Contrary to the prevailing notion that women are more emotionally affected than men by relationship problems (and in general), studies on marital relations and mental health suggest otherwise. One of the latest, a study published in 2010 found that young men are more troubled by relationship issues than are young women. They gain more from being in a happy relationship, but they are better off single than in a rocky, uncertain relationship.
Earlier studies on gender differences have focused on older, married couples. These have found similar results — men and women seem to be affected roughly the same by marital problems. But the way men and women handle marital issues differ. Men tend to abuse substances while women become worried and saddened. These differences were explained by gender roles. However, a more recent study found a significant differences in both the degree and manner that relationship ups-and-downs affected younger, unmarried men and women. And it probably comes down to gender roles.
The study followed over 1500 young men and women over a two year period and surveyed them on their mental health. The survey included questions on depression, happiness levels, and substance abuse, in addition to their current and past relationship status.
The results weren’t what the researchers expected: men’s internal states varied with their relationship stability and quality. If their relationship was going well, men reported greater levels of happiness. On the other hand, if there were problems in their relationships, higher numbers of depression were reported. The status of their relationship didn’t matter nearly as much for women — what mattered was whether they were in one or not.
The researchers behind the study say the difference in emotional reaction may be due to social factors, particularly gender norms. Sociologist Robin Simon says that men rely more on their romantic partners for emotional well-being than women do, who have close friends and family to confide in. Men often come to their partners to talk about emotional issues and see their relationship as the one place they can show their true feelings. But if their partner and relationship is the cause of their worries, they have nowhere to turn. Instead they internalize their issues and become depressed or abuse substances.
Another cause of the difference may be that it’s socially inappropriate for men to show when they are feeling down. Simon continues: “Part of our emotion culture is that men should not feel sad, while women are free to feel and express these emotions.” The male participants in the study presented a cool demeanor, but their responses indicated they weren’t as steady emotionally.
A possible solution? The myth of the stoic, unemotional man should be laid to rest, finally. And men should be allowed to express their less positive emotions as freely as women do.