January 6, 2015 - Breaking up is truly hard to do. And recovery from a breakup can be even harder. Your friends may consul you to put the whole thing out of your mind. But new research suggests that repeatedly reflecting on a break-up - even through participation in a research study - actually speeds emotional recovery.
"Breakups are ubiquitous - most adults have experienced at least one in their life - and are typically very distressing," says Grace Larson of Northwestern University. After studying divorce and breakups for years using longitudinal, multi-method designs, Larson and her then-adviser 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 explains. 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, an 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 6 months.
As published today in Social Psychological and Personality Science, those who completed the more intensive set of tasks and measures four times over 9 weeks had better overall recovery from their breakups. The researchers specifically looked at "self-concept reorganization," the process of seeing and defining yourself separate 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 says.
The work, she says, fits in well with studies showing how profoundly romantic relationships impact our self-concept. For example, she cites work by Art Aron and colleagues showing that in 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 says. "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 says, "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 says, 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 says. "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."
One of the primary problems in relationships arises from how we envision our relationships. Conventional advice on relationships and intimacy often reads like a how-to manual or a “Six Steps to a Happy Relationship” workshop.
Relationships are not machines, nor are they electronic devices. A mechanical approach looks at relationships not as an art form to be cultivated but as a series of steps to master, as though we were assembling a device. Such a way of thinking about our relationships contributes mightily to our struggles.
Can you save our marriage?
People often ask me if their relationship is “salvageable.” That very question points to the problem—insufficient expectations. We shouldn’t be seeking a repair job or a salvage operation—again the language of machinery — but deep gratification and fulfillment. In its ideal form, a relationship is a creative, evolving, and beautifully raw experience in which two individuals craft their particular way of communing with each other.
Cultivating the relationship is an art form that requires sensitivity to the complexity and nuances of two people engaged in a most important dance of life. The deep fundamental change in how we view relationships begins with how we conceptualize uncertainty. Two individuals, committed to their individual process of becoming—the commitment to perpetual growth and self-awareness—can create the opportunity for joyful partnering.
A relationship is a co-participatory dance that embraces uncertainty as it spirals into deeper and more complex levels of understanding and experience. Just as each person must engage in their own growth, they need to expect the same of the relationship. The union needs to be seen as a vibrant and dynamic experience, not as a dormant and unchanging structure. “I’m in a relationship” sounds like you’re stuck inside a container. This may sound awkward, but imagine thinking instead, “I’m committed to the engagement and process of my relationship.”
Uncertainty is the essence of romance
Oscar Wilde wrote, “The very essence of romance is uncertainty.” If this is accurate, then predictability must be its downfall. Our inclination toward the predictable routine and formatting of our unions is counter to an emotionally vibrant and intimate experience.
The experience of falling in love was likely bathed in uncertainty. The absence of certainty required us to be present and stay attuned. Yet, once the romance has been secured, we replace uncertainty with predictability, and so we experience a loss of passion.
I’m not proposing that couples seek an unsafe, volatile experience but that they try to welcome currents of uncertainty and change, which can propel their individual growth and usher in a corresponding growth in the relationship. Embracing some degree of uncertainty is necessary to keep the relationship afloat. One person’s crisis or challenge inevitably provokes opportunity for growth in their partner. We are on this ride together.
Frequently in couples sessions, I’ve noticed that as one person begins to express himself, the other begins to react, even if non-verbally. In the midst of a session, Hank began to share some of his perceptions about his wife, Julia. Although he was talking in a non-adversarial way, I noticed Julia’s face tighten. I gently interrupted Hank to ask Julia what she was experiencing. She said, “I know what he’s going to say before he does. There’s no need for him to go on.”
This level of predictability leaves no room for surprise, wonder, or genuine inquiry. Certainty deadens the ability to be present and precludes playfulness, let alone spontaneity. When I asked Hank to continue, Julia was indeed surprised by what he had to share.
Think about how certainty affects your ability to be romantic and how it dulls your love life.
A new kind of commitment
The commitment to always love each other or to monogamy, regrettably, often fails. Commitment to the process might better assure continued love and fidelity—envisioning a lifelong process requiring that each person embrace the spirit of the coupling. Learning the tools of emotional and verbal intimacy are the bedrock of this journey.
Think of your partnership as the clay in the sculptor’s hands, but this is a clay that you don’t permit to harden. You keep crafting it. You can master the art of relationship by welcoming uncertainty and change as you become the artists of your engagement with each other.
The journal Social Psychological and Personality Science
is a collaboration from the Association for Research in Personality, the European Association of Social Psychology, the Society of Experimental Social Psychology, and the Society for Personality and Social Psychology, and is co-sponsored by the Asian Association of Social Psychology and Society of Australasian Social Psychologists.