Marital breakdown: social support is both very limited and very important for men

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In today’s industrialized societies, approximately one out of two couples
In today’s industrialized societies, approximately one out of two couples will end their union, either by separation or divorce. Studies tend to show that the breakup is more often initiated by women.

While men who have experienced a separation often try to cope on their own, a qualitative study shows the importance of educating them to seek help

"I couldn’t see anything. I wasn’t focused on my work, I was completely... I was like in the middle of the ocean, no fleet." This testimony from Antoine, 61, illustrates the distress that men can feel after a marital breakup. A feeling of losing everything that is accompanied by anxiety, depression, and even suicidal thoughts. To cope with this, many men immerse themselves in action and work. An appearance of control that delays the request for help. And yet... "We just need to have an ear," confided Denis, 47 years old.

Post-breakup malaise among men deserves attention, says Jean-Michel Lavertu, who has just published a master’s thesis in social work on the subject. The idea came to him while working for AutonHommie, a resource center for men in difficulty. He found that romantic separations were often the reason for consultations, despite the presence of a thousand and one other problems. "And when men ask for help, it’s for yesterday or the day before yesterday, in the sense that they need to get it very quickly, because they’ve waited too long."

Let’s remember that in today’s industrialized societies, approximately one couple out of two will end their union, either by separation or divorce.

For his qualitative study, Jean-Michel Lavertu conducted individual interviews with 10 men, including Antoine and Denis. Recruited at Laval University and at the AutonHommie organization in Quebec City, they had to have experienced a significant love relationship of at least 6 months and a marital break-up of 3 months or more, but not more than 10 years ago. The author and her thesis director, Valérie Roy, a professor at the School of Social Work and Criminology, were surprised by the participation and interest of the men in talking about this subject. Some volunteers were even turned away.

Men are left more alone

During his semi-structured interviews, which lasted an average of 73 minutes, Jean-Michel Lavertu wanted to know what happened before the break-up, how the participants reacted to the separation and how they adapted afterwards. Among the highlights, he points out that the breakup is more often initiated by women, so men tend not to see it coming. "In my dissertation, 70% of men were left," he says. A proportion that is consistent with the observations of other researchers.

As if everything was fine

The author mentions that men identify a lot with their role as a spouse or father and that when a breakup occurs, they experience "symbolic mourning". Many reported having depressive symptoms or suicidal thoughts. To counter this malaise, the reflex is to try to stay in action, whatever the cost. "They put a lot of emphasis on staying independent and acting like everything is fine. But in fact, they have a lot of trouble doing that. So there’s a lot of shame."

"Men put a lot of emphasis on being self-sufficient and acting like everything is fine. But in fact, they have a very hard time doing that. So there’s a lot of shame."

Temporary misogyny and female support

Jean-Michel Lavertu adds that some men experience a kind of ambivalence about the breakup. "Even if the relationship is over, they have difficulty conceiving it and they idealize their former couple. This makes it hard for them to live with resentment."

For two participants in the study, who experienced the breakup, the feeling of hatred was not directed toward their ex-partner, but toward women as a whole, as misogyny. "They were aware of this reaction, which was temporary. One of the participants mentioned having the support of a woman, a friend, which had helped him a lot to counteract that feeling."

The purpose of the study was to analyze the role of family and friends in helping men adjust to their new lives. It was found that "social support is both very limited and very important for men". Jean-Michel Lavertu emphasizes that the participants realized that they were very lonely after the breakup. Often, he said, it is the spouse who takes care of the social network and friends.

Listening and non-judgment

For adequate support for men, the absence of judgment is essential, says the author, who works in a clinic and is now a psychosocial worker at La Boussole. In their search for autonomy, men feel uncomfortable asking for help. Instead, they will fall back on sports activities or helping with renovations. "And through that, it’s conducive to confidences," emphasizes Jean-Michel Lavertu, speaking of "horizontal relationships", of equals.

He explains that the relationship with a counsellor or psychologist in an office setting is less suitable for male clients, who have "the impression that the professional is superior and has all the answers. A more "vertical" relationship.

Still, men want to be heard, very much heard, the author found. "A lot of times it’s been inside for a very long time, so it comes out a little bit raw. But they need to talk about it. They need to find the balance between doing and listening to get better."

Raising awareness at school

These results show the importance of raising awareness among men so that they seek help earlier. Jean-Michel Lavertu has high hopes for prevention. "We also need to reach out to teenagers, in schools. Explain what a love relationship is, what the end of a love relationship is and what healthy relationships in love are."

Few studies like hers have documented the men’s experience of breakup and the role of those around them in helping them cope, says the author. Research is more focused on the violence that sometimes results from this situation. Femicide followed by male suicide occurs three times out of four following marital breakdown, according to the Report of the Expert Panel on Domestic Homicide. The ultimate goal is to avoid implosion or explosion in the event of divorce or separation.