Boys Do Cry: How To Deal With a Breakup Like a Man

I originally co-wrote this for Scarleteen in 2009, and appears here with permission of both that site and the co-author. It was written for teen boys struggling with painful break-ups.

Breaking up; getting dumped; dumping someone – chances are, this has happened to most people you know.

The first romantic relationships we have rarely survive a lifetime. Some teens and twentysomethings do genuinely expect their “first loves” to last forever, while others are more realistic, hoping only that a relationship will last until some mutually agreeable moment in the future. And when the break-ups do happen, as they almost inevitably will, they are rarely painless. Guys in particular are often surprised by how badly the end of a relationship can hurt, and are particularly vulnerable to feeling isolated, lonely, and without anyone to turn to to process through that pain.

It’s important not to over-generalize. At the same time, it’s vital to note that we live in a society that prohibits men, especially young men, from acknowledging their emotional pain. The “boys don’t cry” ethos is a powerful one in almost every corner of American culture, and the damage it does is very real. Just as little boys on the playground often are taught that they must toughen up and ignore the bumps and scrapes that their bodies suffer, teenage guys pick up the message from their male peers that a break-up ought to be more cause for relief than pain. “Dude, you’re a free man!” is how well-meaning friends may respond; the myth that women eagerly seek out commitment while men just as eagerly seek to avoid it is just that, a myth, but many guys feel as if they should be less torn up than they really are.

Though not all young women feel as if they have permission to grieve after a relationship is over, most do. Television shows and movies which depict teenage breakups often show young women with strong emotional reactions; in particular, the media makes it clear that women have permission to talk about their feelings, and can expect sympathy and understanding from peers and family. Of course, not every young woman has friends with whom to process through that pain – but many do. Our cultural expectation that women can and will talk at length about their emotions, and seek advice and sympathy from friends, gives young women the sense that it’s okay to reach out for the help that they need.

Guys are often told to suppress their feelings through denial, or by trying to go out and hook up with someone new as soon as possible. They are also much less likely to see media images of young men acknowledging grief and reaching out for help and reassurance. In the movies, male tears at the end of relationships– if they appear at all – are often played for laughs or for ridicule. And though some young men do learn that it’s “okay” to cry in private, or to cry in front of a girlfriend, it is a rare young man in our culture who feels as if he can shed tears in front of his male buddies or partners without judgment. (It’s always a good conversation starter with boys: ask how they would react if their best male friend cried in front of them while asking for help. Even in this enlightened era, far too many guys are totally “at wits end” when confronted by a male friend’s evident emotional pain.) Though there is some anecdotal evidence that this is starting to change, far too few guys have the sense that their pain will be validated if they share it with their friends.

One result of this lack of access to a strong support system is that many guys, when they get into romantic relationships, become heavily, even exclusively emotionally reliant on their girlfriends. Many young women are regularly struck by how many young men will show strong, honest, raw emotion with them in private. More than a few young women have had boyfriends who broke down in front of them and said “I never told anyone this” as they opened up a raw and real source of pain. While that openness is usually reciprocated, in our culture it is much more likely that a young woman will have other emotional resources (friends of either sex, family) to whom she can turn. To put it another way, all too often her boyfriend is her best friend while she is his only close friend, at least the only one with whom he can cry and be completely vulnerable. And that means that when the break-up happens, the guy may be far more likely to be without anyone to whom to turn.

It often seems, as a result, that it takes young men longer to get over a breakup than it does young women.

Most of us have seen something like this unfold in opposite-sex relationships: guy and girl break up. Girl initially seems far more devastated. She talks to her friends, mourns publicly, seems genuinely distraught. Guy seems, by comparison, to hardly be in pain at all. Weeks go by, then months. Because she’s dealt with the hurt immediately, girlfriend is getting over things, moving on, ready for what comes next. Boyfriend, meanwhile, has fallen into a delayed depression. He may suddenly start calling, frantic to get her back, having suddenly realized breaking up was a “huge mistake.” He may even progress to what seems like stalking, begging and pleading for “another try.” And while that might have worked on girlfriend six days after the break up, it comes far too late when it comes, as it not infrequently does, six months down the line! This delayed reaction is an obvious consequence of the fact that so many young men lack strong emotional support networks (other, perhaps, than that provided by the women whom they are involved with romantically or sexually) and are far more likely to adopt distraction or denial as initial coping strategies.

If you’re gay, you may find you’re given a little more permission to be emotional with a breakup, or you may find that doesn’t make any difference at all. Sometimes being gay means being even more isolated (especially if you aren’t out yet), or feeling like you have to be even more careful not to step outside the mold of masculinity you’re held to, since you may feel or be told you’re already less masculine by virtue of being queer. Heterosexuality is often considered an essential part of being a “real” man, even though that’s a bunch of hooey. Having love relationships end when you’re young is also tough enough as it is, but if your breakup was also one of your first same-sex relationships, it can be even harder.

Newsflash, peeps: boys do cry. Men do get sad. Breakups hurt everyone, even if each sex has very different culturally-mandated rules about how to respond. So the next time you run into a male friend who seems remarkably calm and blasé in the immediate aftermath of ending a relationship, ask a few questions. Don’t expect instant tears. But do, gently, send the message that it’s okay to hurt and to make that hurt known.

10 Ways to Get Through a Breakup Without Breaking

1) While moving on is important in time, letting yourself really feel all you’re feeling now is just as important. As we’ve said, guys can often feel pressures to be more stiff-upper-lippy than girls, or to pretend like a breakup doesn’t bother you. But most people, of all genders, even when a breakup is wanted, have feelings of sadness, anger or disappointment about a breakup. It’s up to you who you share your feelings with, but make sure you’re at list giving yourself time and space alone to just experience those feelings and let them have their own flow.

2) Express yourself. Expressing how we feel is part of dealing with how we feel and moving forward. Any of us can use creative ways to express our feelings, such as through journaling, a creative art like photography or music,

3) Plenty of us, after a breakup, may pine or obsess over a lost partner with photographs or mementos of the relationship. But at a certain point – depending on how you’re doing, and if you feel like those things are doing you good or not – it’s time to put that stuff away. You don’t have to ritually destroy them (and may regret it later if you do), but putting them all in a box, and then somewhere well out of sight, can help a lot.

4) Reclaim the things you love and had less time for. Obviously, the more relationships we have, the less time we usually have for ourselves, and intimate relationships can take up a lot of time and energy. Doing the things we love and have previously had less time for helps heal our hearts and also remind us of who we are, by ourselves, not just who we are in a relationship.

5) Find some solid support. For sure, not all of your friends may have the emotional maturity or life experience to understand how you’re feeling. Some may even be really bad choices to share with: a person who teases you about being sad, or who just disses your ex endlessly isn’t likely to be a good support. But do reach out to people you think may be supportive. That might be a teacher or a coach, one of your parents or a sibling, or a friend of any gender. If you’re having a supremely tough time with a breakup, finding a counselor to help you through it can also be a good step, whether that’s the counselor at school or a counseling professional through your healthcare services. And if you feel like you’ve got none of these resources, you can seek out some safe spaces online to be real with how you feel, like our message boards.

6) Deal with your breakup in ways which are emotionally healthy for you and your ex. It’s common to feel angry or bitter after a breakup, but some people act on those feelings in ways that aren’t healthy, and which range from masochistic to downright dangerous. To be clear, ceasing to do all the things you enjoy doing, or which you need to do – going to school or work, eating, sleeping, bathing — is not healthy. Self-harm through things like cutting, drinking or doing drugs, high-risk sexual behavior or suicide attempts are not healthy. Refusing to give your ex space and time – such as by texting or emailing them over and over again – or allowing an ex to refuse to give you space and time is not healthy. Hopefully it’s obvious, but blackmailing, manipulating, stalking, harassing, or physically or sexually attacking an ex in any way are not only unhealthy, but abusive and criminal.

7) If you and/or an ex want to try and sustain a platonic friendship, be sure you both are giving yourself some space and time first, and also set and maintain healthy boundaries. As well, check in with your or their motivations for a friendship: often enough, some people want to “stay friends” not to actually be friends, but because they are either having a tough time letting go, or because they hope a friendship may help get the romantic relationship back. The same goes double for breaking up, then walking right back into a friends-with-benefits scenario. If neither person has had time to deal with the breakup, you can be very sure that someone is going to get hurt and feel very confused by casual sex – though sex with a recent ex is hardly casual – when a relationship is supposed to be over.

8) Try and avoid rebounding by giving yourself time to be single after a relationship. Sure, now and then we rebound anyway, or a new relationship just happens. Sometimes, a new relationship may even be why the old one ended. But most of us need some time to grieve and reflect after a breakup: if we don’t have time to feel our feelings, as well as time to learn the lessons of our last relationships and the breakup, our next one might not be any better than the last. Too, after a breakup, we so often feel so lonely, having been used to having a partner, that relationship choices made hot on the heels of a breakup don’t tend to be our best.

9) Remember that a breakup is not likely about how much you suck, or how unwanted or undesirable you are. When relationships don’t work, it’s rarely about one person, which shouldn’t be surprising since relationships are necessarily about more than one person. Rather, relationships that end, fall apart or just don’t work tend to be about how any two people find that their personalities, lifestyles, goals, communication styles, and any number or kind of needs and wants don’t mesh or play nicely together. As well, breakups are even more common or frequent with younger people than with older folks because younger people are still growing and changing so much that a partnership that feels perfect one month can feel like a poor fit the next. Even the most awesome people in the world cannot have a great love relationship with just anyone: we can be as great as we want to be, but that doesn’t mean we’ll be great together with everyone. It’s helpful to try not to look at breakups as failures, even though it can sure feel that way. Moving on or away from something that isn’t working for one or both people isn’t a failure, it’s a movement towards both learning and finding what does work for them.

10) … and when it’s time, be open to other relationships again. It can be so easy, especially when a relationship is over, to only remember the good stuff or for our good times to seem even better than they actually were. If you’re getting over one of our first loves, it might feel like you’ll never have those feelings again, or never have them so hugely. You might also feel scared to try getting involved intimately again. All of those feelings are normal, but chances are, you will likely have those feelings again, and while we always risk hurt or heartbreak when we get close to others, those are the risks we take to have the good stuff. A broken heart can hurt like hell, to be sure, but broken hearts do heal in time.

6 thoughts on “Boys Do Cry: How To Deal With a Breakup Like a Man

  1. Good article, but I would ask you to rethink the phrase “may seem like stalking”. I’m sure it’s not what you mean, but it kind of sounds like “it’s not really stalking, because you don’t intend to stalk someone, but some unreasonable people might *think* it’s stalking.”

    Also, the words “gay” and “queer” are not synonymous for many people, although thanks for making your piece inclusive of non-heterosexual folks :-)

  2. It is good that you didn’t suggest that ALL people know what it’s like to be “dumped,” as “most” is a more accurate word, since not everyone has experienced a romantic relationship, including people in their 20s, 30s, and 40s. It’s also good to point out that boys and men are too often expected to suppress their emotional pain and, at least in the scenario you have described, instead go out with their “bros” to some awful strip joint.

    This does tie in with my thoughts on “love novices” wanting to find fellow “love novices” to be with. This was decried when I first wrote it, especially since there was an assumption I was talking about sex (which I was not, though I could see how someone could apply that concept to sexual relationships as well as romantic ones). It was written that “the first cut is the deepest,” and no one wants to find out that the intense pain (s)he’s feeling isn’t being felt at all by the other person, who’s been through this so many more times. It isn’t a spiteful or vindictive desire for the other person to feel the hurt; it’s not wanting to learn that the other person is so jaded that (s)he can just shrug off the end of a romantic relationship, thanks to 20 or 30 years of building up immunity that you yourself don’t have.

  3. I am so glad I found this article, we have printed for our son to read as he struggles to get over his first serious relationship.

  4. Pingback: 2012: A Roundup | laurenbersaglio.com

  5. I don’t know why my gf dumped me…i am crying as i am writing this…she was my first crush and I loved her more than my life,I even cut my hand with a blade once when we had a fight.She started ignoring my messages and calls since the last two months..I gave her whatever she wanted and dont think so i even saddened her by mistake…but even when we were continuing our relation she often used to break my heart,she hugged and kissed other boys,although we had never kissed each other till date…i am unable to stop thinking of her…i cry everyday,really its note a joke…

  6. It has been a month now since my girlfriend and I broke up. We had a huge fight at the end which resulted in her storming for the door, only to never hear from again. I’m finding it hard to cope with.

    I suprise myself with this, as she wasn’t even much of a girlfriend at all. I literally did everything for her and she kept me on a leash, kept me on the background in her life. For example, after not hearing for her for one day I decided to suprise visit her, only to be send back home. When her car was out of fuel I saved her and she just wove me goodbye. She never wanted to sleep over. She bossed me to get her food moments after she declined dinner at my house. She threatend me with breaking up if I’d join her to the cinema with her friends. She planned activities with friends way ahead while I got “mabye”. She went on a holiday alone because “her nephew wouldn’t allow a boyfriend”. Her dad even called me to say he accepted me because he was worried that I rarely visited their house (she wouldn’t let me). During christmas time I brought her her favourite candy and she was angry because I suprise visited her and thus invade her privacy. She spend an awfull lot of time with her phone when around me. I know it all sounds crazy, the list goes on, but while it made me angry at the time I somehow excused her for it all. We rarely went out in public and we’ve never done something with other people.

    There were also intimate times. Like when a family member died, she was there for me. She’d call me in the middle night just to tell me her dreams about me. We texted all day. That sort of stuff. We had the best sex I ever experienced (got worse nearing the end though).

    I adressed my issues with our relationship many times to her. She always said that sort of stuff pushed her more away from me. But I doubt it did. I honestly believe people in love treat eachother like golden, want to see eachother as often as possible. Don’t act annoyed if their love wants to kiss or hug. She rarely made me feel this way, often her distant behavior would break me in tears. When I lay my feelings upon her she replied she wanted to be independant and wasn’t ready for such intimate relationship. She also replied she would think about changing things for me to feel better. They didn’t. This made sense but it wasn’t good for me because I wanted to build a future together. We sticked together and the fights and arguments kept happening and got increasingly worse. A year and a half later we broke.

    Yet I ask myself. If I never really was happy with it all, if it couldn’t statisfy my needs. Why do I feel so bad about this break up? Is it because I wanted it to work? Is it because of the silince and solitude I experience now? I truly don’t know. If she’d only fight a bit for it more.

    I’m lead a joyfull life, I study and work. Hobbies are keeping me occupied. But sometimes, it all just comes out. I never been a saint and sometimes would scream or say harsh things to her out of anger. I blame myself for not understanding her wants and needs. But I just could not accept her behavior any more. Now, I’m a bit scared to miss out on a new relationship. I really hope time heals..

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>