We all know the stereotype: Men, bored by the constraints of monogamy and domesticity, heartlessly dump their girlfriends or leave their wives. While newly-single men enjoy the freedoms of bachelordom, their exes sob into a pint of ice cream.
But men crave relationships and marriage as much as women (see my earlier post). What’s more, women may end more unions then men. Women initiate more divorces than men (Hewitt et al 2006; Kalmijn and Poortman 2006) and there is little gender difference in which spouse has an affair preceding a divorce (England, Allison, and Sayer 2014). In addition, on average, women may suffer less post-breakup. Marriage is strongly associated with overall happiness for both genders, in part because marriage is associated with financial wellbeing and better health (Stack 1998). But not only may marital happiness be higher for men than women (Corra 2009), the protective health effect of marriage is larger for men (Rendall et al 2011; Wu et al. 2003). In other words, men may be happier in their marriages than women and men may have more to lose in a divorce or breakup in terms of health and happiness.
Indeed, divorce is associated with worse physical and mental health more strongly for men than for women (Robards 2012). These negative health effects are not trivial—men are more likely than women to develop suicidality after a separation (Kolves 2010). Women may actually experience some health benefits from breaking up. For example, when stable heterosexual couples are asked to sleep apart (not sharing the same bed or sleeping space), women’s quality of sleep is improved whereas men’s quality of sleep is reduced (Dittami et al 2007).
So why are breakups harder on men?
Much of the negative effect of divorce on health may be explained by changes in lifestyle—such as tobacco and alcohol use (Hemminki and Li 2003). Wives encourage husbands’ healthy behavior (Reczek and Umberson 2012); without this positive influence, divorced men may rapidly fall into old, unhealthy habits. In addition, men may be more emotionally dependent on their romantic partners and have fewer alternative sources of support. When asked who they would turn to first if they were feeling depressed, 71% of men selected their wife whereas only 39% of women selected their husband (author’s calculations from the General Social Survey, 1972-2012). Married women may maintain a more diverse network of emotional support then married men, and this non-spousal support is important during a separation. That isn’t to say that men don’t have friends or family, but they may be less accustomed to seeking or receiving non-spousal emotional support. In fact, some researchers have even argued that men are neurochemically-predisposed to find breakups more difficult than women and to resist seeking help from friends (Young and Alexander 2012).
Rebounding with someone new
Divorced women are less likely than divorced men to remarry, but in the short term, it may be harder for men than women to rebound with a new partner. Online dating sites, for example, often have an excess of men. In addition, it is not clear how much of the gender gap in remarriage is due to opportunity (e.g., women may be less able to remarry) and how much is due to desire (women may be less keen to remarry). Many women, especially widows, but also divorced women with children, don’t want a second go at marriage (Lampard 1999; Davidson 2001). Previously-married women often associate marriage with increased care obligations and reduced freedom whereas men may miss the material and emotional care they received from their spouse—on average, men may be more emotionally dependency on their spouses which would make remarriage more desirable. Indeed, it is the men with low levels of social support from friends who are most desirous of remarriage (Carr 2004).
Breakups are hard for everyone
This isn’t to say that breakups aren’t also hard for women. They are. Both divorced men and women suffer poorer physical and emotional health. But the harmful effects may be stronger for men—and men may receive less support from friends or family, in part because men may be less likely to seek out this support. If you know a guy who has recently gone through a breakup, don’t assume that he’s taking it easily. Obviously, it is important to provide the same help and sympathy to women, but women may have an easier time seeking a confidant and asking for assistance.
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General Social Survey, 1972-2012. http://sda.berkeley.edu/cgi-bin/hsda?harcsda+gss12
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Young, Larry J., and Brian Alexander. 2012. “The Chemistry Between Us: Love, Sex, and the Science of Attraction.” London: Penguin Books.