breakups are harder on men? let’s revisit this one…

My last post, breakups are harder on men? who knew?, prompted some interesting comments, including one from French blogger Lady E, who raised some  points that I suspect would have been echoed by others had they taken the same time to comment.  Her comment was very thought-provoking to me, and enjoyably so.  I was about to reply, but decided instead to address her salient points in a post.

Here is her comment:

Biochemistry is all good and well, but extrapolating data from animals to humans who have an altogether different psychology, and have such a range of genetic make-ups (there is more variability within the male or female population than between any “average” male and female), not to mention the way more important experiences and cultures can be precarious, hence why when Glamour writers, who do like to select and misinterpret evidence, which backs up say their intuition : It’s not science. Not that it’s not interesting, because gut feelings, experience and personal wisdom are interesting and valid in their own way, but have virtually nothing to do with science.
Anyway, sorry, let me me get off my soap box, vasopressin playing a role in men’s sense of property, why not ?
But breakups being harder on men ? That would truly contradict my intuition that men land back on their feet way faster than women.

I understand the inherent dangers in extrapolating data from animals to humans, but I also know that a lot of respected biochemical psychology research is being produced in the States right now and subjected to the same scientific standards as other research, including being peer-reviewed and published (like the study quoted in Glamour, which was harvested from the Journal of Health and Social Behavior).  Not being a social scientist myself, I have only my natural skepticism and experiences to color my digestion of this research, and the startling aspect of it (to me, at least) is how the physiology of attraction or love or whatever can override the psychology.  In other words, our biochemistry is stronger at some times and in some regards than our psychology, causing us to do things and react in ways without any awareness of the “why.”

The science of brain chemistry is interesting to me not because I think it dictates how we behave, but because I think it influences us in ways of which we are completely unaware, regardless of intelligence, unless we know about it. Barring the scientifically-educated, most of us wander through our lives assuming it is free will that guides our choices, completely oblivious to why we like a particular person’s scent or body shape.  I first became opened to the idea of brain chemistry as it relates to human relationship behaviors, shortly after my separation, when I read The Female Brain, by Dr. Louann Brizendine, a UC Berkeley- and Yale-educated neurobiologist and medical doctor.  Her book, written in terms that every lay person can understand, amazed me and sparked a curiosity that has continued in the years since.  There is obviously much research to be done in this area, but I find it fascinating to watch it unfold.

Certainly, as with other aspects of biology (like heart health or female menstruation patterns), specific socio-geographic and cultural elements can strongly influence populations and change the nuances of the physiology.  Cultural differences likely play a strong role in modulating the influence of those chemicals in the brain.  It’s probably not without some degree of merit that we tend to stereotype Italians and Greeks as emotionally passionate, and Germans and Japanese as less so.  But, as is the case with all my posts, I’m writing from an American perspective, for an American audience, so it is the American experience that I am observing and on which I’m commenting.  I recognize that this is a limitation of my perspective.

But Lady E’s point that really arrested me (and one I’d expected to hear from more women, frankly) was made in the last line included here:

But breakups being harder on men ? That would truly contradict my intuition that men land back on their feet way faster than women.

This was exactly my sentiment when I first picked up the article, and I still feel it with some degree of persistence.  I think most women have shared the experience of watching an ex out gallivanting around with something in a mini-skirt, while we are still sitting at home, going through gallons of Haagen-Dazs and chick flicks.  And I think our impressions of that are not altogether wrong, but I think it’s worth asking why men seem to get over things faster, rather than assuming that they are simply cold-hearted jerks bent on turning our hearts into hamburger.  Here’s my hypothesis:  it’s because they aren’t necessarily in love when the breakup occurs.  In other words, I have a sneaking suspicion that men who are simply dating or messing around don’t have the experience of the woman becoming “home” to him, and therefore they aren’t going to suffer the breakup repercussions discussed in the Glamour article.  The article doesn’t explicitly lay this out, but when I read it, I assumed the study’s authors were considering only subjects who had been in committed, medium to long-term relationships.  It seems logical to me that there must be some duration of the relationship necessary to create the vasopressin-induced bonding that leads men to the breakup blues, but again, I’m just guessing here.  I also (again, perhaps wrongly) assumed that the male subjects were either broken up with or involved in a mutual break-up, and I think that this point would also greatly affect the man’s ability to “get over it.” Depending on the circumstances, most of us move on more easily when we’re the ones in control of the decision.  Finally, I think that the breakup studies likely did not include marriages or other long-term relationships in which one or both of the parties had grieved the relationship prior to the actual breakup.  Grieving the end before it occurs would surely diminish many of the effects of the subsequent breakup.

I think, however, that one more factor may be in play when Lady E and other women snort at the vasopressin/home concept, and that is this:  I have long thought that men take longer to get really, truly invested in a relationship.   And by longer, I’m not talking in terms of weeks or even months.  I’m talking years.  I’m not implying that men are cavalier about relationships, just musing that women seem to sink into a relationship sooner and reach their commitment equilibrium earlier on than men.  And maybe men sink more slowly as time goes on over many, many years.  In other words, I’m wondering if women are as in love and committed as they’re ever going to be fairly early on, whereas male commitment and bonding deepens over the years until it matches their mate’s.  I think that men who are recovering from the end of a really long-term marriage are just as shattered — if not more so — as their female counterparts, but men rebounding from a relationship of a year or two (or even less) seem to bounce back more easily than their exes.  I have absolutely no scientific proof of this theory as it is entirely anecdotal, but I won’t be surprised if the next round of scientific studies on the effect of brain chemistry on relationships bears me out.

Certainly there are so many variables at play in how relationships end and how we process that ending; it is part of the complexity of humanity that keeps us interesting.  And part of me hopes that science never fully unravels the mysteries…

And now, just for fun, some Google search results on this topic. Clearly more than one woman shares Lady E’s skepticism…

Do Men Go Through the Same Breakup Stages as Women?

Yahoo Question on “Ask”:  Attention Men! Do you cry for a break-up?

AnswerBag Question:  Do guys really feel hurt after breakups?

5 Comments

Filed under dating, divorce, healing, men, relationships, sadness, single mom

5 responses to “breakups are harder on men? let’s revisit this one…

  1. So…spot on with some of your comments and assertations. I can say from personal experience (and of course all of this is more valid because I am both greek and italian in genetic heritage)…that the feeling of being “home” with the woman I loved was paramount. (and in case anyone is wondering… I am a man). I can not speak for all men on this, but for me it was true. It is also true that this was a one time thing for me. I dated…a lot…when I was a bachelor. Did not get married until I was 40. Was in love twice before….but never felt “home”.
    The suggestion that men in dating mode don’t feel this rings very true for me. Also, for me, the sense of family was paramount in this feeling. I inherited a daughter with my marriage….and life was simply complete.
    I had broken up before with gals. Some by my decision. Some by theirs. Some mutual. 2 were hard on me. One was devastating…but recoverable. The divorce though, took “home” away. After 2 1/2 years, I’m still trying to recover. The house I live in is where I live. It used to be home, but is now a shallow reminder of what was lost.
    Although I am not going to take “glamour magazine” as a scientific reference, there is some validity in the science they present.
    (I actually studied the effects of vasopressin and other neuropeptides years ago). Vasopressin, aka Antidiuretic hormone, is involved in the consolidation of short term to long term memory. To your point that men take longer to “get there”….the release of this hormone is a facilitator of storing those long term memories and (and thus the memory of the feelings)…and they become in essence hardwired in. Not wanting to extapolate too much from animal research…but hormones in some instances do act differently in female and male brains. Whether vasopressin specifically acts to faciliatate the feeling of “home” in males, I do not know. But it could be a plausible explanation…and based on my n of 1…may explain why the article in some respects describes this greek/italian male.
    Cultural, hormonal, gender based differences all play a role in things as well as learned behaviour. Protection and Possesive….are adjectives used when we defend our “home”. It may take us longer to get there in general. But once there, we fight and claw to keep it.
    Your supposition that “women are as in love and committed as they’re ever going to be fairly early on, whereas male commitment and bonding deepens over the years ” has a lot of merit. I would also posit that this may be in part responsible for the “bad boy syndrome”. All that love gushes forth at once…for the bad boy excitement. That exuberance carries over until the emotional turmoil that the “bad boy” inflicts finally overcomes the “love track”. Men (at least in my experience) can get infatuated with the bad girl thing…but it is usually short lived and there has never been a feeling of home. But…send me an ivory girl, and give me a few years….and the constancy, and validation, and reciprocity….might just take me home again. (and G looks great in jeans and a baseball cap….just sayin)
    Sorry…I know this was a bit long and rambling.

  2. f#@*knows

    Speaking purely from my own experience of the break up I am going through I would say I am taking it harder but that is how I view it as I see my OW as being in a new relationship and she no longer considers ‘us’ and I can’t get past it.

    Its incredible really, since I started my blog I thought that I was trying to get over the affair but I truth I still longed for her. I still do. Throughout this time I have been to counseling, on anti depressants, blogging separated from my wife and boy (to make the opertunity of ‘us’ an option).

    Then I stead of ‘us’ happening I was gently fobbed off by her, what I thought was the be all and end all she was everything I wanted is now nothing as she moves on and I am left picking up the pieces of my shattered marriage.

    So anyway back on point. I don’t conform to your theory, I became very attached in a short period of time and it is still with me 2 years since the affair actually ended.

    I accept though affairs are different from normal relationships and the break up of them is again totally different

  3. Pingback: You know and I know « A blogger in turmoil

  4. Simmy

    I find men who get attached to limerance which lasts up to around 1.5 years (and scales downwards until 3 years) suffer the most so long as he saw something long term in her. In my experience, they feel the pain of heartbreak much more in this period of time. I think it may be due to being touched more in the early stages of a relationship and therefore creating more sensors releasing vasopressin.

    Between the 3-7 years, I find them almost celebrating their break up because they were sexually less interested in their previous partner (declines from around 1.5 years and lust and infatuation tapper off at 3 years). After the rebound girlfriend/sex dies off, they suffer immensely as a result of denying their pain but by then their previous girlfriend has dealt with the heartbreak and is back in the dating game.

    After 7 years I see the worst of male heartbreak. Maybe they do infact catch up with that emotional attachment women experience earlier and therefore feel the effects of heartbreak more or because they have set in their life plan that they will be together forever. Other reasons for the larger effects is they have children and don’t want the family home broken, have aged and find it hard to pull women in and can’t replace the ex as easily as they could in their younger years.

    • That’s a really interesting perspective; thanks for sharing. Your theories would certainly explain why men and women seem to respond so differently to break-ups at particular points in the relationship. I was especially taken by your comment concerning between 3-7 years: “After the rebound girlfriend/sex dies off, they suffer immensely as a result of denying their pain but by then their previous girlfriend has dealt with the heartbreak and is back in the dating game.” This has absolutely been my experience after several long-term relationships, but I couldn’t really identify why they always seemed to be cocky and happy immediately after, and then come back, all morose about 6 months later, after I’ve already grieved and moved on. :-) These are the conundrums that cause us to wonder if gays and lesbians are in any better sync than us straight folks….

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