Can Heartbreak Break a Man?

Nicole Johnson argues that societal tropes of masculine strength and perseverance obscure the fact that emotional damage can destroy a man.

I have been the beneficiary of magnificent male mentors. From dating tips to elevator pitches, I have received outstanding advice from men. Yet, there is one piece of advisement that stands out amongst the myriad of bestowed male wisdom.

I started my professional career at Vogue magazine. And just in case you’re wondering, The Devil Wears Prada (book and movie) was an accurate depiction of what happens behind-the-scenes at the largest fashion magazine in the world. Ugliness thrives amidst all of that beauty.

Interestingly enough, it wasn’t the enchantment of Couture clothing I remember from my first job. My memories of Vogue magazine lie in my love for New York City and a notable piece of personal advice I received from a co-worker. I was told this by a male mentor 20 years my senior: “Nicole, don’t ever play with a man’s heart. If you don’t like him, cut him loose; don’t string him along. Heartbreak can drive a man crazy.” Fifteen years later, I still ponder his admonishment. Can heartbreak actually drive a man insane?

My husband and I know a man who can’t recover from the heartbreak of his divorce. Two years have past since his divorce was finalized, and he cannot rebound from the loss of his marriage. Prior to his divorce, there were three years of martial struggles, which included therapy and a trial separation. I knew time apart and therapy could not save his marriage. I also knew, from the time they started dating, their relationship would never last. What I did not know was how his heartbreak would debilitate him to an unrecognizable state.

Today I bemoan the plight of this man’s emotional health. He’s been in and out of therapy, he has an extraordinary family, and he has a prefect, precious daughter. However, none of these factors have assisted him on a path to recovery. I no longer recognize him. I’m confounded by his actions and thought process. Consequently, do I think my mentor was correct? Can heartbreak drive a man insane? Yes, I believe this type of pain can break a man.

There are pervasive stereotypes of men in our culture. Here’s the short list: it is not preferable for men to fail, it is not preferable for men to be weak, it is not preferable for men to be helpless, and it is not preferable for men to be overtly emotional. Moreover, men are expected to be strong, men are expected to be brave, men are expected to succeed, men are expected to be powerful, and men are expected to be providers.

Men also have to contend with cultural clichés. For example, phrases such as: “Grow a pair,” “Take your balls out of your purse,” and “Man Up” have become ubiquitous in modern vernacular. (Conversely, the female equivalents to this jargon are nonexistent.) These generalizations have the potential to greatly impact a man’s psyche, especially a man suffering from a failed relationship or marriage.

Family history, personal history, and biochemistry will continue to be the primary factors when analyzing emotional health. In conjunction with these markers, I believe we should acknowledge the culture we live in. If people recognize the suppressive stereotypes our society places upon men, perhaps they will be more skilled at helping men through heartbreak. Of course, a man’s free will and personal accountability are considerations that need to be examined. If a limitless amount of personal and professional assistance cannot lift a man from heartbreak, how can he be saved? The answer lies within the man. He is the only person who can save himself from the insanity of heartbreak.

—Photo erix!/Flickr

About Nicole Johnson

Marketing Maven » Sales Consultant » Brand Builder » Energetic Entrepreneur » Networking Enthusiast » Writer » Wife » Good Men Advocate


  1. I am a college student. I had my heart broken by a woman 5 months ago due to me grabbing her in an intense misunderstanding argument. She completely turned on me since that day and I can’t explain the feeling of what I feel to this day. Emotionally I’m not there. Mentally all I do is think about her. I see her face in my own little world constantly bringing up the pain. She’s successful with her bachelors degree and I’m a junior in school that has made it further than anyone in my family I really come from instability but she ended it and downed me by saying she would not date anyone not on her level again but she does not know that what I’m feeling could kill a man. Suffering from depression due to the feeling of a family loss I’m only 22 years old and I don’t know what to do. She blocked me in every way possible and doesn’t understand how I feel as a man. It’s excruciating and sometimes all I want to do is talk, but she’s evil toward me and I understand the mistake I made I’ve punished myself over it and she makes me feel like I murdered someone. I never hit her or physically harmed her but my heart is broken. I am broken and never knew what depression was until she left me.

    • Dear Reek_Rich,

      As you said, she is evil towards you (selfish, insensitive, hostile, aggressive), and she blocked you in every way. I find myself in a similar predicament, and what’s even worse (or funnier?) is that this is happening to me with the same woman, twice now (before, she would express her dissatisfaction with whatever she didn’t communicate to me by being with other guys, then she upped the vindictivness tactic to occasionally opening up, then shutting or punishing me at the first sign of danger or well, unpleasant conversations (discussing our dark sides)).

      Needless to say it’s my second… No, third time I find myself heartbroken by this young woman. I’m usually of a very naive, sensitive but also mindful nature, so the first couple of times it took me many months to heal ny heart and reflow my love to her again, but time and time again I find myself refused or later, disciplines by her in these overly aggressive ways. It’s as if when being faced with this huge, kind and supportive presence she wakes in me toward her makes her extremely threatened. What’s threatened is only the nasty stuff though, but she clinging to the nasty stuff, she has to turn over to me and banish/execute me every time just for pointing out a better, healthier way for her to go (this is all stuff she complained to me about, stuff that hurt her, and stuff that I attempted to help her with). What hurts is the hostility. I can take a no, after a while I will, no one can command their heart to feel, but what I find distressing is her repeated choices to be very, very hostile with me. Blocked, insulted, ignored, stonewalled, made jealous, you name it… There’s not a single thing that she hasn’t done. Made out with my friends too, check.

      So, seeing as you’re younger than me, I tell you this: women will hurt you and be extremely unfair and insensitive towards you. However, since I’m still alive and kicking, I urge you to not give up faith and hope in love. The least you can do is let your heart heal itself in time. It will! Second, I restate: she is evil towards you and has blocked you in every way. Although that might probably be her extremely low self worth trying to compensate by being overly strict (so as to appear strong), it is not your job to heal her, or other people. Let her go, let her be. You’ve had perhaps, the luck of waking those intense emotions within her – in time, she will learn the valuable lessons that her fearful heart is now presenting her with. In time, you too, will learn that although it is commendable to love such an insecure person fully (she, lacking experience with true love was afraid of your loyal, adaptable heart), it is ultimately a great risk, bringing great pain that would be good to experience as a teacher. Ask yourself this: would you love someone evil? Why would you do that? She doesn’t deserve your heart anymore. No one deserves their heart getting stabbed repeatedly. So take it back, put it inside your chest, take a deep breath and let the breath of life glow in your heart’s cracks – in time, it will heal. As to her – she’s on her own now. She’s a big girl and can take care of herself. Not all the women out there are ‘evil bitches’ (traumatized little creatures, deep down, really.) There are more whole, more sincere, more brave, more kind, more compassionate and considerate women out there for you. Don’t give up. You’re not alone. 😉

      Have a good one!

      p.s. When I was in college something similar happened, but to a much lesser extent (although it cost me roughly 2 years to fully get it over with.) For further exploration, I’d suggest comparing your childhood experiences, specifically the way your parents made you feel, and then comparing those findings with the way this girl makes you feel. Sometimes, what we’re attracted to is these childhood wounds that bring us to partners that so to speak, “reignite” the wound so we have another chance to heal it. Take heart, and good luck!

  2. Great article. It strikes me as incredibly healing to hear a woman expound upon the trials and feelings of men with true understanding and love. I wonder if that ability of empathy is always connected to having a good, solid, and loving man in their own lives (a father, brother, lover, or even a son). I feel as though I had good women in my life: sisters and a mother who seemed down to earth, not manipulative, not overly emotional (to the point of selfishness). Maybe I was set up for disappointment in that way, because I found the real world to contain too many women who were not so self-actualized, who manipulated men or blamed them for everything, or just had too many traditional culture expectations that until I started dating, I had thought were gone with my generation. Through my loneliness and depression, I found it difficult not to feel bitter; I tried not to let that show in my personal interactions, but I’m sure it affected my overall outlook. I wish I could have read such supportive words when I was in my 20’s and 30’s; only now, really, at 48 and happily married do I believe again that there definitely many women who do think of men in a loving, fellow human way. I’m certain that knowledge makes me a better person. I still treat women the way I’ve always tried to, with respect and fairness, only now there’s a bit more heart behind it.

  3. David Wise says:

    “Nicole, don’t ever play with a man’s heart. If you don’t like him, cut him loose; don’t string him along. Heartbreak can drive a man crazy.” So patronizing, as if women held all the cards. Love is a two-way street.

  4. Men are human, too. They have feelings and hearts and emotion. Heartbreak destroys. It’s not gender-specific.

    Hugs to all the heartbroken men out there. Time is your friend.

  5. Jackie Morrison says:

    I’ve seen more men than women crushed by heartbreak. Absolutely, the pain of divorce can crush a man. Men are less likely to talk about it and get relief from the aftermath. But you know what else hurts a man even more? By pushing away a new true love. I’ve seen this too. Either he pushes her away by bringing up the ex all the time in anger or not even giving her a chance and running for the hills. Either way, he flees from what would be one of the many things that can put his heart back together.

  6. Great article, There are two great books, that I think will help men.. Dr. Stephen Johnson’s book, The Sacred Path. By Dr. Stephen Johnson and he is doing great work at the Men’s Center of Los Angeles, Jed Diamond, does great work with men. I also think that The Road Less Travelled by M.Scott Peck is helpful.. Again awesome article, profound and urgently needed.. Save the Men.

  7. I just got out of relationship. Its been 2-3 months and im still not over it. I have accepted it, even dated a few girls but deep down im hurting, i think of her everyday. I have had previous relationships but this one was different, funny thing is i should have knew better.

    But as the old saying goes “love is blind” and now my heart is broke and i feel broken. I am dating a girl now and she already wants to get serious and to tell you the truth, not only do i not want to get serious but i feel like it isn’t mentally possible to at this point. Im 41 so its not like i haven’t been around the block with women.

    I am currently unemployed but all i want to do is get a job so i have something to keep my mind occupied. Until then i have been walking allot and doing things to occupy my time, but she is always in the back of my mind. For me it really feels “if you break a mans heart, you break a mans spirit”. I would love to talk to her but i dare not and know better.

    But i can’t get rid of the feelings and i can’t look at another women the same again. I been hurt before but not like this. I know this and old article but feeling down and lonely and i can’t help it. I guess i feel broken.

  8. In my experience with divorce, I realized that men are pressured to glorify love, but trivialize, demonize, and ignore heartbreak.

    I was with my ex for 9 years and married for 2. I was madly in love with her. She began to suffer from anxiety and alcoholism. It was terrible on our relationship. For me, the hardest part was the alcoholism. She hid it from me for over a year. Since I didn’t know how much she was drinking, I thought that she had a serious neurological disease or something. Of course, when I’d bring things up, it devolved into a huge fight. She ended up cheating on me. I kicked her out of the house, and she slowly spiraled downward emotionally, physically, financially, legally, etc. The whole process took a horrific toll on me. It has been almost three years. For around 1 year, I could barely keep my shit together as I was graduating from my PhD program into the worst economy in 80 years. Only in the past 6 months or so, can I honestly say that I feel like I have reached an emotionally and financially stable place in my life.

    It wasn’t 6 months after my divorce that people were asking me if I were dating anyone. They’d comment on how great I seemed to be taking everything. It made me want scream because I was so heartbroken. Heartbroken is a terrific word that is used too lightly-my heart was broken. The most surprising thing about my divorce was that I never knew how deeply that I could hurt. Sure, I had break ups and unrecquited love, but nothing like this.

  9. Lila Parker says:

    Why are these articles so damn short? It’s like the author’s are just getting started, and BOOM, it’s over.

  10. As someone else mentioned, in the media it’s normally female heartbreak that is featured. However, I wouldn’t be surprised at all if men take heartbreak worse than women in general. Same for infidelity. In my experience, a man will nearly cry if he thinks his woman is cheating even if he is cheating.

    My first boyfriend cried when he broke up with me. He was a manly man- Navy, been to Iraq 2x.

    I think part of the reason is that men generally warm up faster to women than the other way around.

  11. Angie Cordeiro says:

    Circumcision on a new born followed by formula instead of breast milk; then day care at six-eight weeks and we produce a confused, selfish, angry human, easily prone to abusive, barbaric behavior laced with self destruction.

  12. Heartbreak can break anyone. Heartbreak does not discriminate based on gender, orientation or anything else. Men are people – so what makes them immune to heartbreak. Given that American society, writ large does not encourage or support men expressing anything other than anger or aggression or occasionally sadness at the death of parent or intimate and even then in proscribed manners and ways. In this paradigm men are denied the outlet to express the feelings and obtain the healing release, support and nurturing that having feelings acknowledged, accepted and validated provides. If anything it intensifies the pain and compounds the suffering. Expecting a person who is hurt to ignore and or bury the hurt and function normally and never let it out is draining and causes stress which can and does have physical side effects.

    • Yes, sweetsue; heartbreak can happen to anyone at any stage of a relationship. No one is impervious to heartbreak. Women create deep bonds with other women. Additionally, women have a greater sense of emotional and verbal community with each other, especially around this subject. When you have outlets to purge the pain, the intensity wanes. In our culture, women have more outlets for purging pain than men. I hope this changes…

      • When I found out about my wife’s infidelity, I did confide in a few close friends and my siblings to get it off my chest (which drove my wife nuts at the time, because nothing messes with a cheater’s high like the harsh glare of publicity.) However, I also did not want to overdo it by telling everybody everything and thus defining myself by my victimhood, if that makes any sense.

        I think women’s more elaborate and voluminous emotional language can lead to trouble. My wife justified her waywardness with some pseudo spiritual/personal growth/self-fulfillment language. I’m not sure how much she really believed it herself, but dammit if it didn’t sound like pop cultural Eat Pray Love palaver. For my part, I was able to do some “work”, listening to her and reading books about marriage, to try and address what I could be doing to be a better husband.

        • @Pedro: “I think women’s more elaborate and voluminous emotional language can lead to trouble.”

          I don’t think the issue is women’s language… Both sexes go a long way to justify themselves.
          In your case, hers sounds more like denial and avoidance. “I’ll do and say anything to not feel guilty!”. Maybe for your benefit, maybe for her own sake…

          Human beings have an extreme need to “feel good ” about themselves, and this makes self-deception quite common (or building up elaborate alibis).

          I use this rule:
          – if the explanation is short and simple, is probably honest and true;
          – if it’s long, convoluted and weird… well, it’s likely even the other party don’t really believe it. 😉

          Good luck for your process of understanding and facing the situation.
          I think the more honest (and calm) you keep, the easier it will be for her admitting her faults.

  13. Mark Ellis says:

    The late, great comedian Sam Kinison had a line, “every man has that one woman who really messed him up.” The woman who got deep inside, and whose loss was catastrophic from an emotional standpoint. Best thing to do is feel the pain, go through it, don’t run from it, and when you come out the other end of the tunnel you may find that you are a stronger, more empathetic, and wiser man.

    It’s hard to see the light when you are in the throes of failed love, but getting your heart broken, especially if you were a man who aspired to an unrealistic sense of masculinity, can actually turn out to be a positive.

    You may never love as deeply again, but what relationship does come your way you will value more for having “loved and lost”, which, the poets say, is better than never having loved at all.

    I’d say, “Man up, feel, and learn from the experience.

  14. J P McMahon says:

    Nicole, Very perceptive article! Your mentor at Vogue gave you some wonderful advice, and I wish that more women out there would get the memo. Unfortunately, it is the men who possess the most empathy, decency, and compassion who are the most susceptible to debilitating heartbreak. You know, the “nice guys”. Assholes don’t get their hearts broken. Consider how many great country and blues songs written by men were the product of heartbreak. Unfortunately, most men don’t have that outlet for their grief, and lacking a guitar they pick up a bottle or a shotgun. A friend of mine, a kind and gentle man, had his wife of many years and his children’s mother split with another guy. Every time I see him now he has some different physical malady, and he literally walks stooped over like he is carrying a big boulder of pain on his shoulders. When you have that boulder weighing you down, it is hard to move on to something else.

    • Thank you, JP! Agreed, I hope women start to genuinely understand the pain and suffering men go through… I’m sorry to hear about your friend; I hope he eventually finds peace and happiness.

  15. steve jaeger says:

    My wife ended our twenty year relationship after she bumped into her ex boyfriend at a party. It took her exactly four weeks to decide to leave me and our children. Talk about blindsided. I have always been emotionally strong but that almost broke me. It took me over a year to come out of the fog I was living in.

  16. I think this topic is long overdue for discussion. The popular culture is full of discussions of female heartbreak but very little conversation about the emotional pain many men experience. I’ve always thought there needed to be a companion to “He’s Just Not That Into You” written for boys and men. I think most women have no idea how difficult it is for a man to make himself emotionally vulnerable to a woman. It’s not in our genes to go there.

    • I agree, Ed. This topic is long overdue… Pop culture perseverates on female heartbreak. From “chick-lit” to “chick-flicks”, female heartbreak and their reactions to the heartbreak, are woven into every plot line. It is time for society to discuss (and validate) a man’s pain when going through heartbreak or any other taxing circumstance.

  17. Greta Article Nicole. It is great that you show women that men are not selfish, non-feeling jerks who only care about getting laid.

    Real men have feelings and are not ashamed of showing them. Unfortunately for many men like your friend they have been programmed to shut down that part of themselves for so long that even when presented with opportunities to leanr how to process and deal with their emotional pain they unconsciously resist.

    Keep up the great work!

    • Thank you, Joe! Yes, I hope women realize men are faced with suppressive stereotypes and societal pressures. Additionally, I hope we see a cultural shift where men can reach out to other men in times of distress and help a friend or loved one work through their pain.

  18. Maybe that’s connected to all the incidence of heart disease in men. All that pressure to hold it in, be strong and not let the pain show? Too woo woo?

    But when your heart literally breaks, you need to pay attention. Maybe we should pay more attention to the figurative breaks as well.

  19. That does resonate with me. After almost fifteen years of marriage, two children, and the usual ups and downs, my wife had multiple online affairs. She briefly got to the physical stage with a couple of the other parties. It took me awhile to figure out what was happening. When I confronted her about it, I made it clear that I wanted her to stop and that I was willing to give the marriage another chance (taking, in light of your article, a responsible, practical, loyal, forgiving, and stoic approach). I have never cheated during my small number of relationships and had never been in the position of “cheet-ee”. In the lexicon of love or whatever you want to call it, I was and am still pretty naive. But I was also aware of the disastrous effect my own parents’ divorce had on me as a boy, and I did not wish to see my boys dealing with the same instability and dicey mother’s boyfriends/second husbands that I did. So I rallied around the position of reconciliation. Fortunately, my wife came around after pushback, denial, relapse, and so forth, and our marriage is on solid ground now.
    Unfortunately, the pain and feelings of rejection and inadequacy don’t just go away, several years after the day of discovery. There were a number of business and work issues that I could simply not give my full attention to for a long time, which I regret. I still feel resentful about the money and opportunity that were squandered during the time of my wife’s infidelity. During that time I was very solid breadwinner, and I don’t like to reflect on how I was rewarded for it. So now I try to keep my career powder dry but take time for family and activities. If working less OT and indulging hobbies in my spare time is my midlife “spree”, so be it. I’m not breaking anyone’s heart.

    • Your wife is extremely lucky to have you as a husband, and your children are blessed to have you as a father. I hope you are authentically happy with your life and your marriage. Thank you for sharing your story, Pedro.

  20. In some scenarios, heartbreak actually defines a man or defined him long before he even knew what was happening. It can give life a sick purpose, for men or women. How can you break a horrible yet happy-to-be-in-it rut? That’s what I’d like to know.

    • I agree, Addie. Heartbreak can define a man (or a woman).
      As for the rut you are referring to, and how to break it – time, therapy, unconditional love from friends and family, belief in one’s self, and the determination to be authentically happy will help most people out of a rut. That said, there are certain people who have an abundance of personal and professional support, yet they can not move forward.

    • I am familiar with that rut. I spent some time in it. It got to the point where when I started to feel a little better I became uncomfortable because it was unfamiliar and I wanted to be depressed again. Needless to say heartbreak can define a man. Ladies please be kind, and if you think you are being kind in the process, be even kinder.


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