Science Explains How Breakups Hurt Men Differently

October 13th 2015

While women might experience more emotional anguish after a bad breakup, the effects tend to be more of a slow-burn in men—lasting longer and sometimes never fully being resolved.

That's according to recent research published this summer by researchers at Binghamton University and University College London, that casts a new angle on the stereotype that men are unthinking, detached, and emotionally inept.

"Put simply, women are evolved to invest far more in a relationship than a man," Craig Morris, a research associate at Binghamton and a lead author of the study said. But while women might hurt more when the relationship doesn't work out, men take a longer time to feel the effects. "The man will likely feel the loss deeply and for a very long period of time as it 'sinks in' that he must 'start competing' all over again to replace what he has lost—or worse still, come to the realization that the loss is irreplaceable," Morris said.

According to the study, published in the journal Evolutionary Behavioral Sciences in August, the answers boil down to differences in biology: women have more to lose by investing time and energy into the wrong person, while men have evolved to be more fleeting. "A brief romantic encounter could lead to nine months of pregnancy followed by many years of lactation for an ancestral woman, while the man may have 'left the scene' literally minutes after the encounter, with no further biological investment," Morris said.

These patterns were widespread, across nearly 6,000 participants in 96 different countries, all just under the age of 27. Researchers asked subjects about the emotional and physical toll breakups took on a scale of one (none) to 10 (unbearable). On average, women reported 6.84 in the emotional pain realm while men reported a slightly lower 6.58. Physical pain clocked in at 4.21 for women, and 3.75 for men. Researchers said the science of breakups is important, given that by 30, most people will experience at least three breakups, and at least one that has a strong negative impact on quality of life.

"With better understanding of this emotional and physical response to a breakup—Post Relationship Grief—we can perhaps develop a way to mitigate its effects in already high-risk individuals," Morris said.

Previous research supports the biological neuro-response theory describing breakups in humans, linking numerous aspects of a relationship to responses in the more primal parts of the brain: flashbacks of a previous partner trigger activity in "reward" neurons, but when those neurons are left high and dry, that can lead to a sinking, panicked feeling associated with a breakup. And like a drug addict without a fix, people who experience those sorts of breakup withdrawals have been known to act irrationally in hopes of satiating reward neurons.

Experts say that's in no small part thanks to the fact that romantic relationships satisfy urges and needs on the same level as the most basic human desires. While other forms of social rejection can be more cognitive, Lucy Brown, a neuroscientist at Einstein College of Medicine told Gizmodo, "[romantic rejection] is a life changing thing, and involves systems that are at the same level as feeling hungry or thirsty."

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