My last big breakup was almost three years ago. It was horrible (we never spoke again), and I grieved in a big way. I vented to my friends constantly, I wrote—and I cried, like, a lot. Meanwhile, my ex-boyfriend had a new girlfriend within six weeks and another one right after her. (Yes, I kept tabs on his social media for much longer than I should have.) I marveled at how quickly he seemed to have moved on from this thing that felt so big to me.
I had to find out once and for all: Is the romantic stereotype true? Do guys really get over breakups faster than women?
I’d heard so many stories similar to mine before—female friends feeling crushed that their ex-boyfriends had moved on at warp speed, apparently feeling little to no emotional backlash from the split, as they hopped straight back onto the single scene completely unscarred. At least, that’s how it looked from the outside.
Turns out, like pretty much everything about relationships, breaking up for men is actually more complicated.
Men break up longer, women break up harder?
I asked my friend and mentor Bobbie Thomas what she thought about all this—she’s an accomplished working woman in a happy marriage and is raising a 2-year-old son in the heart of Manhattan, which in my mind means she is very wise. She put it like this: “Women break up harder, but men break up longer.”
What she means, is that in general, women will heavily emote, talk with their friends and spend time analyzing the relationship in order to gain closure or perspective in hindsight. This process is difficult, but usually leads to emotional clarity and an openness to a new relationship—a light at the end of the tunnel.
Men (again, in general), on the other hand, will typically bury their feelings and “move on” by making a deliberate effort to start dating again immediately. This means they procrastinate processing what happened, and as a result, their feelings come back to haunt them again and again in later relationships.
Here’s what the studies say:
This just isn't Bobbie's theory. There’s actually real science to back this up.
After surveying more than five thousand people from ninety-six different countries, a study from Binghamton University found out that after a breakup, men tend to engage in more “destructive” behaviors. The lead of the study, Craig Morris, put it like this:
"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."
Morris also notes that the intense self-reflection and major hits to our self-esteem that women tend to experience after a breakup can be beneficial. In 2011, he and his team conducted a campus-based study that found women “were almost always able to identify a silver lining of increased personal awareness and greater perceptivity regarding future relationships.” Even more encouraging? This coping mechanism “helps women recover more fully and emerge emotionally stronger than men.”
If we’re emotionally stronger, why does the breakup seem to hurt us more?
Here’s the part where the traditional stereotypes about men and women and romance seem to really manifest themselves as true. Women are taught to be comfortable with their emotions and to express them openly. So we do. We cry, we share our sorrows, we go to therapy, we do all kinds of things to actively “feel our feelings” and then try to feel better. Our suffering is pretty much on display for all to see.
On the other hand men, who are brought up with a traditionally masculine approach to emotions, are taught to, you know, man up. That means retaining your independence, never asking for help and always appearing strong and in control. That’s why you see guys engaging in the destructive behavior mentioned above, has nothing to do with emotional processing: drinking and partying, burying themselves in work, sleeping around or dating a new woman right away. (Putting a series of band-aids on a bullet wound, if you will.)
I asked Emily Holmes Hahn, the founder of LastFirst matchmaking about this. She more or less echoed the study’s findings. “Men get over breakups differently than women, but certainly not faster,” she said. "Both sexes experience the same degree of grief, anger, hurt, or whatever emotion the breakup has caused. Men, however, will often go to great lengths to mask these feelings, in an attempt to seem more (stereotypically) masculine, while women generally like to share their raw emotions with friends and family, and often take significant time off from dating in order to heal."
Oh, so moving on isn’t always what it seems?
Usually not. Another relationship expert quoted in Psychology Today, Dr. Scott Carol, said that men tend to adopt a “fake it til you make it” attitude, which means repressing those grieving feelings and basically doing whatever it takes to take their mind off the pain. Why? Because the end of a relationship is a mark of failure. What's more, the mourning they experience is more about that—the utter failure of it all—than the loss of an actual person. (Ugh.) This detachment is why guys are so much more prone to, you guessed it . . . the rebound relationship.
But really, we all need to look out for rebound relationships.
Holmes Hahn says, “Actively pursuing a rebound fling is the quintessential ‘guy’ thing to do immediately post-breakup, but women are definitely inclined to this quick-fix maneuver as well. As much as a man fresh out of a relationship will physically enjoy the feeling of being with someone different, the rebound girlfriend is even more important to him psychologically, as she helps him signal to the world and to himself that “I’m okay!,” “I’m strong,” and “I didn’t let my feelings get the best of me or slow me down!”
In other words? “I am not a failure.” Holmes Hahn went on to dish out a bit of advice to me, which is to stay away from guys on the rebound, no matter how much I like him or how aggressively he might pursue. (Could have used this advice a while ago, Emily!) If we really like him, she says we should try just being friends for a while—and see if any sustaining relationship could blossom once he's had time to heal.
Got it. But what’s the bottom line here?
One of the most important things to keep in mind (that I have a really hard time remembering) is that men are not less emotional than women, but often, they are not as well equipped to handle their feelings as women. Like Holmes Hahn said, a big breakup will absolutely hit you both with feelings of grief and anger. You just might not see his—and you certainly won't often see it on his Instagram (so stop stalking already).
Just keep in mind that while you’re spending hours venting, over-thinking, and batting self-doubt… you’re healing! Meanwhile, if he keeps on relationship hopping, or transforms into a workaholic, he might never truly and fully move on from what you guys had. (So don’t be too surprised if you get that out-of-the-blue text months or years later.)
One final note that may make you feel better… Or worse? A study from 2011 found that the most effective way for both men and women to get over a relationship is to date someone new. But not in a rebound kind of way. So when you’re ready—truly ready—getting back out there will probably be the most healing thing you can do for yourself.
(Just be sure to ask yourself these six questions first!)