Break-ups are always hard, with love and companionship giving way to feelings of resentment and the souring of once treasured memories.
Yet people often continue to harbour positive feelings towards their exes long after the relationship is over. And that may be particularly the case if you’re a man, according to a recent study published in Social Psychological and Personality Science. Researchers have found that, in heterosexual relationships at least, men tend to view their exes more positively than do women.
Ursula Athenstaedt from the University of Graz and colleagues first discovered the effect when conducting research into whether people’s attitudes towards their exes could be altered. Across two studies, a total of almost 300 heterosexual participants completed a questionnaire about their attitudes towards their former partners, rating their agreement with 18 statements like “When I think about my ex-partner I get angry” and “My ex-partner has many positive traits”. The researchers’ experimental manipulation turned out to have no effect on these ratings — but instead they found that, overall, men tended to have slightly more positive attitudes towards their exes than women.
The team decided to further explore the finding in a third study. They gave the same attitude questionnaire to 612 new participants, all of whom had had a previous heterosexual relationship lasting at least 4 months; some were now in a new relationship while others were single. The participants also completed several other scales, such as rating the degree of social support they had received from their ex-partner, how much they used coping strategies like self-distraction or venting following their break-up, the reasons for breaking up, and their attitudes towards sex and love.
Men again had more positive attitudes towards their exes than women, with an average score on the questionnaire of 3.57 (out of 5) compared to the women’s average of 3.11. But men and women also differed on several of the other measures as well. Men had a more “permissive” attitude towards sex (they were more likely to agree with statements like “I do not need to be committed to a person to have sex with her”), for example, and had received more social support from their exes than had women. On the other hand, women had used more coping strategies following their break-ups, and were more likely to say that their partner was the cause of the split. A subsequent analysis showed that these various factors could partly — but not completely — account for the differences between men and women in their attitudes towards exes.
The researchers suggest that the findings may stem from a combination of evolutionary and social factors. Men’s permissive sexual attitudes might make them more eager to keep open the possibility of sex with former partners, for instance — and so it makes sense to maintain a more positive attitude towards them. Similarly, men may hold a rosier view of their exes because they were a greater source of emotional support, whereas women tended to receive less support from their partners and more from other sources like friends and family.
But whether these theories hold up remains to be seen. “While our studies document this stable gender difference, we do not know its specific origins. Even though both evolutionary and gender role theories provide some valuable insights, additional research is needed to pin down the key origins,” the authors acknowledge. And it’s also unclear how far the results generalise. Most notably, the study only included heterosexual participants, so doesn’t reveal much about the attitudes of men and women who are gay or bisexual.
Still, having a more positive view of your ex may actually have a detrimental effect on subsequent romantic partnerships, the team suggests — so men’s new relationships may be particularly prone to difficulties. In other words, being grateful for your ex may actually make it harder to say “thank you, next”.