In November of 2021, a study was published showing something that many men already know, but seldom get to say. Men suffer worse than women after a breakup. Such a statement could easily incite raucous debate. But if this finding isn’t to be believed, we can generally agree on one thing – men suffer far worse from relationship woes than we’ve accepted. Men are not strangers to heartache but have been stigmatized out of its experience. Emotional suppression is considered a normal part of being a man. When considered within the framework of men absolutely dominating suicide statistics in general (undefeated baby!), it is clear we need to dispense with the time-honored tradition of dismissing men as emotionally uninvested, and understand the emotions of men as they are.

While societal expectations may play a role in pushing men to suck-it-up and forgo healing, this horribly oversimplifies the matter. A tandem of well-intended maxims and misunderstood coping mechanisms have created ruinous conditions for experiencing heartache, leading men away from therapy and towards destructive methods of self-soothing (i.e. alcoholism and substance abuse). The view that men are romantically and emotionally stunted is peculiar when put into historical context. Renowned writers of the past are appreciated for their art but hardly recognized in their emotional capacities as men.

The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock by T.S. Eliot could not have been written by someone that did not know that brand of romantic despair.

“Let us go then you and I,

When the evening is spread out against the sky

Like a patient etherized upon a table;”

Yet in reading, we softly omit that T.S. Eliot was a man. We ignore that Charles Bukowski was known to be emotionally haggard and as cynical about love as he so directly told us in Love Is A Dog From Hell.

“when the phone rings

I too would like to hear words

That might ease

Some of this.”

Also a man.

We can read Sonnet 139 ad nauseum.

“Since I’m almost dead already,

kill me outright with your looks,

and put me out of my misery.”

But we learn of Shakespeare in such staunch academia that we forget he was – you guessed it – a man. Men have breached the limits of heartbreak to a fatal extent for millennia. Somehow, we’re still getting this wrong.

What does heartbreak look like?

The “Dear John Letter” – the infamous plot device where a soldier at war is broken up with via snail-mail – is a staple in the common romantic consciousness. Humiliation or rejection at the hands of a love interest is hardly foreign. When used in contemporary media, it is typically seen in productions made expressly for women, or with unrealistic depictions of how the man responds. While men have persevered through adversity of many kinds, it would be foolish to think we can all be Jay Gatsby (if I’m going to be lovesick, I’d rather do it in Brooks Brothers too). Instead, we rip apart our own minds, feeling the weight of pains we never imagined hanging over us. It is a hangover of mythical proportions. For weeks on end men will go about their business with a lump in their throat and diminished communication skills, causing their desire for usual leisure activities to plummet. Nothing can compete at the forefront of a mind of a man whose heart is in shambles. Conversations become laborious. Waking up becomes burdensome. It is almost identical to major depression. In many cases, heartbreak can be the catalyst for a major depressive episode. Days are spent immersed in distractions to keep from texting or calling the brand-new ex-lover. This is typically where alcoholism and/or substance abuse take hold. It is worth understanding that this particular form of substance abuse is simply an elongated attempt at suicide. Self-destructive behaviors seem innocuous until the temporary phase begins to cause damage. Then the reality must be faced that the substance abuse was a response to an indifference towards a life rendered meaningless in the face of overwhelming pain. Soon after, the willpower breaks, and the texts and calls seep through. The ex-lover is greeted with despondent tones, a far cry from the fortitude had when the relationship seemed secure. Anger might tint the conversation as acceptable answers seem scarce (spoiler alert – there are none). The text messages flood as all respect for boundaries is forgone. The questions are endless because answers are masquerading as surrogates for the only form of connection available until the ex decides to cut all contact. In the worst of cases, men take one of two paths: Self-loathing introspection, or obsessive and toxic attempts at connection. In the best of cases, a long and brutal mourning period ensues, during which period his capacity for affection of any kind has withered. Men regret the experience entirely as if inherent value can’t be gathered and brought forward. Men fail at breaking up because men aren’t expected to be cut down by the pain. Men know that this view is wrong.

Breakups Are Deaths We Can’t Cry Over

In 1884, future American president, Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt, was summoned from the New York Legislature with devastating news. His mother, and his wife, both died within mere hours of each other. Such a loss is unfathomable to anyone that hasn’t experienced it. Roosevelt would leave political life and New York. He ventured out to the Dakotas where he tended cattle on his ranch and worked as a local sheriff for two years. On his downtime, he would read and write. It was only when his herd was decimated by a blizzard that he decided to return east and continue his political career. He would later become one of the most formidable men in history, serving in combat and becoming an esteemed American president. Having lived in North Dakota for a time, I often wonder what it was like to be there in mourning. One thing that seems obvious is that he must have cried. A lot. His weathered skin must have been wiped raw from the number of tears that fell from his face. He must have screamed, and yelled, and puked, from crying. He must have cried until he trashed his house. He must have stopped in the middle of tending to his cattle, falling into an incapable pile of himself while a bewildered cow stared at him in wonder. His mourning period was documented but the details are hardly recounted. This is the same Roosevelt that went blind in one eye from fighting a champion Navy boxer while he was president. The same Roosevelt that gave a 90-minute speech with a bullet lodged in his chest after an assassination attempt, refusing medical care until he delivered his message. Roosevelt was one of the most revered and toughest men in history. Roosevelt cried, and cried, and cried.

If it seems extreme to compare the death of multiple loved ones to a breakup, it is fitting that we underestimate how much dies when a relationship ends. The entity created by both persons in a relationship dies. It is not only the piece of the self within that relationship that dies, however, but the form of the individual that materialized for the sake of that relationship. To be in a relationship, a collection of the best qualities a man can aspire to come together to create a version of himself that was previously unknown. This version of him may exist in other places but wasn’t unlocked until the presence of that love interest was introduced. When a man feels good in a relationship, he feels invincible. He feels strong and capable wherever he is called upon. His love – his muse for living – is a serious source of meaning and fulfillment. A man cannot create a new life on his own, but this existential dilemma is potentially solved when a relationship is working. Breaking up is not a matter of simple rejection, but a betrayal of biological and reproductive acceptance. With this betrayal, the self he grew to love went from promising to wholly inadequate. The foundation upon which meaning was being constructed doesn’t just crumble, but is ripped out from under him, leaving him suspended in the nothingness that is the death of the good in every memory accumulated with her. This still seems trivial until you fully understand that our entire being is made up of whatever we remember. Memories manifest themselves in the ways we speak and interact with the world. If our freshest memories include happy images tainted with brutal melancholy, how are we supposed to brush this off as anything less than a death to be mourned?

Healing vs. Repression

In response to a breakup, men commonly resolve to move on as quickly as possible. Maybe they spend as much time drinking, partying, having one-night stands and abusing drugs as they can. Maybe they take a healthier route and immerse themselves in working out or their careers. On either end of the spectrum, a glaring mistake is made when the proper process of mourning is neglected. While it is good to take time away from the situation to heal, many forget that healing is an active process. While time does heal all wounds, what is done with that time is what differentiates healing and repression. Being chronologically distant from a breakup will not guarantee that the damaging effects of it won’t linger. Often times, the damage doesn’t surface until the next relationship, wherein the next partner is made to take the brunt of the catharsis that never got its proper outlet and never had a chance to process. Repressing such pervasive demons won’t keep them from making their appearance. It’ll just make sure that they show up for a person that doesn’t deserve it. Maybe the breakup was for the best. But if the pain isn’t processed, it takes on a life of its own, festering and growing until given a new landing spot. If the repressed pain gets a chance to decide for itself when it shows up, the actions it takes will seem completely beyond control.

While there are multiple facets of proper self-care and healing, there are three that men must actively cultivate if we’re to steer this narrative away from what has fed into our perceived romantic ineptitude. The first, is properly caring for the self. The basic, standard practices aren’t mere cliché. They are standard for a reason. It is more important than ever to make sure that healthy routines are maintained at any cost. Eating, sleeping, working out, reading, and any meaningful hobbies aren’t a matter of optional enjoyment, but are absolute necessities when the entirety of who you are seems uncertain. The second, is investing heavily into important relationships. Humans are social creatures. No one can sustain without support. Whether its relatives or friends you can trust, men need windows to the world in others that remind them that the world isn’t just made up of the despair they are feeling. Considering how overwhelming despair can be, the reminder is more important than many of us let ourselves understand. The third, is getting PROFESSIONAL help. Venting is not the same as therapy and should never be considered a worthy substitute. This cannot be overstated. Men need to go to therapy. Men might say they don’t need therapy because they can handle things on their own, to which I respond with a resounding, ‘Pfft! The hell you can.’ If you think you can just muscle through the pain without any serious damage, you’re going to hate how life decides to teach you otherwise. While we bemoan the idea of “manning up” in efforts to remove stigmas, we should redefine and embrace this idea for the sake of teaching men how to heal. “Manning up” doesn’t mean doing everything yourself. “Manning up” is getting the job done, no matter what it takes to get it done right. A breakup done right means working it out properly, with a therapist. If men want to stop regifting packages wrapped in yellow caution tape, men need to “man up” to use the right tools for the job.

Let her go, bro.

The final word on this must be as brusque and painful as the breakup itself: Know when it’s over and begin the process of moving on. If she says she’s done, let her be done. If she says she needs space, don’t text her, don’t call her, don’t watch her stories, don’t like her pictures, don’t reach out to her friends or family. Fight the drunken urge to reach out in the wee-hours to appease your emotional demand for closure. You may never get it, and that’s okay. Respect the words she says and avoid the prospect of deeper damage for the both of you. Leave. Her. Alone. If she wanted to stay with you, she would have. She doesn’t need to explain why it’s over, no matter how bad it hurts not to know. You’re going to be okay, bro. It hurts as bad as anything you’ve ever felt. Don’t even try to pretend it doesn’t. I won’t pump this full of naïve positivity either, the fact is, things will never be the same again. The healing doesn’t come when you get back to feeling how you did before but when you understand that not being the same is okay. You are just as valuable as you ever have been. It’s up to you to keep adding value, and you CAN keep doing it. Keep yourself healthy, cultivate your relationships, find a good therapist, then rummage through the wreckage for the treasures to bring forward with you. No one has to be the bad guy. No one needs to be a bitch. Things can just be over. And everything can be okay.