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The science of heartbreak: women feel more pain after a relationship ends but we're also more resilient

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“Once you had put the pieces back together, even though you may look intact, you were never quite the same as you'd been before the fall.” It's a sentiment from Jodi Picoult's My Sister's Keeper that's always resonated with us, and turns out, it's got a glimmer of scientific truth to it too.

A new study has found women feel greater pain than men, emotionally and physically, after a breakup.

Researchers at Binghamton University and University College London asked 5,705 women and men with an average age of 27 in 96 countries to rate the emotional and physical pain of splitting up from their partners on a scale of one (none) to 10 (unbearable). 

In the survey, participants were also asked about their romantic history, including questions such as: Have you experienced a breakup? How severe was the breakup for you emotionally? Who do you feel initiated the breakup? What sort of physical responses did you experience as a result of the breakup?

When it came to emotional anguish, women reported a score of 6.84 while men rated 6.58. The difference was greater for physical pain, where women averaged 4.21 versus men’s 3.75.

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“Put simply, women are evolved to invest far more in a relationship than a man,” Craig Morris, lead author of the study tells Psych Central. “A brief romantic encounter could lead to nine months of pregnancy followed by many years of lactation for an ancestral woman, while the man may have ‘left the scene’ literally minutes after the encounter, with no further biological investment.”

“It is this ‘risk’ of higher biological investment that, over evolutionary time, has made women choosier about selecting a high-quality mate. Hence, the loss of a relationship with a high-quality mate ‘hurts’ more for a woman.”

While they may be hit the hardest when their heart is broken, the study also found that women recover much better and come out emotionally stronger, while men don't necessarily recover; they move onto someone else.

“Most women, broadly speaking, seem to be hit hard and fast by a breakup, but are less self destructive, utilize more social support, and recover faster and more fully,” says Morris. Women hit a moment when they realise, “it’s really over, it’s time to move on”.

On the other hand, “(men) seem to react badly and in some sort of self-destructive/angry fashion often combined with depression. This can last for months or years. Then they just sort of ‘move on,’ usually via another relationship.” 

Morris adds that most of us will experience an average of three breakups by the age of 30 and at least one will affect us strongly enough to substantially decrease our quality of life for weeks or months. The study also concluded that the most common reason for splits was “lack of communication”.

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