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.