Science Explains Why You Can’t Stop Thinking About Your Ex

We all have different coping strategies when a relationship breaks down, and each of us reacts differently to finding ourselves alone after investing time and emotion into someone else. Some of us lose ourselves in work, others in sport and exercise. Some self-medicate with alcohol or drugs, a few jump feetfirst into their singledom through rebound flings in an effort to kickstart the next phase of their lives. Still others turn to strengthening their bonds with existing friends and family, seeking comfort through a strong support network. 

Why You Can’t Stop Thinking About Your Ex

In Austria recently, nearly a thousand young adults were part of a study aiming to understand and rationalize the various techniques employed to survive a breakup. The 876 participants had all recently gone through the end of a relationship, and the results of the study were very enlightening. They revealed, for example, that the way you cope with a breakup may depend on your gender. (It’s a real shame that the study didn’t include gay couples, as this would have offered a much more complete insight into the psychology of a breakup, but unfortunately, the study I based this article on covered only straight couples. As soon as I can find a study into gay relationship breakups, I’ll do a follow up article. For now, I can only work with what I can find. Sorry.)

The Evolutionary Psychology Of A Breakup 

The researchers discovered, for example, that men were much more likely than women to think positively about their ex-partner. Specifically, men harboured a stronger hope that they would get back together with an ex than women did, proving accurate the pop-culture and movie trope about men being more obsessed with their exes than women are portrayed to be about theirs. Women, on the other hand, are more likely to walk away completely from a relationship by focusing on the negative qualities of a partner, and dismissing the positives. Again, this seems like something most of us already knew to be generally true, so it’s good to have it reinforced by empirical data. 

This disparity makes sense from an evolutionary perspective. The behavior can be rationalized like this: men maximize their reproductive chances by having multiple short-term relationships, while women do so by forming longer-term relationship with men they think are likely to be useful for child-raising. From this rather cynical perspective, men should hold on to the notion that their former lover remains a potential romantic partner, even while they browse for alternatives in the mating pool. In contrast, women should have little desire to return to a relationship that failed their long-term needs.

Further, the coping mechanisms themselves vary according to gender. Men are far more likely to adopt self-destructive strategies, such as working or exercising obsessively, or more commonly, through alcohol or drug use. Perhaps counterintuitively, men are more likely to leap into rebound relationships, even if the long-term chances of the relationship are not good.

In contrast, women experiencing a breakup tend to seek out social and emotional support through their network of friends and family. They are also more likely to give themselves the time they need to heal before pursuing another relationship actively. Again, this makes sense. Women tend to have more friends and a closer relationship with their families than men, and stronger emotional bonds too. Men tend to lead more solitary lives, and have competitive relationships with other men rather than emotionally supportive ones.

Men and women also differ in what they perceive to be the cause of a breakup. For women, the cause tends to be clear and easily definable, perhaps distilled down to a single event or an insurmountable flaw in their partner’s personality. This helps in making a clean break from the relationship. Men, on the other hand, often claim to have no idea why their relationship ended. They put themselves in the position of not blaming their ex because they still hold out hope of getting back with them. And of course, no-one is willing to blame themselves for the break down. Without a clear indication of what caused it, men have a more difficult task moving on.

All this means that men have a far more difficult time processing a breakup, and this holds true not just for dating, but for marriage and death too. Women, who are far more adept at maintaining healthy social networks and dealing with their emotions, suffer less by giving themselves space to heal and seeking out the emotional support they need. For men, their emotional support network rarely extends beyond their partner, so they have no parachute for the hard landing of a breakup. That’s likely why the numbing effects of alcohol and drugs are more common in men.

For a healthy breakup, and they do exist, we should all take a lesson from women. Women struggle just as much with breakups, and it hurts no less for women, but women are far better at handling and understanding their feelings.

Written by: Stuart Nugent

With 16 years in the adult industry, including many years at LELO, it's fair to say Stu has been around the sex toy block a few times. As LELO's resident sex geek, he's been featured in the Independent, the Guardian, HuffPost, Vice, Cosmopolitan, and anywhere people talk about sex. Here on Volonte, he turns his spotlight onto the important events affecting sex right now in a regular op-ed. Views are his own.

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