Mind & Body

Men and Women Have Different Attitudes Toward Their Exes

Breaking up is hard to do, and the aftermath might be even harder for women — in heterosexual relationships, at least. New research into heterosexual ex-partner relationships shows that men tend to view their exes more positively than women do.

Are You Grateful for Your Ex?

Probably not, if you're a woman who dates men. Recently, scientists wanted to find out if they could change people's feelings about their exes, and the answer was no. But they stumbled upon a much more interesting result: They discovered that men tend to have slightly more positive feelings about their exes than women do.

The team began their original experiment by asking 300 heterosexual people to think about a partner they'd split with in the last five years, and to agree or disagree with statements like "When I think about my ex-partner I get angry" and "My ex-partner has many positive traits." Men in that group tended to have more positive feelings about their exes.

So the researchers went back and gave the same questionnaire to 612 new people who'd been in heterosexual relationships for at least four months. Again, the men felt better about their exes than the women did. The researchers also found that men got more social support from their exes and had more "permissive" attitudes about sex. (For example, they agreed more often with statements like, "I do not need to be committed to a person to have sex with her.") Women had more coping strategies to use after breaking up, and they were more likely to say their ex was at fault in the split.

Here's why our thoughts on our exes matter. First of all, romantic relationships often involve many kinds of investment. Think about shared couches, shared dogs, shared children, and even shared friends. That means many exes have to be in touch for a long time after the relationship ends. It's important to understand how these partners tend to think about each other.

And then there's the stuff we take from one relationship into the next. The quality of a past relationship and feelings about an ex could make future partnerships easier or harder — there could be growth and learning, or there could be baggage and trauma. Someone who's experienced abuse could have a harder time trusting future partners, for instance.

Nature vs. Nurture?

Where does the difference in men's and women's attitudes about their exes come from? Researchers think there are two complementary possibilities: evolution and cultural conditioning.

From an evolutionary point of view, we partner up in order to have babies and continue the march of humanity. "Relative to men, women need to invest more energy and resources in their offspring, at least initially, due to pregnancy and nursing. Men, in contrast, are not biologically constrained by extended parental investment, so they might be able to increase their genetic fitness by obtaining more sexual partners," the researchers write.

It's true — statistically, men do report having more sexual partners, having more relaxed attitudes about sex, and placing a higher value on sex in romantic relationships. Women, on the other hand, tend to form long-term, exclusive relationships.

The researchers reason that because men have playful attitudes around sex, they may hold on to positive memories about it or feel open to rekindling romance with past partners. Women, on the other hand, might have more negative views about past partners so they can focus on long-term, exclusive relationships in the future.

But evolution isn't everything. Gender roles and social conditioning also have a part to play. Overall, men tend to rely on their female partners for both emotional and practical needs. According to the study, men could have rosier views of their exes because their wives and girlfriends are huge bases of emotional support. Women, however, tend to get less support from their partners and more from other sources like friends and family.

Another possibility: Men and women have different reactions to breakups. According to a 2015 Binghamton University and University College London study, women experience more severe emotional pain in the aftermath of a breakup, but they also recover more completely. Women tend to have better coping strategies for when a relationship ends, and that helps them find closure while men remain emotionally attached.

So who wins out when it comes to breakups? Well, past research suggests that people who pine for their exes have lower quality relationships in the future. As a result, the researchers say that despite their rosy attitudes, men might have a harder time here.

"Our results imply that men's new relationships might suffer more than women's new relationships," they write. "Because the present research is largely exploratory, however, our answers remain speculative and tentative." Hey, there's still a chance!

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Learn more science behind relationships in "The All-or-Nothing Marriage: How the Best Marriages Work" by psychology professor Eli J. Finkel. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Kelsey Donk November 26, 2019

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