When relationships break down, men are at risk of mental illness

January 30, 2022

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When relationships break down, men are at risk of mental illness

A new study confirms that when men transition out of relationships, they are at increased risk of mental illness, including anxiety, depression and suicide.

What the researchers say: “Most men experienced the onset or worsening of mental illness symptoms during a distressed relationship or following the breakdown of a relationship,” says the study’s lead author. He noted that marital separation quadruples the risk of male suicide and suggests that distressed relationships as well as separation and divorce contribute to men’s mental health challenges.

The researchers interviewed 47 men about their experiences with the breakdown of an intimate partner relationship. When faced with conflict in their relationships, men tended to downplay issues, causing the relationship to fracture even further.

“Stereotyped masculinity plays a role in how men react to a broken relationship,” said the researchers. “For example, men’s uncertainty for how to articulate and problem-solve in the relationship context resulted in many men isolating rather than reaching out for help. Most men in the study were battling with transitions in the partnership—like bereavement, parenting or infidelity—and their primary goal was to avoid conflict.”

The study also found that men who were in distress following their breakup used substances, including alcohol, to cope with feelings such as anger, regret, sadness, shame and guilt. This is in addition to the immense uncertainty of what life could look like with less access to children, financial challenges and the loss of social connections.

On the positive side, the study revealed that following the breakdown of a relationship, men did engage a variety of resources to address their mental health needs.

“Help-seeking efforts among these men were wide-ranging and included individual or solitary efforts like exercise, reading and self-care while other men tapped existing networks or extended their efforts to connect with support groups, or attended therapy,” notes the study’s co-author.

So, what? The study confirms a large body of research which has come to the same broad conclusion regarding men’s reactions to failing relationships. For example, research I covered in November of last year.

The same outcomes can be seen when men lose other important relationships—for example the loss of work connections and colleagues if they get laid off at work or when they retire.

A large study done a couple of years ago (and reported in TR) showed that when men lose their jobs more than twice in their life, they are prone to heart attacks even decades later. What’s more, if they have children after the event, the stress can be passed on to their male offspring causing cardiac problems in children and even grandchildren.

Other research has shown that men are far more likely to suffer from depression and even suicide soon after retirement.

Women are better at making relationships outside of work than men which sustains them when relationships fail or when they lose their jobs.

Read more on gender differences.

Dr Bob Murray

Bob Murray, MBA, PhD (Clinical Psychology), is an internationally recognised expert in strategy, leadership, influencing, human motivation and behavioural change.

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