Women and the Men Who Love Them

Breaking up is hard to do—for him.

Posted Nov 10, 2019

All my exes live in Texas
And Texas is the place I'd dearly love to be
But all my exes live in Texas
And that's why I hang my hat in Tennessee.

—G. Strait singing Shafer & Shafer

Suppose members of group A have a higher opinion of members of group B than members of group B have about members of group A. Which group is nicer? If this sounds like a rhetorical question, consider that the A and B people are men and women, respectively, who judge each other after a break-up. That’s right, on average, men have a higher opinion of their exes than women do. Or, stated differently, women have a lower opinion of their exes than men do.

What can we make of this finding? Athenstaedt and colleagues (2019), who stumbled on this gender difference and then explored it systematically, present a complex picture. In a large sample of young Austrian respondents, the authors find additional gender differences in 9 of 13 measured variables. Some of these variables also covary with the attitude toward exes. Consider the five variables with the strongest correlations: [1] Men hold more permissive attitudes to sex than women do, and permissiveness predicts a positive attitude to the ex-partner. [2] Women have a more pragmatic (“shopping list”) attitude to relationships, and pragmatism predicts a negative attitude to the ex. [3] Men received greater social support from their exes (at the time), and recalled social support predicts a positive attitude. [4] Women are more likely to fault their exes for the break-up, and finding fault predicts a negative attitude. [5] Women are also more likely to see the break-up caused by both partners, and this too predicts a negative attitude.

The big unknown in these data is whether there are true gender differences in the exes' worthiness to be remembered fondly. Perhaps most break-ups are precipitated by men’s shabby behavior. It is just that the women are the ones who tend to end to relationships. Men try to hang on for the benefits of sex and social support. This line of thinking takes us in a different direction. Instead of thinking that those who hold more favorable attitudes (men), it is those who hold less favorable attitudes (women) who emerge as the stronger and wiser sex. Women are pragmatic in that they know what they want when things go well; they show social intelligence by cultivating support networks, and they are decisive when disengaging from relationships.

The reported effects are small to medium in size, with the critical correlation between gender and attitude toward the ex coming in at r = -.24 (women = 1, men = 0). The standardized regression weight for gender predicting attitude is the same, with ß = r. The authors then predict attitude to an ex from 10 variables, that is, from gender and 9 potential mediator variables. Now, the ß for gender is -.13. In other words, 9 mediator variables reduce a small-to-medium effect to a small effect. “This suggests,” the authors write “that these variables partially account for the differences in men’s and women’s ex-partner attitudes” (p. 6).

This analysis leaves two questions on the table. First, what is the nature of the residual gender difference in the attitudes toward the exes? Might it be true shabbiness in men’s behavior? This is possible but unlikely because such behavior should be picked up by women faulting their exes, and that variable has a small effect. Then what else could it be? More research is necessary, but where should we look? Second, what are the contributions of the individual mediator variables? With the correlation between gender and attitude being -.24, the individual partial correlations are not much lower even for the strongest mediators: permissiveness: -.194; pragmatism: -.212; social support from ex: -.229; faulting partner: -.229; faulting both: -.205. These are small changes, making it impossible to isolate specific individual mechanisms that might account for the gender difference in attitude toward exes. Might it be possible that men are more gracious in their post-break-up perceptions of their ex-partners?

In their final study, Athenstaedt and colleagues find that third-party raters were unable to predict the gender difference in ex-attitudes. This makes the finding interesting in its nonobviousness. The general gender stereotype of women being warm makes it hard to see that men might be the nicer exes (White, & Gardner, 2009).  

Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned. William Congrave, The Mourning Bride, adapted

The difference between women's and men's ratings of their exes is just that, a difference. Trying to explain a difference between A and B by telling a story about A (men are nice; men are weak) or by telling a story about B (women are wise; women are scornful) will likely get bogged down in ideology. Consider the 'woman scorned' narrative (see here for a somewhat self-indulgent expression of it). It fits the data! But is it true? Is it true in the sense that it is the only truth? One might doubt that. Likewise, is the interpretation offered in the reviewed paper the only truth? One might doubt that.

References

Athenstaedt, U., Brohmer, H., Simpson, J. A., Müller, S., Schindling, N., Bacik, A., & van Lange, P. A. M. (2019). Men view their ex-partners more favorably than women do. Social and Personality Psychology Science, online first. DOI: 10.1177/1948550619876633.

Jokisaari, M. (2004). Regrets and subjective well-being: A life-course approach. Journal of Adult Development, 11, 281–288.

White, J. B. & Gardner, W. L. (2009). Think Women, Think Warm: Stereotype Content Activation in Women with a Salient Gender Identity, Using a Modified Stroop Task. Sex Roles, 60, 247–260.