Who Moves on From a Relationship Faster? A Psychologist Shares the Data
A relationship scholar and couples therapist reveals that when it comes to getting over a breakup, gender differences are nuanced. Here's why that's a good thing in 2023.
Pop culture loves a good breakup. To observe icons of heartbreak like Bridget Jones, Elle Woods, and Carrie Bradshaw, after a relationship ends, it would seem women perpetually turn to ice cream, rom-coms, tears, and maybe a dramatic hairstyle change. On TV, the ex-boyfriend too often just moves on. While this stereotype has plenty of flaws, it begs the question: Why has it sustained?
In 2023, relationship experts point out that—like all things Hollywood—getting over a relationship isn’t so black-and-white for either gender. Many factors play into who moves on from a breakup faster. A doctor of marriage and family therapy offers some insights. Our favorite part? His wisdom doesn’t apply just to heterosexual couples.
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Do men move on faster from relationships?
Some data (such as from self-reported surveys) do suggest that men recover from breakups faster than women, according to Paul Hokemeyer, PhD, a marriage and family therapist and author of the book Fragile Power: Why Having Everything Is Never Enough. But in Dr. Hokemeyer’s experience working with couples for nearly two decades, he surmises: “I don’t see a significant difference between gender expressions and expediency of recovery from the ending of a relationship.”
Then why the lingering over-generalization? Our society has permitted women to openly express emotion, whereas men “are more susceptible to cultural biases that tell them they need to be tough and insensitive, especially in matters of the heart,” Dr. Hokemeyer says.
When in fact, 2021 research out of Lancaster University concluded that men experience at least as much emotional pain after a breakup as women, if not more.
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Do men and women cope differently post-breakup?
Regardless of who moves on from a relationship first, the real difference lies in how an individual handles their emotional turmoil when a relationship ends.
There actually is some biological, physiological difference between males and females, Dr. Hokemeyer explains. “Men go in, and women go out,” he says. What he means is that men process a breakup internally through their prefrontal cortex, rationalizing their pain away. “Women, in contrast, go externally—they talk to their best friends and seek outside help. Through this process, they allow their limbic system to recalibrate and integrate the experience emotionally, rather than intellectually.”
This emotional processing period is one potential reason researchers, such as in one 2015 study, have found that men are actually slower to fully recover from heartbreak than women—and may never truly get over the loss of a partner.
Yet the study’s authors suggested that our primal biology is to blame, too. As the biological child-bearing gender, many women have more at stake when they lose someone they believed brought great value as a long-term mate. So while breakups can hit women harder at first, it’s wired into our DNA to process the loss, wipe the slate clean, and get back out there.
Still, this study is now nearly a decade old. New advances in psychology suggest that today’s men are moving past their gender’s evolutionary tendencies. For instance, a 2022 study published in Qualitative Health Research finds that more often, men are seeking support to emotionally process breakups in the “traditionally female way” by opening up to friends, family members, support groups, and mental health professionals.
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Does age or sexual orientation affect the breakup response?
It’s important to reiterate that these patterns are based on averages and general trends. These days, there’s a lot of individual variation. Plus, societal events like the Me Too movement, the COVID-19 pandemic and the economic implications related to it have all played significantly into how we’ve come to relate to each other in recent years.
That’s not to mention the factors that have always existed, such as the quality and length of the relationship, individual differences in personality, attachment style, and past experiences that each play a role in how someone moves on from a relationship. “Another major factor is who initiated the split,” Dr. Hokemeyer adds. “Typically, the person who initiated the breakup is way ahead in the process than their partner,” as they’ve spent months, sometimes years, getting their emotional and logistical ducks in a row before they break the news.
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Stacey Sherrell, a licensed marriage and family therapist in Los Angeles and co-owner of Decoding Couples, says coping with breakups differs across generations, too. “As it’s become more socially acceptable for men to have feelings, outwardly express them, and go to therapy, I think we see a shift in how men handle breakups. She explains that older generations faced social stigmas like “feelings are weak” and wound up handling breakups with more of a “get over it” mentality. Whereas Gen Z, for example, “is so much more feelings-friendly and pro-therapy” with younger generations far more comfortable verbally expressing pain and feelings around a relationship ending.
There is limited research specifically on coping with breakups within the LGBTQ population, but some studies suggest that LGBTQ individuals may face additional stressors related to stigma and discrimination, which could impact their ability to cope with breakups.
In practice, Dr. Hokemeyer adds that queer couples tend to mirror their gender expression when it comes to dealing with a breakup: Those with more feminine identities often follow cis feminine patterns, and vice versa.
However, if there’s one thing we know in this day and age, each of us comes with our own history, disappointment, and trauma. Instead of wondering what your former partner is up to, a healthy goal in the wake of a breakup is to take exquisite care of yourself.
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Paul Hokemeyer, PhD, a marriage and family therapist and author of the book Fragile Power: Why Having Everything Is Never Enough
Justin Gasparovic, a behavioral psychologist, relationship expert, and founder of The Enemy of Average
Journal of Social and Personal Relationships: "Dirty laundry: The nature and substance of seeking relationship help from strangers online"
Evolutionary Behavioral Sciences: "Quantitative Sex Differences in Response to the Dissolution of a Romantic Relationship"
Qualitative Health Research: "Mapping Men's Mental Health Help-Seeking After an Intimate Partner Relationship Break-Up"