For too long, males have been regarded as resilient, emotionally tough heartbreakers. But the reality is that they are hurt by grief, betrayal, and loss
as much as anyone. It’s time to look again at what it means to be a man
During the pandemic, I became enamoured with the Netflix series Sex Education. It was brave in tackling topics – around sexuality, love, and belonging – that had never been possible when I was at school.
In this latest season, I noticed the theme of heartbreak in men, and its lasting legacy in how we handle these conversations as we seek healthy and wholehearted relationships, and wondered why we, as men, feel heartbreak so differently.
In real life, men feel as if they can’t share in the emotions of being heartbroken. Practising love for ourselves is a challenge, and the show gave me a sense that this was a conversation we are still having.
The question I began trying to answer was: do we as men understand what it means to be heartbroken?
As much as we are touted as the purveyors of resilience, emotional stoicism, and are generally the ‘heartbreakers’, I would argue that the hearts we break are our own. Culturally, we have been taught that men don’t get brokenhearted. A myth I believed – until I experienced my own heartbreak.
A painful symptom of heartbreak is disconnection – but heartbreak is not only experienced through romantic love. Grief, betrayal, deep loss of a friendship, as well as the ending of a romantic relationship, are all instrumental instigators of heartbreak.
Emotional vulnerability requires us to navigate parts of ourselves lost at boyhood, and heartbreak is the emotional rupture that requires us to do the necessary work of loving deeper.
My biggest heartbreaks came in the form of friendships ending, and the loss of people I love through the pandemic. The ending of a close friendship, which I had held up as one of my strongest relationships, was followed in 2019 by the death of my nan.
These events caused me to feel extremely alone, disconnected from the world, and struggling to find a way back from the depths of this emotional pain. I struggled to regulate my emotions. I kept exploding in public, with my moods swinging from deep contemplation to periodic anger and weeping.
This heartbreak was helped by therapy, which gave me the tools to articulate what I was feeling, by solid male friendships that held me up and gave me a shoulder to cry on, and by me dedicating myself to the practice of self-compassion.
My personal healing through journaling created stronger and deeper bonds with my friends and family, and helped me get back to feeling myself again. Self-compassion, though, is the biggest key to navigating our own heartbreak as men.
We must allow ourselves to feel what is happening, and let the feelings flow freely. We have to acknowledge the pain, and slowly begin to nurture ourselves, without scolding ourselves for feeling this way.
Eminent writer and researcher, bell hooks, in her book, All About Love, describes this disconnection as men being ‘frozen in time’ in boyhood, and that men who are unable to make emotional connections were unable to love because they fear that the loved one will abandon them, and in some cases, betray them.
She goes on to say that women ‘yearn’ for love, while men don’t necessarily yearn, but receive it, knowing what it feels like.
But I would argue that men are in a constant state of yearning, too; and not knowing true love, we hold on to whatever we believe matches what we are told, not what we feel. This leads to further disappointment, disconnection, and heartbreak, because we don’t understand what it’s supposed to be.
One of the biggest failings in the education of boys, in my view, is that ‘matters of the heart’ (e.g. emotional intelligence, awareness, and vulnerability) are never geared towards us. So much so, that the more disconnected we become, the more foreign and dangerous these feelings grow.
As a boy, to be otherwise is implicitly unmanly, and that is where we become unstuck. I was made to feel less than, and little did I know that that is our first foray into heartbreak – becoming detached from ourselves.
In my book, Time To Talk: How Men Think About Love, Belonging and Connection, I explained that in my explorations in love, I wasn’t able to make sufficient emotional connections because I felt I wasn’t manly enough if I did. I didn’t feel safe.
Expectations of what it means to be a man result in us not knowing where it is safe to be vulnerable. An environment where it is safe to share experiences, and explore what causes moments of deep pain, is where vulnerability lives. Sharing can make steps toward progress, opening ourselves up to the possibility of love again.
Things to watch for:
Men retreat inward, go to a solitary state of disconnection, and are more likely to enter into addictive states in the wake of grief – and by extension, heartbreak. Create an environment of safety to talk about what is happening – usually by doing something active, like a walk or something distracting. Many men aren’t used to speaking about what is happening internally, so create a space for them that is safe.Watch out for excessive drinking, sexual exploits, gambling – anything that suppresses the feelings of helplessness and depression. Encourage journaling, sports, or an activity, to process what is happening.Withdrawal from reality. There is a lot of shame that comes with vulnerability in men. Community is not the easiest for men to come by, as most male friendships are shoulder-to-shoulder, not heart-to-heart. Going through dark moments is usually done alone, rather than being held together. Encourage group therapy, or joining men’s groups. These are great ways to explore community and reduce loneliness.
Men do go through heartbreak, no matter what they tell you. Through my emotional deepening, I grieved fully. I grieved for the boy who was yearning for love, and had to mend the broken heart of self-betrayal and loneliness that comes with a strong disconnection to the self. Men, like everyone else, are going through life’s ebbs and flows – we are just not well versed in how to express it.
I choose to speak openly about heartbreak, as a way to explain one thing: you are not alone.
If you or someone you know is going through a difficult time, talking to a professional can help. Consider searching for a therapist on Counselling Directory.