There is no shortage of research on what helps create, support and maintain a healthy intimate relationship, and how the individuals involved perceive them. A new study, led by Ursula Athenstaedt from the University of Graz, takes a different crack at the subject.

The study[1] investigates how people look back on their former relationships subsequent to breaking up. They found that men hold more favourable opinions of their female ex-partners than women do of their male ex-partners.

Additionally, former partners’ positive perspectives were associated with more permissive sexual attitudes and level of perceived social support from their ex-partners.

Why is this important, you might ask. Well there are several rationales the authors bring up. More on that later.

But first a short flashback to a whole movie that was a flashback.

It Was Never Uncomplicated

The 1973 movie The Way We Were, starring Barbra Streisand and Robert Redford, was based on the novel by Arthur Laurents, who also wrote the screenplay.

The book was inspired by actual events in Laurents life. while an undergraduate at Cornell in 1937, he was introduced to political activism by a student who became the model for Streisand’s character, Katie Morosky. She (the student) was a member of the Young Communist League and a forthright opponent of Francisco Franco and his effort to take control of Spain via the Spanish Civil War. The spirited campus radical organized rallies and a peace strike, and the memory of her fervor remained with Laurents long after the two lost touch.

One part that almost everyone remembers out of all the stylized close-ups, sanitized politics and lush, melodramatic score is when Katie says;

“Wouldn’t it be lovely if we were old? We’d have survived all this. Everything thing would be easy and uncomplicated; the way it was when we were young.”

And Redford’s character, Hubbell Gardner replies:

“Katie, it was never uncomplicated.”

Players Only Love You When They’re Playing

Consider the purpose of a romantic relation from an evolutionary point of view. Survival of our species depended on men and women bonding together long enough to conceive and provide care for a child.

Nice and uncomplicated.

At the same time, the different parental investment needs between men and women come into play, the authors write:

“Relative to men, women need to invest more energy and resources in their offspring, at least initially, due to pregnancy and nursing. Men, in contrast, are not biologically constrained by extended parental investment, so they might be able to increase their genetic fitness by obtaining more sexual partners. Consequently, men should have evolved a stronger tendency to desire multiple sexual partners.”

It was never uncomplicated, Katie.

This tendency to more partners predisposes men to appreciate sex more heartily as a physical, pleasure-giving act, as well as to adopt a “game-playing” attitude to love, as opposed to women, are more likely to hold practical love attitudes such as greater preference for long-term, more exclusive relationships.

So, because of their more permissive sexual attitudes and game-playing approach[2], men would, in this line of reasoning, be more apt than women to have positive views of their former romantic partners.

Venus And Mars

Another interpretation of the findings looks to the field of gender role–related research, with three points.

  1. Gender differences in dependence (women generally have more social support outside the relationship, especially from female friendships)
  2. Gender differences in the perception of breakup causes (Research has found women blame breakups more often on their male ex-partners than men blame their female partners)
  3. Gender differences in coping after breakups (A 2002 meta-analysis found that women are more likely to engage in active coping strategies, so men tend to stay emotionally attached longer)

The study detailed in this paper only looks at heterosexual relationships. It involved 612 participants, who filled out surveys on ex-partner attitudes, coping behavior, breakup reasons, love attitudes, sexual attitudes and social support.

If the results that women tend to have more negative attitudes toward their former romantic partners than men surprise you, you are not alone. According to an online survey of laypeople, only one in four (24%) predicted these findings, with most predicting no gender difference at all.

(See also: Gender Differences In Memory)

Back to why any of this is important to study:

“Examining judgments and feelings about former relationships is important for at least three reasons. First, feelings of attachment or love may still be connected to a past relationship, and perhaps men and women cope differently with relationship dissolution—for example, with regard to the need for emotional support, men may be less willing than women to break all ties with their former partners.

Second, people often have “invested” in their relationships, some of which involve important resources (e.g., shared friends, joint possessions, joint children), which cause partners to be interdependent for an extended time into the future.

Third, the quality of individuals’ past relationships, as well as the nature of their dissolution, is likely to have an impact on people’s feelings of attachment, beliefs regarding relationships in general, and possibly the current relationship in particular. Experience with an abusive relationship, for example, may undermine trust in future partners or relationships and sometimes even in the opposite sex in general. These reasons highlight the importance of past relationships and illustrate that there may be meaningful differences between men and women in how they perceive former romantic partners,”

the authors write.

[1] Athenstaedt, U., Brohmer, H., Simpson, J. A., Müller, S., Schindling, N., Bacik, A., & Van Lange, P. A. M. (2019). Men View Their Ex-Partners More Favorably Than Women Do. Social Psychological and Personality Science.

[2] Hendrick, C., Hendrick, S. S. (2006). Styles of romantic love. In Sternberg, R. J., Weis, K. (Eds.), The new psychology of love New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

[3] Davis, D., Shaver, P. R., Vernon, M. L. (2003). Physical, emotional, and behavioral reactions to breaking up: The roles of gender, age, emotional involvement, and attachment style. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 29, 871–884.

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