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Science of break-ups: who hurts most, men or women?

By Sarah Moses Saturday, January 9, 2016 - 02:00
The end of a romantic relationship can be just plain awful for both partners. But men and women don’t suffer break-up pain in quite the same way, recent research found.

Break-ups suck. They can cause very real physical and emotional pain and might just be one of the toughest things we have to go through.

So it’s no wonder scientists have a term for the break-up blues. ‘Post-relationship grief’ can last for weeks, months or longer, and it can have major consequences on our lives – from not being able to study to skipping class or losing a job.

Thinking about break-ups is obviously not a whole lot of fun. But knowing what to expect when partners go their separate ways is important: most people experience a break-up at some point in their lives.

Understanding what happens might help people who are likely to go through an especially tough time cope better, says UK researcher Craig Morris.

There wasn’t a whole lot of research out there on how people of different ages and backgrounds go through a break-up. That’s one of the reasons that Morris and a group of other researchers decided to put science to work in understanding how people deal with the end of a relationship.

Who suffers most, him or her?

One of the things they got to wondering was whether men and women experience break-ups in the same way. Now what would you expect from a romcom? He wipes away a manly tear then carries on with a stiff upper lip, while she spends weeks sobbing into a box of chocolates? Or he hits the bottle and vows to win her back, while she runs off with a flash new lover?

To find out the truth, the researchers asked just over 5700 men and women from no fewer than 96 different countries. The participants filled in surveys about romantic relationships including break-ups. Then they were asked to think about one break-up in particular and rate the emotional and physical pain they felt on a scale of one (no pain) to ten (unbearable). Once all the surveys were in, the researchers analyzed the results and compared the scores of men and women.

So who comes out worse? Not surprisingly, the situation is a bit more complex than the clichés we can imagine.

It turns out that women do suffer more emotional and physical pain than men after a break-up. However, they are more likely to recover completely from the experience and over time become stronger for it, Morris explains.

Men, on the other hand, may feel less pain over the short-term and seem to move on more quickly. But they may never truly get over a relationship, Morris says. Over time, what they’ve lost sets in when they realize how difficult it is to find another partner.

Symptoms of a broken heart

Though negative experiences may be less painful for men, both sexes go through their fair share of unpleasantness. Anger, depression, a loss of focus, and anxiety were the most common emotional responses to a break-up in the study. And when it came to physical reactions, the broken-hearted dealt with insomnia and weight loss or gain, to name a few.

Three out of four people have gone through a break-up at some point in their lives, the surveys showed. And most have had to deal with more than one – four break-ups was the norm. Since the people in the study had an average age of 27, it’s pretty common to experience several break-ups early on in life, the researchers concluded.

So if you’re going through a break-up, you should remember (a) you’re not the only person in the world to feel like this, (b) time heals, and (c) there are plenty more fish in the sea. All true, of course – but probably the most useless advice any broken-hearted person has ever received!

Source: Quantitative sex differences in response to the dissolution of a romantic relationship, Morris, Craig Eric; Reiber, Chris; Roman, Emily Evolutionary Behavioral Sciences, Vol 9(4), Oct 2015, 270-282.

Suffering from a break-up? Share your woes or ask for advice on our discussion forum, Let’s Talk.

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