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My friend Elena* has been thinking about leaving her longtime partner for the last six months. Although her relationship is no longer fulfilling, she worries that they will both be devastated by the split, and she worries about being alone for the first time in five years. When we think about breakups, we tend to think about the potential for negative emotions and distress, however, positive outcomes can follow a romantic split, especially from a bad relationship.
Your Breakup Will Not Be As Upsetting As You Think
When we think about breaking up with a partner, we overestimate the distress we will feel following the split. Although we believe that we will be devastated, the actual experience of a breakup is almost always less upsetting than we anticipate it will be, even when we are very much in love (Eastwick et al., 2007). Researchers found that both immediately after the breakup, and 10 weeks later, participants’ actual distress levels were significantly lower than they predicted they would be. Our own predictions show an “intensity bias,” we predict that the breakup will have a bigger emotional impact on us than it actually does. These authors speculate that our “psychological immune systems” may kick in to combat our negative feelings and distress. This intensity bias persists whether we initiate the breakup or whether a partner breaks up with us, so this also means that your partner will be less distressed by the dissolution than he or she predicts (Eastwick et al., 2007).
Interestingly, the neurological experience of pain associated with romantic dissolution mirrors that of physical pain. FMRI methodology shows that the pain of a romantic breakup activates many of the same areas of the brain as physical pain does (Wager et al., 2013). Although it may seem unbelievable, because socially inflicted pain mimics physical pain, the pain of a breakup can also be reduced by taking Tylenol (DeWall et al., 2010).
Personal Growth Through Breakups
After enduring a romantic breakup, the experience may spur a period of personal growth. Researchers Tashiro and Frazier (2003) suggest that the stress of a breakup leads to personal growth, which in turn may lead to better relationships in the future. Participants in their research project reported more self-confidence, better relationship skills, and more certainty about the traits they did not want in a mate following their breakups. They also reported stronger relationships with family and friends. Women reported more growth following breakups than men. Growth is especially likely when the relationship was low quality; having a partner who restricted growth during the relationship tends to be associated with more growth following the breakup (Lewandowski and Bizzoco, 2007).
You Will Be Happier in Another Relationship or Alone
We are more likely to decide to leave our unsatisfactory relationships if we perceive that we have more fulfilling alternatives to those relationships, such as new relationships with better partners or finding happiness being single. Although individuals with new partners do report less distress than their counterparts without new partners (Imhoff and Banse, 2011), we can be happier either in alternate relationships or alone. Recent research reviewed by De Paulo (2017) shows that individuals tend to be equally happy whether single, dating, cohabitating, or married. One key to increased happiness following a breakup is relying on your social support system. People with secure attachment styles and more agreeable individuals are more likely to employ the assistance of friends and family members to help them cope with their breakups (Davis et al., 2003; Tashiro and Frazier, 2003).
The Bottom Line
If you are in a terrible relationship and you worry about the negative impact of relationship dissolution, try focusing on the positives which can also result, less distress than you imagine, increased personal growth, and the potential for happiness regardless of your relationship status.
Share this post with a friend who needs inspiration to leave a rotten relationship.
*All names have been changed.
Portions of this post were taken from The Social Psychology of Attraction and Romantic Relationships. Copyright 2015 Madeleine A. Fugère.
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