“You’ve been dumped? Ah, crap, sorry man. Let’s all get drunk and go to a strip club.”
That’s about as far as most men go to console their friends after a bad breakup.
As psychology professor Nancy Kalish told us when describing what causes men to perpetually pine after their high school sweethearts, guys are terrible at getting over being dumped. “Guys generally don’t go to their friends — we’re stuck in that kind of culture still,” she explained. “They report that they sit in their rooms at night and cry, and never get over it. When I asked men, ‘How long did it take to get over your lost love?’ They wrote, ‘I never got over her.’”
It’s that first part that will hit many men reading this the hardest: The fact that, in most cases, a man’s friends aren’t there for him in any meaningful way when dealing with heartbreak. Quite simply, male friend groups are awful at dealing with serious problems with each other. It’s not like we don’t care about our friends — we do! In an abstract sort of way, at least. It’s just that we seem to lack the ideas for dealing with these sorts of issues. Our solutions tend to be somewhat more extreme versions of our usual routines — instead of getting drunk, getting really drunk — then forgetting all about it.
Except your friend hasn’t forgotten about it. In fact, he’s probably woken up the next morning with a killer hangover to add to his relationship grief.
“Male friendships are often about banter, and taking the piss out of each other,” says Martin Burrow, senior practice consultant at Relate, the U.K.’s biggest provider of relationship support. “So when you have to go from that to talking about how hurt you are, it’s a big shift. Women don’t tend to start in that place with their friendships, so it’s an easier thing to deal with. Men, however, are unlikely to say, ‘I’m really hurting,’ or ‘I’m missing her,’ not when they’re caught up in that [more traditionally macho] mentality.”
Smack-talking is indeed the enemy here, and it occurs within friendship groups of men from all classes and ages. Even though we’ve all been through painful breakups ourselves, we still end up playing that misguided role of “cheering them up” by having a laugh at their expense. You give it, and when it’s your turn, you take it.
“The problem is, the grieving process doesn’t naturally occur,” says Burrow. “To grieve and heal, you have to talk it through and get some support; otherwise it can be bottled up and become a real problem for that person, and turn into depression.”
Among the biggest problems here is that the one person in a man’s life he can generally be more emotionally open with is his partner, i.e., the person who just left them. “Men have often relied solely on their partner for emotional support, and when that intimate connection is severed, they don’t know where else to go,” says Elle Huerta, founder of breakup advice site letsmend.com. “With the women we hear from, the support system typically extends beyond their romantic partner and includes a mix of friends and family. It’s interesting to note that a 2015 study showed that both men and women are more likely to reach out to a female friend for support.”
It sucks, though, that most male friends can’t be there in the same way as platonic female friends, instead following the same stunted emotional paths of previous generations of men.
Can’t we modern types, with our beards and coffee enemas, do better? And if so, how?
“One solution is to formalize a separate conversation with one friend,” says Burrow. “Most guys have to contend with a group of men, where it’s difficult to talk, but going to one or two friends and saying, ‘I know we usually [goof on each other], but I’m struggling and I need some proper support.’ Most people’s radars will be on, and they’ll be there if someone is really suffering.”
It’s certainly worth considering this more targeted approach to asking for help. Consider the difference in responses when you text a friend a question directly, rather than sending it to the group chat — the same rules apply to talking in person.
The truth is, when the chips are down and our friends are really going through it, many of us will be there for them. We just need to stop waiting for them to ask—and to stop cloaking our concern in laughter and ball-busting in the meantime.