Ending a relationship can happen for a multitude of reasons and in many ways. Yet, there is one thing which is usually shared: they’re distressing. I’m going to take you through the usual emotional states and reactions which happen after a breakup, what things may make that easier or worse, what can happen to your identity after, remaining friends and then, I’ll get to recovery. A quick reminder that the results shown to you are averages; it’s entirely possible that you may react to breakups differently than is described.
The first study I’ll mention followed people for 20 months, all of whom were in a relationship in the beginning. Over this period, 36.5% of participants had at least one breakup, with women more likely to initiate the breakup than men (50% vs 40%). Those that were part of a breakup had increased psychological distress and declines in life satisfaction, both very typical post-breakup. Other studies have shown that compared to those in relationships, newly single people faced a gradual decline in love for their ex while sadness, anger and relief would fluctuate. The level of difficulty has even been measured; on a scale from 1, no problem, to 10, complete devastation, men scored 4.96 and women 4.35. So it’s pretty clear: breakups suck. I’m going to let you know what factors mediate how bad they suck but first, I’m going to talk about unwanted communication post breakup. The majority of those that are broken up with carry out this type of behaviour and are more likely to perceive positive outcomes from unwanted communication than those who initiated the breakup. For those that initiated the breakup, these behaviours are often received negatively so, if an ex tells you not to contact them, don’t. On a more serious note, stalking behaviours after a breakup happen and can be extremely dangerous, sometimes resulting in death. If you think you might be a victim of this, the first link provided will direct you to a webpage about stalking. You are responsible for how you behave, no matter how heartbroken you are. Don’t stalk people.
Time for some mediating factors. For most people, a separation caused by intimacy problems is unlikely to be distressing but one caused by communication problems is. There’s a lot of other factors that play into your feelings after a breakup and they all have varying levels of influence. To make this easier for both of us, I’m going to list the things that make it easier and then worse. Starting to date someone new, high self-esteem, claiming responsibility for the ending of the relationship, having a secure or casual attachment, a more controllable breakup, better social support and expecting the breakup all made it easier. Being close to your ex, being together for longer, not believing you can find an attractive alternative, cohabiting, having plans for marriage, lower self-esteem, a large investment and little understanding of the breakup, a clingy attachment and still wanting to be in the relationship made it harder. I’m sure there are more factors but this is what I found after some searching. I’ll revisit these later on when I discuss getting over an ex partner. Unfortunately, cultural values leech into science making it heteronormative. This essentially tells us that being heterosexual (straight) is normal which leads to the underrepresentation of LGBT+ people in social science research. This also makes research recording more than two genders sparse. Despite this, there is some inclusive research out there. In one research paper, I found that, compared to heterosexual couples, people in gay and lesbian couples didn’t differ in reasons for parting or distress levels after a breakup.
There are some ways in which you may change after a breakup. Research shows that while you’re with someone, you often adopt your partner’s attributes into your own identity. You can probably guess that once a relationship ends, attributes from the ex partner are more likely to be rejected; this is more so than attributes that people believe originated from themselves. Although, if more effort has been put into keeping the attributes from the partner, they’re more likely to be kept. After a breakup, you’re less likely to hold unrealistic beliefs about romance (more on these in another post) such as “love is enough” and “the one and only”. But those who had a breakup in the last six months were more likely to believe in the “try harder” myth, that trying harder will save the relationship, compared to those who hadn’t. Interestingly, the study found women were more likely to believe this myth, which was explained by the cultural expectation of women to maintain romantic relationships (everyone in the relationship should have equal input). Another sex difference found is that women tend to have more growth after a breakup than men do. Some research has looked into the idea that newly single people are promiscuous. It was found that people recently emerging from a breakup don’t acquire multiple sex partners when they eventually decide to. Those with lower incomes reported acquiring partners more quickly than those with higher incomes and this was explained by the need for more resources due to the instability associated with poverty.
A common wish in breakups is to remain friends. In one sample, 42% of people reported they were still friends with their ex, 40% never saw their old partner and only 6% said they disliked their ex. Research shows that staying friends is more likely to happen when the breakup is male-initiated or mutual; it’s also more likely when the ex can provide resources such as social status or money. For those that did stay friends, being friends before the relationship started was a good indicator for the likelihood of friendship after the breakup. As with most things, barriers to being friends with an ex exist. Things such as a new romantic partner, lack of support from family and friends or using neglect to get over an ex made friendship less likely.
Now, it’s time for recovery, arguably the most important part of this post. Luckily, there’s a wealth of information about this and plenty of things to try. The first study followed people for 4 weeks after a breakup and found the following. The level of acceptance for the end of the relationship mediated sadness; the more acceptance, the less sadness. Having more contact with an ex can also slow down the decreases in love and sadness after a breakup. It was also found that higher levels of love, anger and focus on the old attachment decreased sadness recovery likelihood. Other research has focused on adjustment to the new situation through telling others about the event. Those with a coherent account of events about the breakup, that were in order, were more likely to be more adjusted. No other aspects of the post-breakup narrative were significant. So by using what I’ve found above, accepting the breakup and avoiding denial, not keeping contact with the ex, reducing feelings of love and anger, not focusing on the old attachment and telling people about your breakup in a coherent, sequential way can all accelerate the recovery process. Now, some of these are more easily done than others but if you’re not satisfied, I have more to tell you. A new partner soon after is always an option, although it is wise to make sure to be disciplined and make sure to follow your standards (a post about these soon!) so you don’t end up in a worse relationship. It has been found that men are more likely than women to use this method (34% vs 29%) and men are also more likely to compromise on their standards. Research has also shown that altering negative thoughts after a breakup can help to remedy emotional problems. Another thing which can help you recover is social support, something that men are less likely to use. Don’t be afraid to reach out to family or friends during this difficult time; if someone isn’t particularly helpful, talk to someone else in your network. As romantic relationships release a lot of dopamine, the neurotransmitter implicated in most addiction models, it is often said that relationships are like a drug and the negative emotions you feel after are similar to withdrawal symptoms. So my advice for a breakup would be to delete any pictures or messages you associate that person with and refrain from going on their social media, so you can’t torture yourself, and stop talking to them for a while, so you can’t receive any surges in dopamine, prolonging how bad you feel. To come back to social support, spending time with your friends is something which can help lift your mood. Do things that you enjoy with them or even do them alone. Fill your time with things that make you happy and make you feel like you have a sense of control. You may have to use trial and error to find a recovery strategy that works for you; eventually, you will find one that works and you will be okay.
http://www.ingentaconnect.com/content/springer/vav/2000/00000015/00000001/art00006 – behaviours following a break up
http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1350-4126.2005.00112.x/abstract – emotions after a breakup
http://psycnet.apa.org/journals/fam/25/3/366/ – psychological distress and life satisfaction
http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1467-6494.2010.00650.x/full – self-esteem and dissolution
http://search.proquest.com/openview/fe1f90f8a876760d7ee6c5e6e09d6b6c/1?pq-origsite=gscholar – rumination and responsibility
http://psycnet.apa.org/journals/psp/53/4/683/ – factors after
http://spr.sagepub.com/content/10/1/55.short – correlates in distress
http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1475-6811.1997.tb00136.x/abstract – LG & straight adjustment
http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1741-3737.2002.00898.x/full – sexual attitudes and behaviours
http://psp.sagepub.com/content/early/2014/04/11/0146167214528992.abstract – self concepts from ex
http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/1475-6811.00039/abstract – personal growth after break up
http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/1475-6811.00014/full – being friends after a break up
http://psp.sagepub.com/content/32/3/298.short – predictors for emotional recovery
http://spr.sagepub.com/content/20/3/285.short – narrative completeness and adjustment to breakup
http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/smi.1219/abstract – changing negative cognitions
http://psp.sagepub.com/content/early/2009/07/22/0146167209341580.short – focusing on someone new