Ending a relationship is a difficult and often heart-breaking event. Even worse is that recovery from a breakup make take years. New research, however, may help individuals accelerate the recovery process.
A new study suggests repeatedly reflecting on the breakup actually speeds emotional recovery. This process helps individuals regain self-worth and develop a new self-concept of a single person.
“Breakups are ubiquitous — most adults have experienced at least one in their life — and are typically very distressing,” said researcher and graduate student Grace Larson of Northwestern University.
After studying divorce and breakups for years using longitudinal, multi-method designs, Larson and her then-adviser Dr. David Sbarra of the University of Arizona wanted to study whether these research techniques on their own were affecting participants.
One concern they had was that the studies could be harming participants, Larson says.
“At first glance, it might seem like repeatedly reminding participants that they had just broken up, and asking them to describe the breakup over and over, might delay recovery,” she said.
Indeed, in their new study, the researchers discussed with participants possible downsides to participating in the study, such as emotional distress, rather than benefits. They were surprised to find the opposite effect.
In the study, they split participants into two conditions: with one group, using a suite of methods for observing coping and emotions (such as questionnaires, psychophysiological measurements like heart rate monitoring, and an interview-like task); and with the second group, only asking them to complete initial and final questionnaires.
All the participants had experienced a non-marital breakup within the previous six months.
As published in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science, those who completed the more intensive set of tasks and measures four times over nine weeks had better overall recovery from their breakups.
The researchers specifically looked at “self-concept reorganization,” the process of seeing and defining yourself separately from your ex and from the relationship. Asking the participants to reflect on their relationships helped the participants “build a stronger sense of who they were as single people,” Larson said.
The work, she says, fits in well with studies showing how profoundly romantic relationships impact our self-concept.
Larson cites prior studies that show in many close relationships, people begin to feel as though they overlap with the person they are close to. “The process of becoming psychologically intertwined with the partner is painful to have to undo,” she said. “Our study provides additional evidence that self-concept repair actually causes improvements in well-being.”
The study is one of the first to look at whether the methods used in typical observational studies of well-being and coping can in and of themselves affect well-being. The researchers do not yet know exactly which aspects of the study caused these changes but they suspect it relates to participants thinking about their breakups from a distanced perspective.
Or, Larson said, “it might be simply the effect of repeatedly reflecting on one’s experience and crafting a narrative, especially a narrative that includes the part of the story where one recovers.”
Another factor, she says, is that in the measurement-intensive condition, participants privately spoke about their breakups (into a voice recorder) four times. While the speaking task was not structured like a typical expressive writing exercise, having the ability to be emotionally expressive may have given the participants the well-documented benefits of expressive writing.
Larson recognizes that most people experiencing recent breakups will not have the option of participating in a scientific study but suggests finding other ways to regularly reflect on the recovery progress.
“For instance, a person could complete weekly check-ins related to his or her emotions and reactions to the breakup and record them in a journal,” she said, or write repeatedly about the process of the breakup “as though he or she were talking to a stranger about it.”
“The recovery of a clear and independent self-concept seems to be a big force driving the positive effects of this study, so I would encourage a person who recently experienced a breakup to consider who he or she is, apart from the relationship,” Larson said.
“If that person can reflect on the aspects of him or herself that he or she may have neglected during the relationship but can now nurture once again, this might be particularly helpful.”