Scrolling down into the wormholes of online forums about divorce, it’s not hard to notice a pattern: While there are many tales of woe from both women and men, men especially seem to experience the event as a soul-crushing shock.
“If it wasn’t for my son, I honestly don’t know what I’d do,” one anonymous Reddit user, who identified himself on the site as a man, recently lamented. “I just feel worthless.”
He explained that he had “barely held it together” after learning his soon-to-be-ex-wife, who had separated from him, was dating someone else. “Not even divorced yet and she’s with someone new,” he said. “It hurts. A lot.”
Social research into opposite-sex couples suggests that men are often more traumatized by divorce than women, at least in the short-term. Their sense of well-being often plunges, they may pick up unhealthy habits like binge drinking, and they are likely to suffer from loneliness and isolation, according to a 2018 study. Disturbingly, men may be eight times as likely as women to commit suicide following divorce.
Men often react with “self-hatred and confusion” when a marriage ends and their behavior can become “pretty toxic,” said Steve Horsmon, founder of Goodguys2Greatmen.com, and a life coach who helps men work through relationship problems. Horsmon, who is also divorced, employs strategies in his coaching practice that he used to overcome his own demons.
Why all this happens is still subject to debate, but there are some likely culprits (with rigid masculine stereotypes being one possible ingredient). Here are some of the biggest factors that can make divorce a tougher for men to handle than women, according to experts.
Women file for divorce more than men
This October, when football star Tom Brady and supermodel Gisele Bündchen called it quits, at least one aspect of the split was not surprising: She was the one who pulled the plug.
Women initiate more than two-thirds of opposite-sex divorces in the U.S., according to a Stanford University sociologist. They might feel their emotional needs aren’t being met, or like Gisele, be tired of neglecting their own ambitions. But whatever the cause, it’s never easy accepting a difficult situation when it seems to be foisted on you, as is likely the case for many divorced men. “The fact that men are deeply affected by divorce, especially if they did not choose that solution, is not hard to understand,” Boca Raton, Florida-based psychologist Robin L. Goldstein says on her website. While society teaches men to avoid expressing feelings, “they often appear intensely when a man is abandoned by a spouse or partner.”
Men see divorce as a personal failure
Sometimes relationships simply don’t work. People learn they are incompatible, or they slowly grow apart. Many men in opposite-sex marriages, though, have trouble seeing that change as natural evolution, and instead perceive a separation or divorce as a personal failure, as well as a loss of identity.
Men often endure “pain and agony” when a relationship falls apart, and their coping mechanisms, such as lashing out in anger, blaming a spouse, or desperately trying to “fix” things usually just make the situation worse, Horsmon told The Exit.
“They’ve been trying to control their life as if it was a puzzle,” Horsmon explained about some of the men he coaches. He tries to tell them: “You don’t have control over outcomes, and you don’t have control over feelings.” Once men learn how to be “emotionally vulnerable” though, “the logistics of divorce, those are easy.”
Divorced women have more friends for support
Another big difference between how women and men deal with divorce is that women usually have more friends to reach out to, experts say. And when they do hang out with their friends, women are more likely to talk constructively about whatever psychological turmoil they’re confronting, like anger, jealousy, and sadness.
(Research has found that women tend to be more emotionally intelligent than men and talk about their feelings more than men. But neither sex is “more emotional.”)
“Evidence suggests that women are more likely to maintain larger networks of friends and extended family when married, whereas men are more likely to rely primarily on their partner and children for social interaction and social support,” McGill University researcher Rob Whitley wrote in Psychology Today.
“This means men tend to experience a more intense decrease in social support following a divorce, which can leave them lonely and isolated precisely when they need a social safety net.”
Divorced men take more of a financial hit
It can feel like a kick to the gut when you suddenly go from earning a good income and living in a nice house, to having to downsize to an apartment and become saddled with child support and alimony payments. In many cases, these financial shocks are borne by men.
Although not all “breadwinners” are men, the higher earning-spouse in many opposite-sex couples is still usually a man. Alimony and child support payments are usually awarded by courts to lower-earning spouses.
Financially, women do tend to take a bigger hit down the line, though, and often fail to recover the standard of living they lost, according to experts. But most divorced women don’t regret their decisions, preferring a less comfortable lifestyle to sticking it out in an unhappy marriage.
Child custody is awarded more to women
Another source of pain for many divorced men is suddenly not being able to see their kids as often. Primary custody of children is awarded to women far more often than to men. According to U.S. Census statistics, fathers account for only 17.5 percent of all custodial parents, or one out of every six households. Feeling disconnected from children makes divorce all the lonelier for many men.
“Cultural expectations still tend to favor mothers in custody matters leaving many men without the time they want with their children,” psychologist Goldstein says. “That can make it difficult for a man to remain as involved with his children as he wishes to be.”