Why Some People Can't Stop Thinking About Their Exes

Gender differences in coping with a relationship breakup.

Posted Jan 18, 2020

How do you deal with a relationship breakup? Some people throw themselves into work or sports, in an effort to distract themselves from the heartache. Others try to numb the pain with alcohol or drugs. Still others jump right into a rebound relationship, trying to move on. And then there are those who seek out social support, spending more time with family and friends.

In a series of studies, Austrian psychologist Ursula Athenstaedt and her colleagues examined the use of these and other recovery strategies in a sample of 876 young adults who’d recently experienced a breakup with a romantic partner. Their overall results indicate that the strategies you use to recover from a breakup may depend on your gender.

First, the researchers found that the men were much more likely than the women to think positively about their ex. In particular, the men still clung to the hope that they might get back with their former lovers. Meanwhile, the women tended to make a clean break from the relationship by focusing on the negative qualities of their exes and dismissing their positive aspects.

Athenstaedt and colleagues maintained that this finding makes sense from an evolutionary perspective. That is, men maximize their reproductive fitness by engaging in multiple short-term relationships, whereas women do so by forming a long-term relationship with a man who will contribute to childrearing. From this perspective, men should hold on to the notion that their former girlfriend is still a potential partner, even while searching for alternatives on the mating market. In contrast, women should have little desire to return to a relationship that failed to meet their long-term needs.

Second, the researchers found gender differences in the types of coping mechanisms people use after a breakup. Specifically, the men were more likely to adopt “lose yourself” strategies, such as working long hours or engaging in extreme sports—or by numbing the pain through alcohol or drugs. Furthermore, men were more likely than women to jump into a rebound relationship, even when the long-term prospects were not good.

In contrast, women tended to seek out social and emotional support from friends and family. They also gave themselves time to heal before making themselves open to the possibility of a new relationship.

From a social network perspective, this finding makes perfect sense: Women usually have more friends and stronger emotional ties with them than men do. Also, women are accustomed to sharing their emotions and concerns with other women, both as talkers and as listeners.

Men, in contrast, tend to lead more solitary lives and to have more competitive relationships with other men. They’re also more dependent on their mate for social and emotional support. So when a relationship breaks up, they may lose the one person they felt comfortable opening up to.

Third, these studies show that men and women differ in the way they perceive the cause of relationship breakups. For women, the cause tends to be seen as clear: It’s the man’s fault. This clear-cut explanation for the demise of the relationship helps women make a clean break so that they can move on with their lives.

However, men often claim they have no idea why a relationship broke up. They can’t blame their ex, since they still hold out hope of reuniting with her. And, of course, they’re unwilling to blame themselves—not even the women do that. Without a clear perception of what caused the breakup, men have a harder time moving on.

Prior research has shown that men fare worse than women after a breakup. This finding holds not only for dating relationships, but also in cases of divorce or a partner’s death. The current study sheds light on the reason for this. Women make use of their extended social networks to garner the emotional support they need. In contrast, the most supportive link in men's social networks is broken when they lose their mate, so they resort to “mind numbing” strategies that are ineffective in the long run.

For the most part, men and women do move on with their lives after a romantic breakup. But the interim period from the end of the previous relationship to securely settling in with the next can be difficult for many people. Once they’ve entered into a new relationship, both men and women report negative attitudes toward their ex—in other words, they’ve convinced themselves that what they have now is far better than what they had before. This certainly is a healthy frame of mind for nurturing a new relationship.

In the end, it seems that thinking favorably about an ex is a sign that you still haven’t gotten over the breakup. At the same time, ruminating over your romantic past could be keeping you from moving on. Instead, making a clean break with your ex and seeking out emotional support from your social network are two important steps you can take to heal yourself after the end of a relationship.

Facebook image: Monkey Business Images/Shutterstock

References

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