VANCOUVER, British Columbia — Many men portray themselves as inadequate or as passive victims after a partner breaks up with them. However, new research says these narratives often lead to a cycle of toxic relationships and poor mental health.
Mental health stigmas and idealized social norms about masculinity lead many men to tell two common types of stories after a partner breaks off their relationship. Recent findings by a team at The University of British Columbia reveal that one group of men portray themselves as having lacked presence or influence in the relationship. This group of men say they recognized their partner was going to break up with them, but their conflict-averse feelings led them to simply “weather the storm.”
A second set of recently dumped men in the study portrayed themselves as having actively battled to repair a conflict-dominated relationship, but their partner broke up with them despite their frustrating efforts.
The study, in part, analyzes and aims to mitigate the risks tied to so-called “partner-initiated breakups,” which can include domestic violence, mental health troubles, and avoidance of healthy future relationships.
Ultimately, the study authors recommend tailored interventions which can enable men to open their minds to healthier emotional responses. The findings highlight the importance of the post-breakup period for helping men to embrace positive mental health and to avoid narratives which blame their exes or cause them to withdraw emotionally altogether.
Being accountable is the biggest thing after a breakup
The study highlights the risks of suicide, murder, or other violent breakup responses from men. But a majority of men pursue non-violent — but still potentially toxic behaviors — after a break-up. This can also lead to emotional withdrawal or bringing anger into future relationships. So-called “masculine ideals” include emotional stoicism, self-reliance ,and a constant projection of strength.
Men who downplay a sense of failure or weakness is one powerful example of how men cushion the emotional effects of a breakup. Another example the researchers give is a man who immediately leaps into a new relationship.
The study authors recommend that men should pursue accountability and growth in the wake of a partner-initiated breakup and steer clear of cyclical stories which portray themselves as victims of circumstance or having been ill-equipped to stay or initiate leaving. Men who rehash the latter two types of stories in their heads are more likely to have power struggles with future partners, to repeat self-fulfilling victimization narratives or to withdraw emotionally altogether.
Stop bringing up the past
The in-depth relationship study of 25 men did reveal a third group who were open to self-work and understanding the painful emotions tied to the breakup. UBC men’s health researcher and Canada Research Chair professor Dr. John Oliffe, who led the study, says there are many healthy ways for men to learn and build upon a breakup. However, men often fall into the trap of rehashing negative narratives which prevent them from pursuing healthy relationships in the future. Even if professional help is not available, men can work to more truthfully depict themselves within a breakup story.
“You don’t have to keep talking about how you’ve been unfairly treated for years and years,” Oliffe says in a university release. “Realizing that these narratives are unhelpful can help you focus on self-growth and move on. For some men it may be helpful to look into some kind of tailored interventions such as narrative therapy, which aims to question and reshape men’s stories and understandings.”
Although there were a few distinct but similar narratives, each type of story revealed that the male participants felt stuck or feeling incapable of fixing the relationship as it collapsed.
“In regard to partner-initiated break-ups, men are consistently depicted as brooding, solemn, risk-takers overusing alcohol and other drugs to wash away and distract their painful emotions,” the researchers write. “The other often-told and related narrative features men’s anger for all that was invested (and lost) in the relationship, including their sense of wasted emotional labor along with break-up induced financial losses and/or restricted access to their children.”
The findings are published in the journal Health Psychology Open.