You know this story: Boy meets girl. Boy tells girl he loves her. There is no one else but her. But then, at some point, boy says, "It's not you, it's me. Let's be friends." The boy changes his Facebook status to "single" and fills his Instagram feed with photos of himself partying with never-before-seen women. The girl, meanwhile, falls apart and tells her friends how unfair it is that he's already over the relationship, while she's busy analyzing every minuscule thing that she might have done wrong, for months, maybe even years.
Before I continue, I recognize that some of you may not actually "know" this story. This post may not apply to you, but if you want to be aware of the effect this type of situation has on others, please read on. On the other hand, 85 percent of women will experience a romantic breakup in their lifetime, so let's be real: You probably do know the story.
When you get your heart broken, the only consolation may be the knowledge that he's hurting just as much as you, but his oddly buoyant social media social life is telling you otherwise. Can you trust it?
Pain, Pain, Go Away
Researchers at Binghamton University recently surveyed more than 5,000 people from 96 countries, and found that when it comes to breaking up, no one emerges completely OK. When graded on a scale, men, on average, did feel less pain than women after a breakup—both emotional and physical.
It's not necessarily because the men were less into their partner. We may have evolution to thank instead. Because when it comes to mating, women just have more to lose. The lead author of the study, Craig Morris, writes:
"From a biological perspective, women bear the larger minimum parental investment—nine months of gestation as well as the metabolic costs of lactation—and therefore are more 'selective' in their mate choice."
This selection process tends to be more well-thought out for a woman because she is either consciously or subconsciously planning for a long-term commitment. That's why it feels a lot like the end of the world when the mate you finally "select" decides he doesn't actually want you after all.
But let's not forget that men, too, feel bummed after a split; they just express it differently. Morris writes:
"Men report more feelings of anger and engage in more self-destructive behaviors than women. Women, in comparison, frequently feel more depressed and participate in more social, affiliative behaviors than men. Women's behaviors could be argued to be more constructive strategies as a result of their tendency to preserve the relationship, whereas men choose destructive strategies for maintaining their own self-esteem."
These so-called "constructive strategies" may include analyzing your relationship to death, so perhaps there is some good that comes out of perpetually annoying your friends.
The Right Of What Went Wrong?
In a piece for The Atlantic, researcher Lauren Howe discusses how, post-breakup, many of us try to figure out what went wrong. Howe says it's completely normal, and in "some cases, this type of storytelling can be positive, helping people to make sense of—and come to terms with—painful things that happen to them."
If you're the type of person who believes your personal qualities can change throughout your life (versus staying fixed) then you can see negative qualities or experiences as opportunities for personal growth, Howe says: "The stories we tell ourselves about rejection, in other words, can shape how, and how well, we cope with it."
Adopting this attitude may help ease the pain of a breakup, she says. "A person might think: I was bad at communicating in the relationship; I guess I just can't open up to people. Another story might be: I was bad at communicating in the relationship, but that's something that I can work on, and future relationships will be better."
Morris adds that critical self-analysis, while understandably depressing, can benefit us in the long run. In a 2011 campus-based pilot study, he and his team found that while women lost more self-esteem after a breakup (twice as much as men), they were almost always able to identify a silver lining of increased personal awareness and greater perceptivity regarding future relationships. Moreover, he found this coping mechanism helps women recover more fully and emerge emotionally stronger than men.
Feelings, Nothing More Than Feelings
For most men, this type of self-reflection is just not on the menu. According to Dr. Scott Carol, a relationship expert and psychiatrist at the University of New Mexico, men have a different approach to dealing with their feelings:
"Men tend to repress their grieving and take a 'fake it until you make it' approach...some men become dogs and go for every hookup...but they are terrified of intimacy and run like hell if a woman wants anything more. Alternatively they party with their guy friends to drown their sorrow or bury themselves in their career or their hobbies—anything to keep their mind off their loss and their pain."
This might make you reconsider the sudden onslaught of happy posts on your ex's Instagram account. The truth is that it typically takes men longer to get over a breakup than women, Carol says: "It can take some men years—or even decades...if they truly loved her. They just don't show their grief to others—or even to themselves."
Because many men never learned how to properly deal with their emotions, they don't know what to do with them when they suddenly arise. "The tricky part is that men are raised to hide their feelings and to not let you know if you hurt them—the worse the pain, the more they have to hide it," Carol says.
Josh Klapow, a radio host and clinical psychologist at the University of Alabama, believes this lack of emotional development hinders relationships in other ways, including preventing men from connecting or being vulnerable with their partners on a deeper level. This attitude makes men value relationships as "accomplishments" instead of as meaningful partnerships. As a result, he says, "while they may mourn the loss of the relationship, it is more about a failure versus a loss of a person." Their detachment also helps men "move on to the next [relationship] more quickly." And ostensibly, continue this vicious cycle again.
Biology also plays a role in expediting breakup pain for men, according to Dawn Maslar, a biology professor and author of Men Chase, Women Choose: The Neuroscience of Meeting, Dating, Losing Your Mind and Finding True Love. When a men enters a relationship with a woman, Maslar says, his testosterone levels drops, making him more susceptible to bonding with oxytocin (a.k.a. the hormone that makes you feel lovey dovey). But once he decides to exit the relationship, his testosterone goes back up, reducing the effect of the oxytocin: He literally stops feeling love. "In other words, when he's done, he's done, because his body helps him to disconnect."
So maybe the real story should go something like this: Boy meets girl. Boy tells girl he loves her. There is no one else but her. But then, at some point, boy says, "It's not you, it's me. Let's be friends." The boy changes his Facebook status to "single" and fills his Instagram feed with photos of himself partying with never-before-seen women. The girl, meanwhile, falls apart and tells her friends how unfair it is that he's already over the relationship, while she's busy analyzing every minuscule thing that she might have done wrong, for months, maybe even years.
But the boy falls apart, too—he just doesn't show or tell anyone. It sucks for both boy and girl, just in different ways. And it probably sucks even more for him, but he'll never tell you, because he's not allowed to. Just like the end of Inception, you'll never really know the truth.
Finally, what I've learned through thousands of hours analyzing "what went wrong" in my previous relationships is this: There is no answer that will make the pain go away. There is only the next relationship. According to research, one of the most effective ways for either gender to recover from a breakup is to date someone new.