Why Are Men Surprised by Breakups?

Over the years I’ve dated men who’ve ogled other women. Actually, only four men behaved that way, most weren’t so rude. When I told them their behavior bothered me, it had no effect. One responded, “Someday you’ll have a breakthrough and get over it.”

Instead of breakthroughs, I broke up with each of them. They all were shocked.

Sometimes the surprise happens differently, as when men “hear” me say that I like what I don’t.

When I was in college at BYU some of the students believed that although Mormons no longer practice polygamy (only “Mormon Fundamentalists” do) polygamy was the way of Heaven. (A religious instructor told me this was folklore and not theology. I haven’t been to church in years and don’t know what the common view is now.)

Still, I heard men say they couldn’t wait to have many wives up in Heaven. Put off, I asked men how they felt about polygamy. I told one man that it pissed me off. But projecting his own interest onto me, he was certain that I was as intrigued by the idea of heavenly threesomes as he was. Perhaps he got his sex ed from porn? I was mystified. He was surprised when I broke off our relationship.

Breakups can be harder on men than on women. Partly because men are more likely to be surprised.

Why are they so often surprised?

The male role seems to be in play. Men are less relationship-oriented, so they are less likely to monitor their relationships. Men learn that they’re not supposed to listen to women. Not helpful! Taught to constrain their emotions, men are less able to read the emotions of others.

Women are commonly objectified, too. When men see women as objects, sex toys that exist for their pleasure, men don’t experience women as having feelings. They lack empathy and can’t feel women’s pain.

Additionally, men often have more power in society and in relationships. How could this hurt them?

The Wall Street Journal recently reported studies showing that power decreases empathy.

People moving up the ladder of success are typically considerate, outgoing, agreeable and extroverted. Nice “guys” do finish first.

But once in power, things change.

One researcher compared the effect to brain damage, saying that people who hold a lot of authority can behave like neurological patients with damaged orbitofrontal lobes, an area of the brain that’s crucial for empathy.

I’m not saying all men behave this way, but it’s an interesting observation.

Still, the scales of power are tipped in men’s favor, often because it feels natural and normal to many men and women. So it’s interesting that even limited experiments, like asking people to describe a time when they felt powerful, could make them more egocentric.

Power keeps people from hearing points of view that differ from their own. So when a woman says she’s unhappy, and her partner feels she shouldn’t be, he may not sense her suffering even as she tells him about it.

Power diminishes empathy. Lacking empathy, some misread their partner’s feelings.

Then its surprise! Bye, bye baby.

Women, if you’re having issues, perhaps this will help you to understand what’s going on. Maybe you can have a conversation (if he’ll make an effort to talk to you.)

Men, if you want to keep your relationships strong, recognize women as full partners. Be attuned and listen to them. And be empathetic and alert to your partner’s emotions.

Georgia Platts


Elizabeth Rider. Our Voices. Wadsworth. 2000

Jonah Lehrer. The Power Trip.” Wall Street Journal. August 14-15, 2010

About BroadBlogs

I have a Ph.D. from UCLA in sociology (emphasis: gender, social psych). I currently teach sociology and women's studies at Foothill College in Los Altos Hills, CA. I have also lectured at San Jose State. And I have blogged for Feminispire, Ms. Magazine, The Good Men Project and Daily Kos. Also been picked up by The Alternet.

Posted on September 23, 2010, in feminism, gender, men, relationships, sex and sexuality, sexism, women and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 13 Comments.

  1. Georgia, this is an incredibly informative blog post! I’ve linked it to a recent post of mine about Narcissists/Douchebags/Commitment Phobes in order to educate my readers more about these types….
    Kudos to you for this extremely enlightening post. 🙂

  2. Most men are surprised by breakups because they never ever see it coming. Why don’t men ever see it coming? The simple fact is that men are OBLIVIOUS to what is going on in the relationship around them! Men are stuck on the idea that they know everything about anything so they never think that relationships would be an issue. Also, if there is ever an issue most men are way too proud to ackowledge it so they ignore it and assume the woman will as well. Another reason is because men are on average much more happy in relationships than women. Why? Well men get to be catered to and such so of course there is no problem for them, they get treated like kings from the woman most of the time because women are so persistant on making sure the relationship is staying under control and stable. But women can only put up with so much so when the journey comes to an end most men are completely unaware or what has happened and why.

  3. Women are more attentive than men. We are nurturers by nature and want our relationships to blossom.
    Men are brought up more passive when it comes to their thinking. Women don’t want to settle, we want to to become better. It makes sense that men who reach the top become less empathetic. When men pursue the girl, they are chasing and more empathetic because they about building a relationship. Once the relationship has been solidified they no longer care, and the empathy ends. I think there might be a correlation here

  4. I just found this blog, 9 months after the original post. I am compelled to pass along to you that these men who lack empathy are indeed likely to be Malignant Narcissists, or persons who have narcissistic personality disorder.

    I was raised by and married to those men, those smart-as-a-whip, cold-as-a-stone, oh-so-polite and charming 2-faced phonies. They are mysoginistic soul killers. Some supposedly expert sources astonishingly claim that only 1% of men have this disorder. If so, I guess I’ve met every single one of them. They are everywhere, and on every rung of the ladders of intelligence, education, success and society. It’s the clever ones who know how to covertly hide their dark sides, publicly charm and impress others, ultimately to reach the heights of success. And while power may diminish empathy, the converse is also true, that diminished empathy enhances one’s sense of and desire for power!

    Power and control are the sole objectives of abusers. I spoke to a psychiatric professional who specializes in treating narcissists, sociopaths, and pedophiles. He is convinced that all abusers, even “only” mental abusers, are Malignant Narcissists, and, like me, he is astonished that the world at large does not yet recognize this as a matter of common sense. They are incurable, and are only one rung on the mental illness ladder above sociopaths; it is this utter lack of empathy that is the root of their commonality.

    Compassion and empathy–that is the definition of love. It seems impossible to believe that there are many, many people in this world who very literally are not capable of love–compassion and empathy. They don’t understand it, do not feel it, and cannot give it, though they may seem to be very “normal,” quite likeable, often even successful.

    I looked for a man who was very smart and very funny, who made me think and made me laugh, and found him. Or, rather, he found (pursued) me. However, once the romantic stage of the marriage was over (quickly), it eventually became obvious that he was incapable of compassion. Whenever I needed, as Dr. Phil says (not really a fan, except for this quote), “a soft place to fall,” he was scornful of my “weakness,” and arrogantly rebuffed my need to be comforted.

    Respectfully to the contrary of Ms. Platts’ assertion, these calculating men are highly skilled at reading the emotions of others when it is to their advantage, and they are keenly aware that women have “weak” feelings. That is why they despise women, and that is how they know who, how and when to target. Sadness, fear, insecurity and loneliness are bait for them. Women who are compassionate and forgiving are their favorite targets, because these are the women who will make excuse after excuse, year after year, for their cruel tormentors who are “good men, deep down inside.”

    So when a woman says she’s unhappy, and her narcissistic partner feels she shouldn’t be, he does indeed hear that she is suffering as she tells him about it. He just doesn’t care. He selfishly brushes her off, insisting that she not feel so, because it is inconvenient for him, that’s all. Or, worse, he torments her at the moment she admits her vulnerability, just for fun.

    He may make you laugh (often at others’ expense), he may stimulate great conversations, be a good provider (to enhance his own status), occasionally buy you nice things (in order to “keep” you), even be a good lover (well, sometimes, maybe). But if he is incapable of compassion and empathy, he is incapable of love. Period.

    My mother, like many wives, always made excuses that my abusive father was “a good man” who kept his emotions buried too deep inside. What I learned from extensive research–propelled by personal pain–is that for many men, there really are no emotions other than anger-based inside. They really are incapable of love, no matter how often they may say those 3 little words. “I love you.”

    And yes, while there are some female Malignant Narcissists, this is a predominantly male personality disorder.

    Women need to learn how to recognize compassion and empathy (as opposed to romance and sensuality)–and much more importantly, the lack of it–in men. It’s oh so hard to do, because they often don’t openly reject your need for human comforting, understanding, and empathy until they’ve beautifully courted and romanced you and know they’ve got your heart. Then you’re sunk.

  5. Most shouldn’t be surprised; I agree that most feel superior and that they believe that nobody could ever break up with them. Or they feel that the women their with would never have the strength to break up with them, especially if it’s any form of an abusive relationship. Most men like to control their relationships when they feel they’ve captured that power, their sense of arrogance will eventually try to over power the women. I can recall a relationship I was in, he felt like he had the authority of our relationship the whole 2-years, in front of friends he will put on an act, but when we were alone he was a totally sweet heart, in the end he let his anger and “other” people come between us, so I stopped all communication, changed my number and looked the other way, in effects he was very uncertain and confused about the breakup, I left him with no answers. It was up to him to contemplate.

  6. Corrie Townsend

    Thinking back on my previous relationship, I was absolutely AMAZED that he was surprised when I ended things. He was narcissistic which certainly contributed to his view that he was the perfect partner and went out of his way to care for me “doing things that no other man would,” apparently?! I wanted to scream, “Yes!! You’re right! Most men wouldn’t treat me this badly!” I broke up with him directly after listening to a rant that included stuff such as “getting fertility tested to make absolutely sure I could reproduce for him,” that I “needed to enjoy his type of sex because that was all he really needed from me and he wanted me ready for him anytime of day.” Wow. Maybe he was monitoring our relationship, but boy! Was he off! Not only did I call our relationship off (after seven looong years) but I also kicked him out of my house that same day. For months he would call when a song reminded him of me, or he went through a depressed stretch. Sometimes he asked for me back, on others, he asked for sex! Breaking his ego by ending our relationship took him almost six months to seem to really grasp. When mutual friends contacted me afterwards, he had already called many and the breakup story he told was far different from what actually happened. He had to regain control by putting himself in the position of the one who broke up with me. Honestly, at that point, I could care less. He was gone. I should have done that years before!

  7. I sure will. Always ready to help.

  8. Perhaps were not as surprised as we let on. One thing men learn early is to let the woman think she’s the one who’s ending the relationship. This is a wisdom based on the easier acceptability – both legally and socially – for the female to engage in stalking and be excused.
    It’s a learned response … allow the woman the power to end things lest their inner Glenn Close should emerge … a situation none of us men (or our new girlfriends) want.

    • Well, women often do the same thing when they want to leave a relationship. The person ending the relationship often wants to soften the blow.

      What I wrote is based on research on men’s experience of pain at the end of a relationship, and where that pain was coming from.

      Btw, you’re stalker theory doesn’t fit the personal experiences I wrote about in this blog. All of the men I broke up with for ogling or anticipating heavenly threesomes tried to persuade me to come back to them.

      You seem to think you’re profeminist, based on other comments you’ve made, but you often come across as misogynistic.

    • Dear Ernie,
      How lovely of you to let us in on that little secret about men and what they learn early about lying to women because they are, after all, latent stalkers. I am sure you are such a highly prized gift to women and have tons of experience letting women think it is their idea. Perhaps a man of your great wisdom and ability to attrack new girlfriends so quickly should start a dating service? You might help some men recognize these GC stalker types early on.

  9. Terrific Post – spot on!
    I think however, reaching the top of the ladder of success is not the only source of power for some men. Even on the lowest rung – men feel this power. I have been amazed at some men who are so low they can crawl under a caterpiller with a high hat on and yet they THINK they are God’s gift to all women and would be devastated to have Paris Hilton turn them down for a date.
    Yes – they havn’t got a clue- nor do they want to!

Thoughts? (Comments will appear after moderation)

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: