Men and women's hearts are equally prone to breaking—but does one gender suffer more soul-crushing agony along the way?
According to a new study published in Evolutionary Behavioral Sciences, women are more negatively affected by breakups than men, experiencing more emotional and physical pain after a split. Hold the pity party, though, because women actually recover more fully than men.
"Breakups seem to 'hit' women harder at first, but they do recover, often in better 'relationship shape' than before," says Craig Morris, a professor of anthropology at Binghamton University in New York and lead author on the study. "Men react differently initially, but also seem to never truly 'recover'. They just sort of move on." But why?
How women respond to breakups
For the study, Morris and his colleagues surveyed 5,705 participants in 96 countries (63 percent were from the U.S.) about their romantic splits—including the severity of their breakup, who initiated it, and what went wrong in the relationship. Participants were also asked to self-report their emotional and physical pain on a scale of one (none) to 10 (unbearable).
The women fared worse when it came to emotional pain. Their mean response was 6.84 compared to men's 6.58—a difference that may seem small but was considered statistically significant. When it came to physical pain, women's mean score was 4.21 on a scale of 10 versus men's 3.75, also statistically significant.
Following a breakup, women also reported more depression, fear, and anxiety. Men, meanwhile, reported more feelings of numbness, loss of focus, and anger.
Interestingly, women were also more likely to do the breaking up than men—despite facing a more painful road to recovery. The researchers point out that this finding backs up previous research showing that women initiate divorce in 70 percent of legal cases.
How evolutionary biology explains the difference
Why are women more likely to pull the plug, if they're going to end up more hurt? Morris says women take the risk because they "have so much more to lose" by being with the wrong person—at least according to evolutionary biology theory.
The theory teaches that men compete and women choose when it comes to mating. Men are wired to gather resources and battle other men for the best female, whereas women are wired to be selective—especially when looking for a longterm mate with whom to reproduce and rear children. Yes, once again, it comes down to baby making. (Researchers also believe that monogamy itself evolved because, many millennia ago, it was too difficult for only one parent to raise a human baby. Women needed to make sure their mate stuck around.)
If one buys into this theory, men can exit a relationship with little effect on their future reproductive success, whereas women cannot. Women have more at stake when entering a relationship—and thus it hurts more when the relationship ends.
But as Morris pointed out, women ultimately tend to come out emotionally stronger, whereas men never really, truly get over it—they just find another mate. "Most women, broadly speaking, seem to be hit hard and fast by a breakup, but are less self destructive, utilize more social support, and recover faster and more fully," Morris says, adding that women hit a moment when they realize, "it's really over, it's time to move on."
Men, on the other hand, "seem to react badly and in some sort of self-destructive/angry fashion often combined with depression," he says. "This can last for months or years. Then they just sort of 'move on,' usually via another relationship." In the modern world, this phase is what's commonly known as the "excessive Tinder stage."
Love hurts for everyone
The truth is, breakups hurt for everyone. As anthropologist Helen Fisher once put it, "Why did our ancestors evolve brain links that cause us to hate the one we love? Perhaps because it enables jilted lovers to extricate themselves and start again."
Morris believes that breakups bring literal pain not only to help us start over, but also to make sure we take our relationships seriously. "Breakups should hurt, so that we have evolved to avoid them! If breakups didn't hurt, we'd invest very little in relationships," he says.
Indeed, as personal as it may feel in the moment, the pain of a broken heart is core to the human condition. As Morris told me, "I'd say about 10 percent of people are destroyed by breakups and 10 percent could care less. The big middle, 80 percent, are how most folks live—they have at least one breakup in their lives that affects them strongly and they can recall it in great (painful) detail throughout their lives."
Taryn Hillin is Fusion's love and sex writer, with a large focus on the science of relationships. She also loves dogs, Bourbon barrel-aged beers and popcorn — not necessarily in that order.