Sometime in 1990, my friend “Mike” was driving through busy traffic in the town where he, his wife and their one-year-old daughter lived. In the car with him was his family and his mother-in-law, who had just flown into town the day before to see her granddaughter for only the second time in the baby’s life.
Mike was admittedly irritated that he had to take the day off from his high pressure job to spend valuable time shopping and lunching with his family, when he felt pressured to be in the office. It wasn’t a good time to be away from work. The company was struggling to make their numbers for the month, their yearly financials were poor and he knew that taking time off when it was likely cutbacks were coming put him in a bad spot with his boss.
So, instead of enjoying the day with his family, Mike was on his cell phone, participating in a conference call while he drove, distracted by what was being discussed in the meeting. That is why he ran a red light, why the semi- hit his family at 60 miles an hour, why his mother-in-law was killed and his wife badly injured.
A year later, after his wife, “Sharon,” recovered physically from her injuries, after physical therapy gave her the ability to walk without a limp again and plastic surgery repaired the damage to her face to the point where the scars were nearly invisible, it was clear to Mike that his marriage was another casualty of the accident he caused.
“I remember the look on Sharon’s face in the hospital when she first realized what happened and that it was my fault,” he told me. “I knew then that she would never look at me the way she had before. I was no longer her protector, the man who looked after her and took care of her. I would always be the man who killed her mother. I have never gotten over that look.”
He knew what was coming when Sharon said she needed to talk to him, when she told him she was no longer in love with him, that she wanted a divorce and never wanted to see him again. “The last time I heard my mother’s voice, it was her screaming,” she said to Mike. “Every time I see your face, I hear her scream. I can’t do this anymore. I wish I could, but I just can’t. I am sorry.”
Even though he knew it was coming, even though he had prepared himself for the worst, Sharon’s words knocked the wind out of her husband. “It was like I couldn’t breathe, like she had stabbed me in the gut,” he said. “I literally felt my heart break.”
Stab the body and it heals. But injure the heart and the wound lasts a lifetime. – Japanese novelist and Geisha Mineko Iwasaki
It is Harder for Men to Recover
Obviously, Mike’s case is an extreme example of a breakup brought about due to extraordinary circumstances. It may sound callous, but at least Mike had a clear understanding of the reason Sharon stopped loving him.
But, for many men, the reason they lose the loves of their lives isn’t so clear and that is why it is often much more difficult for a man to recover from heartbreak than it is for a woman. And that isn’t just my biased opinion as a man. There are actually studies that back up my claim.
Researchers at Binghamton University and University College London showed that women experience the pain of a breakup more intensely at first, but men never really fully recover from losing the affections of women they truly love.
In a study of nearly 6000 subjects from 96 nations, men and women were asked to rate the pain they felt emotionally and physically from a breakup on a scale of 1 (no pain) to 10 (excruciating and unbearable).
What they determined was women feel the initial pain of breaking up both emotionally (6.84 to 6.58) and physically (4.21 to 3.75) stronger than men do, but that men don’t fully recover from a breakup like women do.
“While breakups hit women the hardest emotionally and physically, women tend to recover more fully and come out emotionally stronger. Men, on the other hand, never fully recover — they simply move on,” said the study.
The reasons for this are both biological and sociological.
“Put simply, women are evolved to invest far more in a relationship than men,” Craig Morris, Binghamton research assistant, said.
“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. It is this ‘risk’ of higher biological investment that, over evolutionary time, has made women choosier about selecting a high-quality mate. Hence, the loss of a relationship with a high-quality mate ‘hurts’ more for a woman.”
But, for men, social evolution requires them to compete with each other for the attention of women to whom they are attracted. Winning the love of such a mate not only satisfies the man’s desire for love and affection, it also provides him with a sense of where he fits in the social environment in which he lives.
Men with wives or serious girlfriends fit better in social circumstances where such relationship are valued. Men without them feel left out or somehow estranged from the successful part of society.
As an example, during the staff meeting at my company before Christmas our president asked everyone in the meeting to say one thing they were thankful for about their personal lives that year, the year that my marriage ended.
Each person in the room said they were thankful for their long marriages to women they dearly loved. When it came to my turn, I said I was thankful that I was still on friendly terms with my former wife of 30 years. They all looked at me like I was homeless.
It was really at that moment that my personal loss of my marriage (which happened in July 2019) hit hardest; it was when it really started to sink in that I was single for real and for good.
“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,” said Mr. Morris about the emotions I was experiencing.
How Men Respond to Heartbreak
The reality is that men typically aren’t emotionally configured to handle a breakup efficiently. Instead of allowing ourselves to have a grieving period, we suppress our emotions or replace them with anger. Out of fear of being seen as “drama queens,” we internalize our feelings and allow them to fester and inculcate in our psyche a sense of injustice at being dumped.
While the women in our lives are actively expressing their feelings with close female friends, working out the details of why the relationship they had with us failed and coming to terms with the emotional pain breaking up caused them, we are busy watching “the game” with friends, drinking too much beer, and ignoring how much our hearts hurt.
And that means we men don’t get the resolution we need. We don’t find the closure that helps us come to grips with the finality of the end of our relationship. Women emote; men go remote.
We throw ourselves into new relationships, often too quickly, manufacturing attachments to a replacement women from thin air, seeing things in her that remind us of the woman who just dumped us and broke our hearts.
Of course, most of these replacement relationships go nowhere. When my fiance from college dumped me after I joined the Air Force, I dated a dozen or more women to try to get over her. Not only didn’t it help, the experience made me feel even lonelier than I did when she left me.
None of the women I tried to replace her with had her flaming red hair or her goofy personality or her other unique and charming characteristics. They were just women, ones that felt different to hug, who didn’t kiss the same way, who just were not her.
And the problem with following a lost long-term relationship with a series of failed short-term ones is the the feeling of desperation, of being out of control, just piles up and reminds us that we aren’t in a relationship like the one we lost. Even relationships that aren’t full-on life-changing carry an emotional toll with them when they end.
And that emotional baggage just adds to the big pile from the loss of the woman who broke our hearts. It then becomes harder to invest in a new relationship that might end as badly as the ones before it, simply because we no longer have the emotional energy to spend.
Men Often Don’t Know How Attached Emotionally They Are
The reality is men are usually much less prepared for the emotional impact of a broken heart than women because they aren’t aware of how emotionally attached they are until the relationship has ended.
Dr. Gary Brown, a prominent marriage and relationship counselor in Los Angeles, says men are “more prone to being shocked” by the emotional impact a breakup has on them physically and emotionally than are women. And, he adds, the greater the shock the man feels the longer it takes him to fully recover, if he does, at all.
“Women tend to recover faster because they know how attached they are to their partners, so the shock isn’t as great,” Dr. Brown said. “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 my own life, I know this to be true. When the reality of the end of my marriage hit me, I was, in a word, shocked. As stupid as I feel now writing that, it is the truth. I always believed that I would, somehow, work out the differences I had with my wife and would, eventually, put our marriage back on track.
When it became obvious to me that wasn’t going to happen, I fell apart. Like my friend Mike, I literally felt my heart break.
How Men Can Recover from Heartbreak
For the average man, it takes 2.38 years, according to research. (Yeah, I know, weird number, but science.) That is an awfully long time to spend depressed, feeling miserable and unloved. It is too long and, if a man takes control of the situation, he can shorten that recovery time by months, if not more.
Accept that your pain is real and okay to feel. Whether you are made out of coiled steel and are as tough as a boiled pork chop, you still have emotions and there is nothing wrong with getting those emotions out. Losing a woman you love hurts worse than taking a fastball to the ribs or getting blindsided on the gridiron.
It is okay, really it is, to let yourself feel that pain. And it is okay to express it. If you want to cry or curl up in the fetal position or smash a few plates, do it. Let it out. It is going to suck for a while and the longer you keep your feelings inside, the worse it is going to suck.
Booze is not your friend. I am Irish, so don’t get me wrong. I love whiskey, but I know that it is a depressant and while it might dull the initial pain, all it is really doing is suppressing it and maybe even making it worse.
No one ever kills themselves after a nice run through the woods, but a number of friends of mine have in despair after downing a bottle of Jameson. If you are going to drink, don’t drink alone and combine the Jameson’s with conversation with a sympathetic friend who will listen while you talk through your pain.
Boost your morale. If you’ve been thinking about buying a new car or taking up skiing, now is the perfect time. Buy that video game platform you’ve always wanted. Take a trip to see your friends in Philly. Learn how to ride horses. Join an indoor soccer league.
Do something that makes you look forward to Friday night, even if you aren’t spending it with the blue-eyed, blonde love of your life. Just don’t sit home alone every night listening to love songs and watching “Love, Actually” over and over, again.
Commit to something important. You were in love, so you know you are full of passion. Put that energy someplace where it can do some good. Find a charity that needs your skills and help. Work on a project that benefits the community. Help build houses for Habitat for Humanity.
Get involved, make a difference, put your passion and heart into something meaningful. It will help you and many others.
Talk to your friends. So you’re a guy and you’re supposed to be Clint Eastwood silent. Got it. How’s that working so far? Feel better? Of course not. But you will if you talk it out with people who care about you, people who have been your friends for years despite all the stupid, disgusting, embarrassing things you do. They love you, anyway. Trust them.
I have a couple of good male friends I talk to, but I also have some really good female friends who are absolutely wonderful people who give me a great perspective on heartbreak that – sorry boys – I wouldn’t get from my brothers in breakup. If you have a sister or close female friend, ask them for their ear. They will say things that will make a real difference. Trust me.
Take care of yourself physically. Depression will try to seduce you into laying on the couch all day, eating Fritos and drinking beer. The last thing you need now is to become lethargic. Instead, go to the gym. Workout in earnest. Put on some muscle, shrink that waist, put in some miles on the treadmill. You’ll not only feel better, you’ll look better, too.
And, on top of that, exercise is great for your mood. It increases testosterone, decrease the stress hormone Cortisol and makes it easier to sleep. And while you’re at it, why not work in a therapeutic massage and maybe a new haircut, too.
Get some sleep. Yeah, I know, it is tough to sleep when your heart is broken, but being fatigued and groggy will only make things worse. And don’t drink yourself to sleep, either. Booze might help you fall asleep, but it will make it harder for you to stay asleep. Your doctor might be a good resource if you just can’t fall asleep and get a good 7-8 hours in.
Accept that it is over and move on. For me, this was the hardest thing. It still is. Being single changed my whole self-perception, made me feel like a failure and absolutely rewrote the script of my life. But fighting acceptance didn’t make any of that better; in fact, it made it worse.
Finally coming to grips with the fact that I couldn’t get the life back that I had forced me to look forward, not backwards. It hurt and it sucked more than anything I’ve experienced in life, but it had to be done. Do it yourself. Tear the bandaid off. It hurts, but then it gets better.
Realize that you aren’t at the finish line. It might feel like it, but you aren’t at the end of your life. You still have a lot to give, a lot of love you can share with others. If you think of this period as the starting point for a new life, you will start seeing things differently.
And, even though you might not believe it now, there is a brighter future ahead of you if you force yourself to believe. Be positive, be confident and be willing to change for the better.
Be the man you’ve always wanted to be. Whatever happened in the past that led to the breakup, that is over and done. You can’t change any of that, but you can take a good, hard look in the mirror and decide you want to be a better man.
Look, unless you are Fred Rogers, you have room to grow. You can be kinder, more thoughtful, more caring and loving. You can be someone that everyone turns to when they need help, that people respect for your decency, that people admire and emulate.
I don’t care what you did before you read this line, the past is the past. That is the old you. At the end of this paragraph is the new you. Who is that man going to be? The same one who got his heart broken because he fell short or the one who looks at himself in the mirror and says, honestly, “you are a good man.”
Every life changing experience provides us with the opportunity to face our futures in a new way. I know that sounds like some idiotic Hallmark greeting card cliche, but if you are honest, you know what I am saying is true. You choose right now how to face your future.
You can choose to be angry, resentful, spiteful and cruel if you wish. But you aren’t only hurting the woman who broke your heart, you’re hurting yourself.
You can also choose to accept responsibility for your part in the break up, to forgive her for her part, and be decent, kind and caring, not because you think that will get her back, but just because it is the right thing to do.
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