Most people view their ex-partners more negatively after a romantic relationship ends than they did during the relationship. This makes perfect sense for two reasons. First, the relationship probably ended for good reason and got worse over time, leading to waning feelings for the ex.
Second, when you're in a relationship, you generally try to convince yourself that your partner is worth being with, but after the relationship ends, it's in your interest to convince yourself you made the right decision by breaking up. But is there a gender difference in how positively people view their exes? A new study by Ursula Athenstaedt and colleagues, just published in Social Psychological and Personality Science, explores this question.
In one study, the researchers probed laypeople's intuitions about this gender difference. They surveyed 487 participants and found that more than half (62 percent) thought there was no gender difference. As for the minority who believed there was a gender difference, about a third thought women would have more positive attitudes toward their exes and two-thirds thought that men would.
What did the researchers find with respect to actual gender differences in attitudes toward exes?
In three separate studies, they surveyed a total of over 800 participants, asking them about their attitudes toward their ex. The participants rated a series of statements about their ex: "My ex-partner has many positive traits." "I avoid touching my ex-partner." "When I think about my ex-partner, I get angry." The researchers used these ratings to arrive at an average score representing how positively people felt toward their ex-partners. All three studies showed that, on average, men had more positive views of their exes than women did.
Why would men view their exes more positively than women do?
The authors posited four reasons for the gender difference:
- A desire for casual vs. long-term relationships: From the perspective of evolutionary psychology, men have evolved to prefer having multiple sexual partners, whereas women have evolved to have a greater interest in long-term, committed relationships. Thus, men have a greater interest in maintaining positive relationships with their exes because they could still be potential sexual partners.
- Dependence on the ex-partner: A separate line of research has shown that compared to women, men are more dependent on their romantic partners for emotional support. Women are more likely than men to have close friends who are female, and because women are generally better at providing emotional support than men are, that means women have more supportive relationships outside of the romantic context. So without their female romantic partners, men lose an important source of social support. In fact, men often report more anxiety and depression after their break-ups than women do.
- Who's to blame for the break-up: Women are more likely than men to blame their ex-partners for the break-up. In fact, one study of divorcees found that men are more likely than women to report that they didn't know why their marriage failed. This could explain why women view their exes more negatively. They were more likely to think the ex was a problem even before the relationship ended.
- Post-break-up coping strategies: If you don't successfully cope with the break-up, you are more likely to have lingering feelings for your ex. Women are more likely than men to cope effectively with break-ups by seeking comfort from friends and actively trying to solve problems. Men, on the other hand, are more likely to use less effective passive coping strategies, like distracting themselves or resorting to drug and alcohol use. Thus women get over their break-ups more effectively, which is likely to be accompanied by waning affection for their exes.
Which of these factors can explain the gender difference in attitudes toward exes?
In the largest of the three studies (over 600 participants, mostly younger adults reporting on non-marital break-ups), the researchers went beyond just asking people about their attitudes toward their exes. They also surveyed the participants about many of the factors described above.
The following factors did help explain the gender difference:
- Men's greater reliance on their ex for social support.
- Men's more permissive attitudes toward casual sex.
- Women's greater likelihood of blaming the break-up on the partner or on both parties.
These factors didn't explain the gender difference:
- Women's greater active coping.
- Women's greater preference for exclusive, long-term relationships.
There are also some other explanations for this gender difference that the researchers didn't explore:
- Men place more importance on their partners' physical appearance, so their ex-partner's looks could be playing a larger role in their overall evaluation of the ex. And unlike perceptions of how warm and trustworthy our partners are, our perceptions of their looks are less likely to change as a result of negative events that happened in the relationship.
- As the authors of the paper described, women tend to value long-term committed relationships more than men do. But one possibility that they didn't explore directly was whether this causes women to see each relationship choice (to either begin or end the relationship) as higher stakes. If you really value being in a committed relationship and you end it, this is likely to cause what psychologists call cognitive dissonance – a psychological discomfort that comes from holding contradictory attitudes. On the one hand, being in a long-term relationship is really important to you; on the other hand, you just ended a long-term relationship. So one way to reduce that internal conflict would be to convince yourself that your partner is not worth being with. Now, of course, everyone engages in this kind of "dissonance reduction" following a break-up. But the more important it is to you to be in a long-term relationship, the greater your need to justify the break-up.
You may also be wondering if this result is much ado about nothing. Is it possible that men had more positive attitudes toward their partners all along, even before the break-up? If that were true, then these results would just reflect men's ongoing idealization of their partners. Although this possibility wasn't tested in this particular research, the large body of research on how people perceive their current partners tends to show little gender difference. Thus, we can be fairly confident that this gender difference only occurs for former, and not current, partners.
While the gender difference in perceptions of ex-partners wasn't huge, the researchers found evidence in three separate studies that men feel more positively about their ex-partners than women do. Men maintain more positive attitudes about their exes, in part, because they are more likely than women to see their relationships with their exes as providing post-break-up benefits.
With their more permissive attitudes toward casual sex, they may see their ex as a potential casual sex partner. And with their lack of emotional support from their own social network, they may see their continuing relationship with their ex as a way to get the support that they are lacking from the other relationships in their lives.
Women are also more likely than men to blame their exes for the break-up (which the authors of the article point out is both due to women's own interpretations and the fact that men actually do tend to be less supportive and responsive partners), and this can also explain why they hold more negative attitudes toward their exes than men do. Why else might men have a rosier view of their exes?
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