”, whereas men may not pick up on the warning signs and are faced with shock and surprise when the breakup occurs.
How do men and women cope with emotional breakups?
When we experience breakups we all engage in different activities and strategies to help “get over” the other. Some go out and party, others drink, some become more socially active and others more socially isolated. Men and women use all of these coping strategies, but research has shown that they may rely on some more than others. For example, men will rely more heavily on emotional distraction whereas women are more likely to ruminate. Both men and women are inclined to turn to alcohol or drugs after the breakup, and to blame themselves for the breakups. Women, however, are more likely to blame their partner after the breakup. Why? Choo and colleagues (1996) speculate that women usually invest more energy and resources into maintaining relationships. Therefore, when relationships fail they blame their partner for not investing as much into it as they did.
Putting it all together
It is important to note that the differences between men and women outlined here are not necessarily universal, and do not reflect all relationship types, or all individuals. The findings discussed here are not “set in stone” and can vary across situations, cultures, and specific relationship dynamics. The intention of this article is not to highlight whether one gender is a “better” partner in romantic relationships than the other, but rather to provide insights and awareness into how men and women experience heterosexual romantic relationship breakups and how they cope with them. In a qualified and contextualized way, we can say that yes, in some cases, “men are from Mars” and “women are from Venus.”