Sunday 25 August 2019

Why breakups are harder for men: 'More women than men are initiators of breakups'

Brad Pitt is just the latest man to discover that coming out of a long-term relationship is harder than he expected

A single man: Brad is reeling from his breakup with Angelina Jolie
A single man: Brad is reeling from his breakup with Angelina Jolie
Actors Ryan Phillippe and Reese Witherspoon who divorced in 2007
Elaine Hanlon

Ed Power

Hollywood heartthrob Brad Pitt cut a forlorn figure in his first major interview since his split from Angelina Jolie. The 53-year-old spoke to GQ Style of mooching around the now empty home he once shared with Jolie and their six children, while in the accompanying photo shoot he appeared gaunt and pale. It's hard to look pitiful wearing bright purple trousers - but Sad Brad pulled it off. 

"For me this period has been about looking at my weaknesses and failures and owning my side of the street," Pitt told the GQ reporter at one point - a self-flagellating confession suggesting that, more than six months on, he is still coming to terms with, and slightly numbed by, the end of his 12-year relationship with Jolie. 

While he's not the first A-lister to speak candidly about heartbreak, men typically don't fall over themselves to tell everyone about their own suffering in the aftermath of a break-up. One of the few to do so was Ryan Phillippe, who divorced from Reese Witherspoon after eight years in 2007.

A year later, he admitted that the split was "the darkest, saddest place I had ever been. It was a struggle - there were a good four or five months of not being able to get out of bed. It was the worst time in my life." His frankness didn't seem to do him any favours in Hollywood, however, as his career slumped in the subsequent years.

"When your marriage breaks-up or your long-term relationship comes to an end you see it as a failure," says Joe Wallace who separated with his partner after 10 years - including one year of marriage. "It takes a long time for your self-esteem to come back up.

"It affects men's health," adds Wallace, who is now involved in Families, a support group for family members who have suffered a painful separation based in Limerick. "Even before they get caught up in the legal side of things… Men are very slow to offload (their problems) and that is one of the main issues."

The caricature of the socially and emotionally isolated male has become so embedded that it often works against men coming out of a relationship. They are assumed to be unable to cope. Thus, a court, when determining issues such as child custody, may conclude that they are in over their heads.

"When the relationship breaks down men need a certain amount of guidance as to what happens next," says relationship mediator Sharon Morrissey, who says the "stereotypical view that men can't multi-task" has come to be regarded as universally applicable rather than specific to certain individuals.

"Men are very practical when you give them that guidance. They will go and do what needs to be done. Nonetheless, in appearing to put a fence around his feelings, Pitt has revealed himself to be somewhat of an Everydude. Any man who feels they've been on the wrong ending of a romantic pummelling will recognise Pitt's coping mechanisms - the brooding, the solitude, the insistence that, 'yes, really, they're okay'. 

"Women have wider social structure," says Wallace. "They would be out (in the world) more than men. Men tend to work and then come home - obviously women work a lot more nowadays but it's still true that men tend to go from work to home."

That men often struggle to process a serious break-up is hardly a controversial claim. The idea has taken root that, emotionally, we often react badly to major life upheavals. Moreover, our methods for dealing with changed circumstances are not always helpful. Going to the pub was named the best way to "get over" a split according to a 2015 survey by Men's Health magazine while one third of those polled said the jilted party should feign indifference. 

Women, by contrast, are typically more comfortable finding a shoulder to cry on and letting it all out. Yet at the same time, they will often have fewer illusions about the state of a relationship and are more willing to endure short-term pain in the knowledge that it's for the best over the longer course.

Elaine Hanlon

"Studies show that more women than men are the initiators of marriage break up today," says Elaine Hanlon (above), a counsellor and psychotherapist based in Dublin.

"In order for a woman, and particularly a mother, to make the choice to break up the family unit, there is usually a long decision period. Many women I work with have taken years to leave unhappy marriages so by the time they do so they have worked through a certain amount of the pain, anger and hurt. Men's expectations of a marriage are often not as high as women's and they are happy to keep plodding along."

Women are often less dependent on their significant other for emotional support - they typically have a wider circle of friends and will confide to family in a way most men wouldn't countenance. Men, however, frequently look to their relationships to fulfil their emotional needs.

"Women tend to have a variety of emotional outlets and their main focus of conversation often tends to be about relationships," says Hanlon. "In more casual conversations they may discuss work relationships or talk about relationships with their children or friends, and in more close girlfriend relationships, women tend to talk openly about their intimate relationships.

"Men, on the other hand are more emotionally dependent on their female partners... Studies have shown that men move into new relationships quicker than women and this may be one of the reasons why. It's not necessarily that the man has 'got over' the relationship but more that he needs support to do so." 

What are men to do? Clearly there's no quick fix. You won't get very far telling Brad to pull back the curtains and embrace every morning as a new opportunity. But for many men there is a danger that a brief spell of mourning can metastasise into ongoing loneliness. A first step would be a recognition that both sexes suffer. The only real difference is the way in which they express their pain.

"Males grew up with the 'men don't cry' attitude and while men may deal with things differently, it doesn't mean they don't feel the same pain and the same hurt as women," says Hanlon. "So for generations, men have learnt to suppress this pain and hurt and 'be a man' which doesn't allow much space for vulnerability."

Dealing with the split

* Don't try to numb the pain with booze

In times of stress, many men seek relief at the bottom of a glass. But overindulgence can cause you to suppress feelings that are best dealt with.

* Talk about it

Your friends won't jump out the nearest window if you open up about your feelings. Even if they don't have much advice to offer beyond the standard dude-isms, just having them as a sounding board can help.

* Sleep

This brings us back to the earlier warning about alcohol, which can inhibit your sleep cycle. At times of stress, prioritise a good night's sleep.

* Don't be a virtual stalker

Your relationship is over and you need to accept that - which means not stalking them on social media. It may help to erase their phone number too.

* Stay busy

As well as focusing attention on your work, make time for exercise and pursue that hobby you never had room in your life for previously.

Irish Independent

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