June 11, 2010 -- A rocky romantic relationship can cause significant stress, but contrary to conventional wisdom, its impact may be harder on young men than on young women, new research indicates.
Though previous research has long suggested that unmarried young women are more vulnerable than men to tough times in romantic relationships, the opposite seems to be true, according to research by sociologists at Wake Forest University and Florida State University.
Robin Simon, PhD, a professor at Wake Forest, and Anne Barrett, PhD, of FSU, studied the emotional reactions of 1,611 unmarried adults between the ages of 18 and 23.
They conclude that:
- The harmful stress of a roller-coaster relationship is more likely to affect the mental health of young men than young women.
- A recent breakup from a romantic relationship affects the mental health of young women more than young men.
- Young women are more emotionally affected than their romantic partners when it comes to being in a relationship or not. Young men, on the other hand, are more affected emotionally by the quality of their current relationships.
Simon tells WebMD that young men and women “are both affected by negative aspects, and by good ones, but when you look at both, men are more affected emotionally by both good and bad relationships.”
Women are more likely to become depressed; distressed young men are prone to turn to alcohol or other mind-altering substances, she says. And young men, she says, are more likely to develop substance abuse problems.
The study is published in the June issue of the Journal of Health and Social Behavior.
Among other findings:
- Young men see their romantic partners as their primary source of intimacy, while young women are more likely than men to have close relationships with friends and family.
- Problems in relationships seem to threaten young men’s identity and feelings of self-worth, but this doesn’t seem to be the case for young women.
The study “sheds light on the association between non-marital romantic relationships and emotional well-being among men and women on the threshold of adulthood,” Simon says in a news release. “Surprisingly, we found young men are more reactive to the quality of ongoing relationships.”
Men Not Immune to Relationship Stress
So what’s going on here?
“Men need partner support more than women do, significantly so,” Simon tells WebMD. “Having experienced a breakup is more harmful to women, and being in a relationship is more beneficial to women. It has to do with identity factors.”
Women have more social networks, in general, than men do, she says.
The findings are contrary to research-based conventional wisdom in part because long-held assumptions have not been questioned.
“Research is influenced by the culture, and it’s been this long-term assumption that women are more vulnerable,” Simon tells WebMD. “The public assumes men are strong and don’t care about these things, and that’s simply not the case.”
Men who are jilted or lose girlfriends are “more likely to drink,” Simon says. “Women respond by internalizing problems. I think it is culturally normative for women to become depressed. You have this generalized upset, and it gets filtered differently by men and women.”
About half of the respondents were men, the other half women. The survey data were originally gathered for a long-term study of mental health and the transition to adulthood.
The authors say there’s a lot more to learn about these young adult relationships.
“Our findings highlight the need to consider the period in the life course as well as experiences of specific cohorts of men and women when theorizing about gender differences in the importance of intimate relationships for mental health,” the authors write.
They also conclude that:
- Intimate (sexual) relationships are associated with enhanced emotional well-being in adulthood, though not necessarily in adolescence.
- Partner support is good for mental health, and strain is harmful.
“We do not know the extent to which non-marital romantic relationships are important for emotional well-being during the transition to adulthood, and whether they are differently important for young women and men,” the researchers write.
- 57% were in a current romantic relationship.
- 36% had experienced a breakup in the previous year.
- 21% of those in a relationship at the time they were surveyed also had experienced a breakup in the past year.
“Future research should focus on why some dimensions of these relationships matter more for young women’s mental health and others matter more for young men,” the authors conclude.