By Bunmi Sofola
A couple of years back, I had a business lunch with a powerful female executive of a textile firm. We’d never met before but by the first course, I’d learned that she had a young son, that juggling a demanding job and home life was nearly killing her and that the father of her child had just left.
Underneath her designer clothes she was a mess. And that’s what we discussed throughout our meal. I listened to her outpouring of pain and made odd remarks – and when we said goodbye, she said I’d made her feel ‘much better’. Of course I hadn’t, she felt better through talking and feeling someone cared.
As an agony aunt, both men and women write to me asking for advice about heartache after a relationship ends, and there’s little difference in the way they express their pain. After all, questions like, “will I ever be happy again?” and “Do you think I will ever find a new love?” come with gender labels.
I refuse to believe clichés like “all men are unfeeling and women are the more caring sex.” However, it will come as no surprise that many more letters to my column come from women.
You would attribute this to the fact that men tend to think of problem pages as women’s domain. But the number of letters I get from unhappy wives who want to seek couple’s counselling, only to have their husbands flatly refuse, shows men are far less articulate about feelings – and tend to regard talking about them as weakness.
Over the past few months, I’ve had three intense talks with people who I know – unhappy souls whose partners walked out on them after a long marriage. One break-up was five years ago, one 12 months ago, one eight weeks ago.
Each was still heartbroken, as well as consumed by moments of bitterness and the terror of a future without companionship. All thought impossible to ‘get over’ such a shocking life change. Two were women and one a man – but expressed themselves in very similar ways. That was no surprise to me. My years as an advice columnist for this newspaper have taught me that heartache has no gender.
But a new report seems to disagree. Researchers at Binghamton University, New York, and at University College, London, found that when a relationship ends, women suffer more emotional pain than men. They asked 5,705 people in 96 countries to rate the hurt of a break-up on a scale of zero to ten.
The average result was 6.84 for women, compared to 6.58 for men – that doesn’t look like a huge-difference, but it is statistically. As well as feeling worse, women suffer more physically; they’re more likely to panic, lose sleep, and put on weight.
The big question here is: How can these ‘experts’ draw sensible conclusion by asking people to rate their pain? “You don’t experience pain – mental or physical – in the same way I do, or my heartbroken friends,” said Clara, a relationship counsellor.
“Why should feelings be any different? When my ex-husband ended our 29-year marriage, friends called me ‘brave’ and ‘dignified’ as I chose not to wail and cut the sleeves off his suits! At the time, I thought reticence necessary for self-protection.
But if I’d been asked to rate my feelings on a scale of zero to ten, what would I have put? Would I have rated my emotional agony as lower than that of a male friend I saw last week – still full of anger after a year? Maybe. But my point is that the difference between us is not down to our gender, but our personality type. I move on, convincing myself I must.
“It’s amazing how many couples fail to communicate. Their heart-breaking letters sometimes reveal a lack of the most basic information about each other. Try asking your partner, “what makes you unhappy?” Then the more positive, “What makes you most happy?” The results may surprise – and (with luck) start a valuable conversation. Whatever the surveys say, heartbreak is part of the human condition, and the small rejections we suffer as children are a rehearsal for the jolting shock when a partner announces: “I don’t really love you any more.”
“Pain must be endorsed by walking through the dark valley until you see a glimmer of light. I just don’t believe that in the end, it is gender that makes the difference. Other things – like your ability to talk about it, your support network, if you are lucky enough to meet someone else – will help you through.
“I have lost count of the number of items I have held somebody’s hand and assured them that in time, pain does pass. You don’t “get over” it, you absorb it into your being and grow. This is such a hard thing to believe when you are miserable, but in most cases, it is true.”