Women And The Men Who Love Them

All my ex’s live in Texas
And Texas is the place I’d dearly love to be
But all my ex’s live in Texas
And that’s why I hang my hat in Tennessee.

– G. Strait singing Shafer & Shafer

Suppose members of group A have a higher opinion of members of group B than members of group B have about members of group A. Which group is nicer? If this sounds like a rhetorical question, consider that the A and B people are men and women, respectively, who judge each other after a break-up. That’s right, on average, men have a higher opinion of their ex’s than women do. Or, stated differently, women have a lower opinion of their ex’s than men do.

What can we make of this finding? Athenstaedt and colleagues (2019), who stumbled on this gender difference and then explored it systematically, present a complex picture. In a large sample of young Austrian respondents, the authors find additional sex differences in 9 of 13 measured variables. Some of these variables also covary with the attitude toward the ex. Consider the 5 variables with the strongest correlations. [1] Men hold more permissive attitudes to sex than women do, and permissiveness predicts a positive attitude to the ex partner. [2] Women have a more pragmatic (“shopping list”) attitude to relationships, and pragmatism predicts a negative attitude to the ex. [3] Men received greater social support from their ex’s (at the time), and recalled social support predicts a positive attitude. [4] Women are more likely to fault their ex’s for the break-up, and finding fault predicts a negative attitude. [5] Women are also more likely to see the break-up caused by both partners, and this too predicts a negative attitude.

The big unknown in these data is whether there are true gender differences in the ex’s worthiness to be remembered fondly. Perhaps most break-ups are precipitated by men’s shabby behavior. It is just that it is the women who tend to call an end to relationships. Men try to hang on for the benefits of sex and social support. This line of thinking takes us into a different direction. Instead of thinking that those who hold the more favorable perceptions (men), it is those who hold the less favorable perceptions (women) who emerge as the stronger and wiser sex. They are pragmatic in that know what they want when things go well; they show social intelligence by cultivating support networks; and they are decisive when disengaging from relationships.

The reported effects are small to medium in size, with the critical correlation between gender and attitude toward the ex coming in at r = -.24 (women = 1, men = 0). The standardized regression weight for gender predicting attitude is the same, with ß = r. In a second regression model, the authors predict attitude from 10 variables, that is, from gender and 9 potential mediator variables. In this model, the ß for gender is -.13. In other words, 9 mediator variables reduce a small-to-medium effect to a small effect. “This suggest,” the authors write “that these variables partially account for the differences in men’s and women’s ex-partner attitudes” (p. 6).

This analysis leaves two questions on the table. First, what is the nature of the residual gender difference in ex’s attitudes? Might it be true shabbiness in men’s behavior? This is possible but unlikely because such behavior should be picked up by women faulting their ex’s, and that variable has a small effect. Then what else could it be? More research is necessary, but where should we look? Second, what are the contributions of the individual mediator variables? With the correlation between gender and attitude being -.24, the individual partial correlations are not much lower even for the strongest mediators: permissiveness: -.194; pragmatism: -.212; social support from ex: -.229; faulting partner: -.229; faulting both: -.205. These are small drops, making it impossible to isolate specific individual mechanisms that might account from the gender difference in attitude toward ex’s. Might it be possible that men are just more gracious in their post-break-up perceptions of their ex-partners?

In their final study, Athenstaedt and colleagues find that third-party raters were unable to predict the gender difference in ex-attitudes. This makes the finding interesting in its nonobviousness. The general gender stereotype of women being warm makes it hard to see that men might be the nicer ex’s (White, & Gardner, 2009).  

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Men judge their ex (hetero) partners more positively than women do. Why this is, is far from certain.
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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 and Personality Psychology Science, online first. DOI: 10.1177/1948550619876633

White, J. B. & Gardner, W. L. (2009). Think Women, Think Warm: Stereotype Content Activation in Women with a Salient Gender Identity, Using a Modified Stroop Task. Sex Roles, 60, 247–260.

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