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Men use resourceful strategies to cope with breakups

Breaking up is hard to do, and men are not immune to the stressful effects ensuing from relationship failure, separation and divorce. The stereotype that men choose to go it alone and do not want support at these times is simply not true, say researchers from the University of British Colombia’s School of Nursing. 

In a new study, published in the journal Qualitative Health Research, researchers from British Colombia and Australia investigate the ways in which men go about seeking help when adjusting to the breakup of an intimate relationship. Dr. John Oliffe, senior author and a professor of nursing who leads the men’s health research program at UBC, along with research co-author Mary T. Kelly, say men do not actively avoid mental health promotion and can be resourceful and resilient as they work their way through painful breakup.

“A failed relationship can lead to significant mental stress – men already have higher risks for suicide than women, and marital separation increases that risk four times. By exploring the ways through which men seek help after a breakup, we can potentially design better supports for their mental health,” said Kelly.

“It’s also important to shift the narrative,” said Dr. Oliffe, the Canada Research Chair in men‘s health promotion. “The story that is most often told is that when a relationship breaks down, the man goes into crisis and/or perpetrates violence on his partner, but this is not the trajectory for most men. It’s helpful for guys to see that most breakups end with the men working through their challenges by leaning into help.”

The results of the study are based on the use of interpretive descriptive methods to analyze in-depth interviews with 47 Canadian or Australian men in connection with their help-seeking behavior after a relationship breakup. Such behavior was categorized into three themes: (1) Solitary work and tapping established connections, (2) Reaching out to make new connections, and (3) Engaging professional mental health care. 

“We’ve known that men seek help when an intimate partner relationship breaks down, but we always thought it was professional help they sought. Our research shows that they creatively used various strategies,” said Dr. Oliffe.

Men who were younger or had seen the break-up of a shorter relationship tended to engage in solitary work and reached out to established connections. About a quarter of the men said they did a lot of internet searches for blogs, coaches and other resources. They reached out to friends or family members, not necessarily to find a solution, but to chat things through. They also made use of self-help books to guide them in their understanding and responses.

Men who had been in longer-term relationships, where children were involved or litigation concerning division of assets was taking place, were more likely to cope by making new connections and seeking out community-based help like local dads’ groups or groups of men who had been through separation or divorce.

About half the men engaged professional mental health care services such as counselling. Typically these were men who had a pre-existing mental illness or those who needed formal help to get through the enormity of what they were feeling. 

According to Mary Kelly, these resourceful help-seeking responses disprove the popular stereotype that men do not go to the doctor and they don’t want help. “It shatters the trope that men aren’t emotional and aren’t affected as much as the rest of us by a breakup. We also tend to think that men don’t do introspection or vulnerability, but a lot of the men were really engaging in that deep kind of work.”

Kelly noted that there are not a lot of resources out there to help guys build better relationships. “However, our group at UBC is working on a few projects. With support from Movember, we’re building an online resource for men who want to learn more about dealing with relationship conflicts and building relationship skills. We’re also currently looking for participants for a new project that will invite men to share their ideas on what contributes to a healthy relationship.”

For men currently dealing with a breakup, Dr. Oliffe recommends taking the time to “sit with the emotions that go with the breakup. You can be sad and happy, angry and sorrowful at the same time. Look to reconnect or stay connected with friends and family. Be careful about substance use. Maintain a routine, get some exercise and be open to reaching out for professional help.”

By Alison Bosman, Staff Writer

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