Young Men More Sensitive than Women to Relationship Quality

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Despite their blasé demeanors, young men are more affected by the ups and downs of romantic relationships than their girlfriends are, a new study suggests.

While young women are more affected by their relationship status — that is, whether they are in one or not — young men are more sensitive to a relationship's quality, such as how supportive or straining it is, the research indicates.

"Simply being in a relationship may be more important for a woman's identity," said lead researcher Robin Simon of Wake Forest University in North Carolina. Having a relationship "is something that is emphasized constantly for women. Just pick up any woman's magazine."

But once in a relationship, the romance's strengths are particularly helpful to men, and its difficult periods are particularly hard on them, Simon told LiveScience.

Reasons unclear

In the study, 1,611 men and women between the ages of 18 and 23 answered questions about their relationships and their own emotional states, including rating symptoms of depression and substance abuse. The questions were asked twice, two years apart, helping researchers deduce that emotional states were largely influenced by a relationship, not the other way around.

Rocky relationships were associated with equal amounts of depression in young men and women, and significantly greater problems with substance abuse and dependence among men. The correlative findings were published in the June issue of the Journal of Health and Social Behavior.

Why relationships affect young women and men differently is not yet clear. But the finding contradicts the conventional view of women as the more emotionally involved romantic partner.

No matter their game face, men are not stoically impervious to a relationship's ebbs and flows, Simon said.

The study looked specifically at men and women who are currently in their "transition to adulthood," the newly prolonged stage of life that starts after high school and lasts until a person's mid to late 20s. This period is longer for today's youth than it was in previous generations, in part because of the extended education needed to make it in today's job market and the resulting delay of marriage and childbearing.

"The transition to adulthood is characterized by elevated psychological distress," Simon said, and romantic relationships are part of the formative experience of this period.

Young men more sensitive?

Most prior studies on the different effects of relationships on men and women have focused on older adults, especially married couples. These studies found that, for better or for worse, the quality of the marriage affected both partners equally. But how these effects were expressed depended on gender.

"Part of our emotion culture is that men should not feel sad," Simon said. "While women are free to feel and express these emotions … men turn to mood-altering substances to get rid of culturally inappropriate feelings." So, women tend to react by becoming depressed and anxious, while men develop substance-abuse problems and antisocial behavior, she said.

Whether the young men in the current study will lose some relationship sensitivity as they enter adult marriages or if the finding represents a permanent shift in gender relations remains to be seen.

Simon, however, thinks it may be the latter. "These guys know that it takes a woman's salary to make ends meet," she said, because they grew up watching both their mothers and fathers work.

As a result, today's young men may be interested in relationships in ways that previous generations of males were not, she speculates.

Robin Nixon Pompa

Robin Nixon is a former staff writer for Live Science. Robin graduated from Columbia University with a BA in Neuroscience and Behavior and pursued a PhD in Neural Science from New York University before shifting gears to travel and write. She worked in Indonesia, Cambodia, Jordan, Iraq and Sudan, for companies doing development work before returning to the U.S. and taking journalism classes at Harvard. She worked as a health and science journalist covering breakthroughs in neuroscience, medicine, and psychology for the lay public, and is the author of "Allergy-Free Kids; The Science-based Approach To Preventing Food Allergies," (Harper Collins, 2017). She will attend the Yale Writer’s Workshop in summer 2023.