Society, family life shape men's ability to cope with a breakup

  • Article by: KIM ODE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 1, 2013 - 5:29 PM

Breakups are hard, but new research sheds light on why some people can move on, and others leave tragedy in their wake.

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Lisa Matula received a hug while holding a candle at a vigil last month to honor victims of domestic violence. Matula’s daughter, Mandy, 24, was last seen May 1 with her ex-boyfriend, who later killed himself. Her body was found last weekend.

Photo: JEFF WHEELER • jeff.wheeler@startribune.com,

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Slowly, some Twin Cities mysteries are being solved, and some of their consequences resolved.

The discovery last weekend of Mandy Matula’s body ended a search that began almost six months ago, after she left with an ex-boyfriend who killed himself the next day.

A funeral on Oct. 26 for Kira Steger ended a months-long wait while her estranged husband was on trial, and ultimately was convicted of her murder.

Other cases linger. Whoever killed Danielle Jelinek, found dead in May after disappearing last December, remains undetermined. An ex-boyfriend, considered “a person of interest” by police, is in prison on a probation violation.

Over a year of hopeless headlines, fruitless pursuits and revealed lives, a question has loomed — one of those artless queries that are the stuff of water cooler chats: Why can some guys handle a breakup, while others flip out?

Experts say violent impulses often are linked to childhood experiences.

Some men also believe that society gives them permission to be controlling in the face of someone resisting control.

An emerging influence, however, is rooted in the sometimes awful power of love.

Aaron Milgrom, who works with men’s groups at the Domestic Abuse Project in Minneapolis, said that recent advances in brain imaging are helping researchers learn how actions cause reactions. Add to that new findings about attachment theory, “and we learn that love and caring and belonging are as important to human beings as food and shelter.”

He said being loved is so important that to some men’s brains, “the withdrawal of affection can be perceived as seriously as a death threat.”

In domestic violence circles, it’s tragic gospel that the decision to leave places women in their greatest danger.

Yet couples break up every day. For some, there are tears. For others, a sense of relief. Yet for others, resignation. But then each person gets on with their lives — and gets out with their lives. Why the difference?

“It goes back to our whole society,” said Colleen Schmitt, Day One manager at Cornerstone in Bloomington, which advocates for the abused. “Some men are taught that it’s OK to move on, that they don’t need to have power and control over another person.”

Others lack that example. “Generally, it’s a select population of men that batter,” she said. “And it’s not always about the physical assault. There’s usually a pattern of manipulation, economic control, isolation from family and friends that goes on every day.

“But what we hear about is that final moment.”

Breakups along gender lines

It’s hard to know exactly how many deaths come at the hands of a partner, said Liz Richards of the Minnesota Coalition for Battered Women, which uses public records and media reports to compile its figures. Some deaths may not clearly be linked to domestic violence, and some don’t get press coverage. The coalition prefaces its statistics with “at least.”

Richards allowed as how this year stands out for the unusual nature of some deaths — women’s bodies going unrecovered for months, a wife shot with a bow-and-arrow in Detroit Lakes, a wife dismembered in St. Paul.

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