When you think of breakups, the image that most likely comes to mind is of a sad and lonely person. For a long time, research on breakups reflected that image and focused almost exclusively on relationship loss as a negative experience.
I’m a psychologist, and much of the work by my colleagues and predecessors has identified how breakups increase depression and emotional distress; fed negative emotions such as jealousy, anger and loneliness; and how ending a relationship harms one’s sense of self.
The truth, however, is that breakups aren’t always as bad as we predict they will be. Over several months, social psychologist Paul Eastwick and his colleagues studied people in happy relationships. They asked participants how they might feel if they were to break up and then patiently waited for some of them to split. When the researchers asked those participants how they actually felt after a breakup and compared those feelings with their earlier predictions, the breakup experience was not as awful and devastating as they expected. This was especially true for those who were in love when they made their initial ratings.
Knowing how you’ll actually respond to a breakup is difficult because humans are generally bad at affective forecasting, or predicting our emotional reactions to future events. We’re bad at this for negative events because we fail to account for other circumstances — that we might find a new and better partner following the breakup. We also underestimate our resilience.
The breakup experience is never entirely negative. For example, a 2003 study of those who recently ended a relationship found that every participant identified at least one positive outcome from their breakup, with the average participant providing five positive life changes — such as the ability to spend more time with friends and learning to not jump into a relationship too quickly. In addition, participants also reported increases in positive emotions such as relief and joy, increased self-confidence and personal growth.
Around the same time, in 2002, I was conducting my own research exploring reactions to breakups. I started by asking participants a simple question: How were you affected by the breakup? Along with the typical negative experiences of loneliness and sadness, there was a palpable sense of hope and strength. Respondents said things like: “I can concentrate on myself now”; “It’s like starting a whole new life again”; “I have more freedom to be myself”; and “I’m doing things I could not have done with my ex.”
Buoyed by these accounts, I continued my research to see how many people have a positive post-breakup experience. In a study of non-marital breakup, I had 150 participants who on average ended a long-term relationship (over a year and a half) within the past 11 weeks, tell me about their breakup. About a third of them characterized the split as an overall negative experience. Of course, this also means that two of every three people, or about 67 percent, did not consider their breakup negative. Of those, the majority (more than 40 percent) rated their breakup as an overall positive experience; the rest considered it a mix of positive and negative.
The fact that a lot of people considered their breakup to be positive left me wondering what led some people to experience their breakup more positively than others. I focused on the romantic relationship’s ability to foster self-expansion, which is the extent an individual has grown and added to their sense of self. Healthy intimate relationships, for example, typically help people grow and develop. But if a relationship prevented the pursuit of self-growth opportunities — by not letting you travel, take up new hobbies or learn new things – it would hinder a person from developing his or her identity and ultimately prove unfulfilling. When a relationship like this ends, it feels like addition by subtraction.
As expected, those whose relationships that didn’t allow for self-expansion reported feeling a range of positive emotions after a breakup, including: optimistic, relief, strong, confident, competent and empowered. They also reported less of a loss of self, greater personal growth and greater rediscovery of self (as in they were able to reclaim aspects of the self that were lost or diminished while in the relationship). Because their previous relationship didn’t help them become a better person, ending it did.
Given the importance of self-expansion, it’s worth identifying how much a current relationship enables your sense of self to grow. To get an idea of how things are going, consider how you might answer these questions: “How much does your partner help to expand your sense of the kind of person you are?”; “How much has knowing your partner made you a better person?”; “How much does being with your partner result in your having new experiences?” (For more items, check out the Sustainable Marriage Quiz.) In relationships that provide sufficient self-expansion, you can easily think of ways that your relationship provides opportunities for those experiences.
If you’re struggling to come up with examples, it may be time to rethink your relationship.