Ben Affleck made headlines last week for the public debut of his new relationship with producer Lindsay Shookus. Affleck, who separated from his wife Jennifer Garner in 2015, and called off the divorce in March this year, only to proceed with it three months later, weathered accusations of infidelity throughout his marriage. Indeed, there are reports that Affleck and Shookus began their affair in 2013.
Meanwhile, Angelina Jolie was seen at Disneyland last week with her six children celebrating her twins’ ninth birthday amid rumours her ex-husband, Brad Pitt, is holding hands – literally – with Sienna Miller. According to multiple unconfirmed reports, Pitt and Miller were seen together at Glastonbury Music Festival. Jolie filed for divorce from Pitt less than 12 months ago.
Also last week: Patton Oswalt announced his engagement to actor Meredith Salenger. Oswalt took to Facebook to express his rage at critics who accused him of moving on “too soon” after the sudden death of his wife, Michelle McNamara last year.
Oswalt quoted from a widower’s essay, which read: “How long should a widow sit in isolation before you are comfortable enough to release them from solitary confinement?”
It’s a poignant question, but one that comes with a certain amount of cultural baggage. There’s a well-worn trope which dictates that whether it’s a relationship breakdown, a divorce, or even a death, men tend to recover faster than women. There’s even a saying “women mourn, men replace.” It’s a cliche, but is it true?
“From my experience, it’s not necessarily the case that men move on quicker,” says Tom Gross, a psychologist and psychotherapist who has counselled couples for more than 25 years.
“I have seen men who have taken years to move on, and in some cases, never move on to another partner. I think it’s more a question about styles of dealing with emotions.”
So, to put it another way, it’s not the feelings that are on display when we see these men with new loves, but rather the mechanism through which they are choosing to cope with their feelings.
But a survey of more than 5000 people undertaken by researchers at New York State University, might beg to differ.
Researchers found that, “While breakups hit women the hardest emotionally and physically, women tend to recover more fully and come out emotionally stronger. Men, on the other hand, never fully recover – they simply move on.”
The reason, according to the study, and others like it, is that women tend to be more comfortable sitting in their sadness than men are. Perhaps because they can talk about it.
Women, – generally speaking – tend to process their grief by bombarding their closest friends with an almost daily post-mortem of the relationship. That over-analysing is actually useful in the long run. Men, on the other hand, generally keep moving.
“Men tend to repress their grieving and take a ‘fake it until you make it’ approach,” is how relationship expert and psychiatrist, Dr Scott Carol explained it to Psychology Today.
“Some men become dogs and go for every hook-up … but they are terrified of intimacy and run like hell if a woman wants anything more.
“Alternatively they party with their guy friends to drown their sorrow or bury themselves in their career or their hobbies – anything to keep their mind off their loss and their pain.”
Patton Oswalt seemed to go against this mode of coping, by publicly discussing the grief and trauma he felt after his wife’s death, and his struggle with the everyday challenges of raising a child as a single parent.
But, it’s precisely this struggle, according to sociologists, that see men wishing to duplicate the happiness they once knew.
Elizabeth Olson, writing for the New York Times, put it this way: “While both men and women want companionship and security, many women might be more cautious about taking a new man into their lives and tend to hold out for romance.”
This is especially true if women are awarded custody of the kids. It can be difficult to drown one’s sorrows with pals when you need to first help with homework. But if a woman loses her husband, there is a cultural assumption that she will cope better as a single parent.
“Men” writes Olson, “typically seek someone to organise their world, the everyday household tasks, their social lives and to keep them company.”
Gross tends to agree. “Men who marry quickly after a death are not trying to [alleviate] their grief,” he says. “They are looking for comfort and companionship – they are looking after the needs they had prior to the partner’s death, but with a new person.”
So while both genders experience pain, the question remains: why don’t women get into a relationship as fast as men do? The answer lies in the way men are conditioned to process sadness, vulnerability and loss.
Women are encouraged to make space for their emotions, men, not so much. So men take what writer Yashar Ali calls a “detour” around the pain, simply because they have no map to guide them through it. And it comes at a high price, because while women reflect and learn from mistakes, men are – generally speaking – doomed to make them again.
Well, Affleck went to rehab and Pitt went to therapy, so here’s hoping they prove that trope wrong.