When I was 27 I started seeing a guy (let’s call him Brad), who was 10 years my senior. He said he wanted something serious, and after a few intense dates, he said he wanted that with me. My feelings? Same — times infinity. I was infatuated, revering Brad as the most wonderful guy I’d ever met, let alone dated. But after a few months, it became evident that Brad, however eager to settle down, would never be able to commit to me. One of the reasons? He wasn’t over two of his exes. One of them was an ex he’d parted ways with over two decades ago.
Yes, Brad, pushing 40, was still hung up on a girl he’d been with in high school. I was baffled. Had there been some tragedy? Had she been killed in a fire? No. It’s just that she broke his heart rather abruptly, after about a year of going steady. He hadn’t seen it coming, and she’d been cruel — transforming from prom date to mean girl in an incomprehensible instant.
My first “real” boyfriend in college who I had been with for two years had once blubbered while we watched Jules et Jim because it was his ex’s favorite movie — an ex who left him because he’d cheated. Another guy I’d dated was seemingly over the girlfriend that had left him, but if ever she came up in conversation, he’d become so melancholy I’d have to leave him be for a good 15 minutes to stare longingly into space. Then there was Franz, my love from Germany, who as soon as his internship in the U.S was finished, reunited with his ex back in Heidelberg. “In some ways for me, it was never really over,” he’d said.
While I could relate to the pain of being dumped (and even the demobilizing depression that had followed in a couple of cases), this male behavior confused me. What was particularly befuddling was this: They weren’t just sad or missing someone or even recognizing that they maybe weren’t ready to move on, they seemed to be still processing the sheer fact of the breakup — even if the breakup had been eons ago.
These guys weren’t lovesick; they were shell-shocked.
I talked to countless people (of various genders and sexual orientations) about what I was observing. They all said the same thing: Dudes just don’t bounce back after they get their heart broken the way women do. Recently I asked my fiancé (miraculously, I landed a guy who pines after me!) and he agrees with this sentiment, adding that were it not for therapy, he probably wouldn’t have met me because he probably wouldn’t have gone on to OkCupid (it works!) because he probably wouldn’t have felt ready to date again.
Does It All Come Down to Deep-Seated Gender Roles and Expectations?
It turns out there's some science to back up my hard-earned (and real life) conclusions. A recent study found that while break-ups take a more immediate emotional toll on women, men often "never fully recover — they simply move on."
I consulted a few mental health and relationship experts to learn more. I was surprised to find that everyone I talked to not only concurred that men and women handle breakups differently, but that quite often (in heterosexual relationships, at least) the man has a more difficult time coping.
Men are more prone to being shocked. The greater the shock of the loss, the longer it takes to recover.
“I have always had a theory that is related to males traditionally being the pursuers,” Toni Coleman, a psychotherapist, relationship coach and divorce mediator. “They like the pursuit and seem to place more value (at least initially) on a woman that is beyond their reach. When she ends the relationship, this rejection could hit his confidence and self-esteem hard.”
That rejection can stimulate obsession, which can then turn into denial, which renders the wounded man “unable to move on.”
“I have many images of men sobbing and even curling up in fetal positions in my office over a relationship loss — even after they were the one who was unable to commit earlier on,” Coleman goes on. “Men are the ones who more often bring in an email where they have taken one line and interpreted it as a reason for hope, even when it is clear there is none.”
Coleman has also found that often, men are less willing or able than women to take accountability for what went wrong in the relationship.
“[Men] often struggle with accepting responsibility for their part in the breakup, instead seeing her leaving as an unfair decision that they did not deserve,” says Coleman.
“Men are more prone to being shocked,” says Dr. Gary Brown, a licensed marriage and family therapist in Los Angeles. “The greater the shock of the loss, the longer it takes to recover.”
Traditionally, society encourages women to talk about their relationships with one another, while men are often encouraged to 'man up.'
But why would men be less prepared than women? In Brown’s estimations, it comes down to knowing just how attached you are to your partner — a cognizance that may more easily manifest in women than men.
“Women tend to recover faster because they know how attached they are to their partners, so the shock isn't as great,” says Brown. “The pain is still there, to be sure, but it typically doesn't last as long because women intuitively know what the magnitude of the loss will be if things don't work out.”
In all this dissecting, it’s important to note that men are not less emotional than women, but rather they may be less equipped with emotional support. And to some degree, it’s not their fault.
Richard Matzkin, a former men’s therapy group leader and the author of "Loving Promises: The Master Class For Creating Magnificent Relationship," asserts that it’s more a matter of women “being more in touch with their emotions” and more “emotionally durable."
Traditionally, society encourages women to talk about their relationships with one another, while men are often encouraged to “man up,” as it were, and not submit to feelings. They bury them rather than work them out. Is it any wonder they may bubble up years later when they’re trying to love again?
This same thinking — that men should buck up — can also dissuade men from seeking counseling or therapy or even, simply, deep conversations with other men. As such they’re missing out on the tools that may be invaluable to anyone going through a loss or trauma.
“Males lean heavily towards a belief that they should be able to deal with their own problems and solve them themselves,” says Coleman. “Asking for help has always been perceived as a weakness. In earlier generations the joke (and it was so true) was that men would not stop and ask for directions when lost. They would drive for hours, lost, but refuse to ask for help and instead try to find where they needed to go on their own. It was a guy thing. GPS has changed that, but you get the point: Guys don't like to be vulnerable or appear weak.”
Venus and Mars (and Women and Men) Are Getting a Little Closer
The good news is that this is beginning to change.
“Our culture has shifted and men have been socialized to be more open and vulnerable,” says Coleman.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Society has a ways to go in all things gender equality, and that includes emotional honesty and exploration for men. Still, men (and women, surely) should seek help if they can’t process that a relationship ended, or if they’re having genuine trouble moving on even once they’ve given time to mourn it.
And if men are hung up on past loves, their new or prospective partners probably don’t want to behave the way I sometimes did. Once, I literally held a man while he wept over an ex, all the while silently begging the universe to make him some day love me the way he loved her. I chose his needs over my own and it backfired for both of us.
Coleman advises that we don’t beat ourselves up for trying to help, but also strongly recommends backing off from potential partners who are clearly not ready to move on from a breakup, no matter how long ago.
“If a woman feels the need to help him get over her, there is a problem, and one only he can solve,” says Coleman. “She should suggest he do that and get back to her when/if he has, and if she is still open to it, they can try again.”
I never did talk to Brad again, but I heard he got married. And not to his high school sweetheart, but to someone he probably met after we dated (but not long after). I went to her Instagram looking for answers to impossible questions like “Why her and not me?” For a couple of hours, I felt a tad unhinged, a little obsessed, like I’d just agitated an old injury, knocked around the scar tissue. I had to call a friend and talk it out. After our chat I felt fine, resolved and, once again, over it. But if I hadn’t had that friend to talk to, if I hadn’t intuited that this was an issue to be immediately addressed where would I be? Quite possibly, trapped in the past, just like Brad had been.