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Heartbroken? Gender may play role in recovering from breakups

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Men and women have a long history of differences when it comes to handling relationships. And after a relationship ends, the emotional and physical grief -- and how long the pain persists -- may be different too, according to research published in the journal Evolutionary Behavioral Sciences.

"This 'risk' of higher biological investment, over evolutionary time, has made women choosier about selecting a high-quality mate," lead researcher and research associate at Binghamton University Craig Morris said in a statement. "Hence, the loss of a relationship with a high-quality mate 'hurts' more for a woman."

"The man will likely feel the loss deeply and for a very long period of time as it sinks in that he must start competing all over again to replace what he has lost."

More than 85 percent of people will experience a major breakup at some point in their lives and most people have about three before they are 30, according to the study. Afterwards, they can experience a range of psychological distress, from brief sadness to major depression that affects their ability to proceed normally with daily activities.

On a scale of 1 to 10, both men and women who participated in the survey rated the emotional pain from a serious breakup in the 6 range: women averaged 6.8 and men averaged 6.6.

Physical pain, like what is sometimes referred to as "broken heart syndrome" was much less common. For women, the pain average was 4.2; for men it was 3.75.

Researchers wanted to expand upon previous studies, which suggested that the reason men and women have evolved different mating habits, including how they end relationships, is biological protection. Over the ages, women have chosen mates more slowly and carefully because they had to care for any children that came from the match. Therefore, they mourn the loss of that partner more. Men, however, may have been more able to seek multiple partners and become less attached.

This research, which included two separate online surveys about the effect of breakups, included a larger and more diverse group: 5,700 people from 96 different countries. The average age of the respondents was 27. The goal was to understand how "PRG," or post-relationship grief, affects the genders differently. Those who said they had experienced a major relationship end -- 1,490 men and 2,834 women -- were asked to dig into those hard memories and answer the rest of the surveys based on only one significant breakup.

Since one person's experience is often very different than another's, down to their choice of words when describing feelings, researchers had to allow room for this; the first survey was mostly multiple choice, but all the "other" responses it produced led researchers to include a space for respondents to use their own words on the second survey.

"At some point, clearly, women get over a breakup," Morris told HealthDay. "They will discuss in great detail the pain, the suffering, the misery, but they are talking about it in the past."

Men, on the other hand, don't seem to process breakups the same way.

"When you talk to a man about a breakup, you can see he is still there. The anger. The disappointment. There was never any end to this for him. Most men never use the phrase, 'I got over it,'" Morris told HealthDay.

Though the study authors wanted to include as much cultural diversity as possible to see how the end of love affects many different people, the study was ultimately conducted in English only, limiting some of that reach. Additionally, the kind of people who may have chosen to answer a survey about relationships and breakups may be skewed towards those who have less extreme levels of emotion or more interest in the ideas.

Still, researchers say that understanding the range of experiences after a breakup is important to understanding the bigger picture of psychological distress.

"People lose jobs, students withdraw from classes, and individuals can initiate extremely self-destructive behavior patterns following a breakup," Morris said. "With better understanding of this emotional and physical response to a breakup -- post relationship grief -- we can perhaps develop a way to mitigate its effects in already high-risk individuals."