Jun. 11, 2010 -- Contrary to popular belief, men are more affected by a rocky relationship than their female counterparts, according to new research from Wake Forest University.
Research shows that women have a harder time coping with a breakup, but the guys are the ones who feel more stress and strain when the relationship hits a rough patch, researchers found. On the upside, men also get more of a psychological and emotional boost when the relationship is healthy.
"Common wisdom says that women are more hurt by problems in a relationship," says Robin Simon, lead researcher on the study and a sociologist at Wake Forest, "but we found that the benefits of support [in a relationship] and the disadvantages of strain are exaggerated for the men."
"Men are more sensitive than we often think they are," she says.
For the study, Simon and co-author Anne Barrett, associate professor of sociology at Florida State University, drew on mental health and relationship data from over a thousand college-aged youths in south Florida.
They found that while men often put forth a brave front in the face of a faltering romance, they were hurting emotionally more than the women were -- they just didn't show it in the same way.
While women tend to get depressed when they are hurt or upset, men express their distress through substance use or abuse, Simon says. In the study, the more relationship problems a guy had, the more likely he was to score high on substance abuse measures, including those that gauge emotional issues associated with drug dependence, she says.
These results may point to a societal shift in the way that young men today experience relationships, gender and relationship experts say.
"These boys are more likely to have experienced a divorce in their family," Simon says, "and this might make them more sensitive to the ups and downs of a relationship. They are more aware of the frailties of relationships than past generations."
The study was published in the June edition of the Journal of Health and Social Behaviour.
Big Boys Don't Cry, They Drink
Though these findings run counter to popular wisdom about the way men handle their relationships, gender and relationship experts were not surprised by these results.
"Women are more naturally expressive," says Audrey Nelson, author of "Code Switching: How to Talk so Men Will Listen." "We'll cry, show our feelings – when a women is having a hard time, she has two or three friends she can talk to, to ease the pain. Men have the same feelings and emotions, but they have no outlet."
"One of the ten commandments of "masculinity" is 'thou shalt not be vulnerable,'" she says, "so they self-medicate the feelings with drugs and alcohol and drown their vulnerability, rejection, sadness."
Nelson says the difference between the sexes has to do with both how women and men are wired neurologically and taught socially.
Research shows that the region of a woman's brain related to compassion and empathy is larger than a man's, she says, so "straight out of the womb she's more nurturing."
Then, society trains girls to express their feelings -- though not their anger, she notes -- while men are taught not to cry, not to show vulnerability. In fact, she says "the only sanctioned emotion for men to express publicly is anger. It's no surprise that men turn to alcohol to numb the [unwanted] emotions."
Today's Boys: Generation Vexed?
The young men in the study were more likely to have "mothers employed outside the home, fathers absent or dependent on the mother's income, or a child of divorce" than past generations, Simon says.
This may be at the heart of why young men today may be more sensitive to the trials of a relationship, she says.
Alternatively, Frances Cohen Praver, an author and psychologist in Locust Valley, New York, says the gender difference might be because women are less sensitive to these issues today.
"Women are more autonomous and independent. They need to love and be loved, but they can get love from their friends and family," she says.
This might also be why men in the study benefited more from the support of a healthy romantic relationship -- because they were getting support they otherwise wouldn't get.
But the issue cannot be explained by the social support element alone, Simon warns. "We can't tease out whether it's their emotional development at this time in their life, or if it's this generation, or what," she says.
So as for what causes these emotional gender differences, "That's the million dollar question," she says.