Breakup, Then Breakdown: Men Can Crumble Mentally When Romance Ends
There's some bad news for lovelorn men this Valentine's Day.
A new study has found that men are at an increased risk of mental illness after the breakdown of any romantic relationship. And, it found, stereotypes of masculinity may be partially to blame.
Researchers sought to understand the types of mental health challenges men face after a breakup with an eye to preventing or blunting them, according to lead author John Oliffe, founder and chief investigator of the men’s health research program at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada.
For the study, he and his team interviewed 47 men from Australia and Canada who were recovering from a recent breakup. They asked the men to recount the timeline of their relationship -- including the good, the bad and the ugly parts. They also asked how the men were coping with the loss of their partner and used questionnaires to screen for mental health conditions.
Prior studies have tried to quantify the psychological effect of breakups, including one that found marital separation or divorce quadrupled the risk of male suicide. The new study -- recently published in the journal Social Science and Medicine -- Qualitative Research in Health -- was more descriptive.
"This study is one of the first that's ever gone and actually talked to guys about a relationship breakup in the context of mental health," Oliffe said.
The investigators found that most of the men developed new or worsening symptoms of mental illness after their breakup, such as anxiety, depression, suicidal thoughts, anger and heightened substance use.
Discussing where these symptoms came from, many participants revealed that they had few people to reach out to for emotional support, leading them to feel isolated and withdrawn. Turning to substances to cope with these complex emotions was common, conjuring the stereotypical image of a man sitting alone at a bar, drinking away his feelings.
"What we found is that guys feel quite isolated," Oliffe said. "They might have some challenges around friends, and the friendships they do have may not be deep relationships. So the loss of a partner is massive because often times, the partner is the person they confide in. And so when this emotional investment is gone, they might not have any other outlet for those emotions."
For some, the problems started while they were still in the relationship. Many participants said they often downplayed and denied tensions in their relationship and ignored the impact of them on their mental health.
Underlying many of the issues was a tendency to engage in stereotypically male behaviors, such as repressing emotions, communicating poorly and not seeking help, Oliffe said.
"What was interesting about these guys we spoke with was that their biggest thing was communication -- most of these guys just didn't know how to communicate," he said.
These behaviors can often be ingrained at an early age, suggesting that the root of the problem is related to how we raise young boys in our society, said CJ Pascoe, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Oregon who focuses on topics including sexuality and masculinity.
Pascoe, who was not involved in the study, said the findings suggest that men's emotional turmoil after breakups stems in part from the messages society sends them about what it means to be a man.
"I think that has everything to do with us telling young men not to be emotional and not to have these deep, enduring, emotional friendships with other men," she said.
The study did uncover some encouraging news: Many of the participants eventually sought help for their post-breakup mental health concerns. Their strategies varied widely -- from reading self-help books to leaning on friends or new partners as well as getting professional help.
While the self-help efforts and outreach often came later, the men's ability to be honest with themselves and others about their pain is a good sign, Pascoe said.
During two decades of studying young men, she said she has seen boys increasingly push back against certain masculine ideals.
"A large proportion of young men are really critical of messages they've been sent about what it means to be a man and about being unemotional or dominant," Pascoe said.
Oliffe said boys should be encouraged to challenge traditional definitions of masculinity and create new interpretations.
"The world is just changing," he said, "So I think helping young men and boys derive their own values that sit in contemporary society would be really good."
The American Psychological Association has more on masculinity and mental health.
SOURCES: John Oliffe, PhD, RN, professor, nursing, and lead investigator, Men’s Health Research Program, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, Canada; CJ Pascoe, PhD, associate professor, sociology, University of Oregon, Eugene; Social Science and Medicine - Qualitative Research in Health, Jan. 21, 2022