5 Scientific Facts Explain How Evolutionary Biology Affects Modern Breakups

Believe it or not, getting dumped might be good for you.

Breaking up is hard to do, but it just might be worth it, a recently published study finds. 

Dr. Craig Morris, an evolutionary biologist at Binghamton University, and his team surveyed over 5,000 people from 96 countries in their international study, "Quantitive Sex Differences in Response to the Dissolution of a Romantic Relationship," to learn about the ways humans have adapted to survive romantic breakups. 

Specifically, the study explores the role of post-relationship grief (PRG) in the healing process. From their research, they gleaned some interesting conclusions about what happens after a relationship ends:  


1. Everybody hurts.

Seventy-five percent of respondents to Morris' survey had experienced a breakup — and 75 percent of them had experienced multiple ones. Whether that relationship spanned three months of puppy love or decades of marriage, "all couples experience the same spectrum of emotional distress following a breakup," according to Morris' research.  

Women reported an average of 4.10 breakups, while men experienced 3.86. The mean age of respondents was 27 years, which led the authors to conclude that having multiple breakups relatively early in life is the rule rather than the exception. 

Not only have the majority of people experienced a breakup, but they've also felt severe emotional pain. Morris and his colleagues found emotional response to a breakup was substantially more severe than the physical. On a scale of 0-10, both sexes reported a median and mean emotional response of nearly 7.

2. ...Including the person who wanted to break up.

Contrary to the popular phrase "winning the breakup," no one emerges completely unscathed from a relationship. 

Though "rejected individuals experienced higher PRG levels than those initiating the breakup," Morris wrote, "the PRG experience was still relatively severe" for both people. He added in "Intrasexual Mate Competition and Breakups: Who Really Wins?," a chapter written with Melanie Beaussart, the initiator still "expresses psychological distress and lowered life satisfaction." 

This is especially true for women who ended a relationship after a partner's "explicit or perceived infidelity" because that "tends to produce the most extreme negative short-term effects, both emotional and physical, for most women." 

3. But when it comes to getting dumped, women do it better.

No matter their sex, over 95 percent of Morris' study respondents experienced PRG with similar frequency and intensity. "Men and women 'feel' the impact of a breakup almost identically," he told A Plus, "But their post-breakup behavior varies wildly." 

In a 2011 campus-based pilot study, Morris and Chris Reiber, an associate professor of anthropology at Binghamton, found that young women brought up a painful loss of self-esteem twice as often as men. According to Morris, men tend to "choose destructive strategies [to cope with a breakup] for maintaining their own self-esteem." Though women reported decreased self-esteem, they — unlike their male counterparts — also identified "a 'silver lining' of increased personal awareness and greater perceptivity regarding future relationships." 

The researchers concluded there may be a tentative relationship between why women, who in general report more depressive symptoms immediately after a breakup, report more longterm personal growth than men. 

4. Cheating isn't the problem. Communication is.

In a post-Lemonade world, it might seem like male infidelity — a "predicted evolutionary cause" of breakups — is the most common and widespread problem affecting relationships. While a 2004 study showed that roughly 30 percent of women reported losing a partner to a "mate poacher," that may no longer be the case. 

In Morris' study, "lack of communication" was selected nearly twice as often as infidelity. Roughly half of men and women cited this as the main reason for the breakup. 

"The 'cheating man' has long been assumed to be the cause of most breakups," Morris told A Plus. "We see that this is simply not the case in modern relationships. Communication and honesty are the glue that holds most relationships together, and this seems to be a component that is not prioritized in most contemporary relationships." 

5. Grief can be great.

Because it gives us no pleasure, grief might seem "maladaptive" to human evolution, but Morris theorizes in his chapter that "perhaps a moderate level of grief also serves an adaptive purpose." The more intense the grieving process, the more likely the griever will avoid repeating a risky behavior, recalibrate their personal values, and seek out better future relationships and mates. 

Again, women are particularly adept as harnessing the positive power of grief. After a breakup, many women question their self-worth, their physical appearance, and "what they did wrong." Morris wrote that while this self-analysis may "seem on the surface to only reinforce low self-esteem," it can also "elucidate personal insights that are useful for attracting and keeping future mates." 

In Morris' study, participants often reported feeling stronger, more independent, and better off emotionally as they went through the grieving process. "Many women report an overall increase in self-confidence, self-awareness, and mating intelligence," Morris told A Plus. 

So, in laymen's terms, your ex truly is the best thing you never had. 

Cover image via Giphy.

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