For some, divorce is a bump in the road. For other, it is a tragedy that can take years to overcome — if ever.
A new study attempts to explain this variation in outcomes in terms of one particular personality trait — self-compassion. Self-compassion was defined by researchers as a combination of kindness toward oneself, recognition of common humanity and the ability to let painful emotions pass.
This internal trait “can promote resilience and positive outcomes in the face of divorce,” said psychologist Dr. David A. Sbarra, who conducted the study with colleagues Hillary L. Smith and Matthias R. Mehl.
The study will be published in an upcoming issue of Psychological Science.
Experts believe the findings can help people learn to weather breakups in better health and better spirits.
“We’re not interested in the basic statement, ‘People who are coping better today do better nine months from now.’ That doesn’t help anybody,” said Sbarra.
“The surprising part here is that when we look at a bunch of positive characteristics”—such as self-esteem, resistance to depression, optimism, or ease with relationships—”this one characteristic—self-compassion— uniquely predicts good outcomes.”
Researchers studied a representative population sample of 105 people, 38 men and 67 women, whose mean age was about 40. Participants had been married over 13 years and divorced an average of three to four months.
On the first visit, participants were asked to think about their former partner for 30 seconds, then talk for four minutes about their feelings and thoughts related to the separation.
Four trained coders listened to the audio files and rated the participants’ levels of self-compassion, using a standard assessment protocol.
The participants also were assessed for other psychological traits, such as depression and their “relationship style.”
Participants were asked to report their adjustment to the divorce, including the frequency with which they experienced intrusive thoughts and emotions about the separation and their ex-partner.
Three interviews were performed over the course of six to nine months.
Sbarra believes the findings can help people as they go through divorce by improving confidence and understanding that the loss of the relationship is just one part of the human experience – by doing this individuals should feel less isolation.
However, experts acknowledge that it is not an easy task. According to Sbarra, you can’t change your personality easily, but you can change how you view your own experience.
Perhaps surprising is the finding that divorce is often more difficult for men.
Sbarra believe the findings of the study can be applied to help people manage the difficult times that accompany divorce.
“This study opens a window for how we can potentially cultivate self-compassion among recently separated adults” and help smooth the journey through one of life’s most difficult experiences.