The One Thing That Will Get You Through A Bad Breakup

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Illustrated by Anna Sudit.
By Dr. Gary Lewandowski

Breakups are tough. There's no way around it. Your world changes, and you may be left feeling sad, confused, and lonely. When you lose a relationship, you not only lose your partner; you also lose part of yourself. In fact, after breaking up, people generally feel more unsure about who they are as people. To combat a breakup's potential damage, research suggests we should try to focus on restoring our own, independent sense of self.

How They Did It
To test whether people recover more quickly from breakups when their sense of who they are is clarified, researchers at the University of Arizona recruited 70 participants whose long-term relationships (which averaged at just under two years each) had ended recently. Over the next two months, participants came into the laboratory eight times (about every two weeks) to complete self-report measures of love toward their former partners. They also reported on self-concept recovery (“I have lost my sense of self” vs. “I have become reacquainted with the person I was before the relationship”) and several aspects of their psychological well-being (e.g., positive relations with others, self-acceptance, autonomy, personal growth, environmental mastery, and purpose in life).

In addition, at the first study session, researchers collected facial electromyography (EMG) data, which detects muscle activity in the face. The benefit of collecting physiological data like this is that it allows researchers to see if participants have involuntary physiological reactions that may reveal more about how they truly feel — in comparison to self-reporting, which may not be as accurate.

Researchers recorded this data while participants completed a “Breakup Mental Activation Task” (BMAT) that instructed them to “concentrate on the question by letting any relevant thoughts, feelings, or images come to mind.” They did so while considering prompts such as “Whose decision was it to end the relationship? Why? Please think about the events leading to the end of your relationship,” and “What do you remember about the breakup itself — the actual time during which the two of you decided to stop seeing each other?”

Illustrated by Anna Sudit.

What They Found
Participants who reported being more in love with their former partners also reported worse self-concept recovery. When participants reported poorer self-concept recovery in any given week, they also reported poorer psychological well-being at the next study session two weeks later. Similarly, those who had better psychological well-being did not report worse self-concept recovery the following week. Taken together, these findings suggest that difficulty redefining yourself can be a major part of breakup-related distress. 

Interestingly, participants who showed greater activity of their corrugator supercilii facial muscles (located on the inside part of the eyebrows near the nose, and activated when you furrow your brow) when thinking about their breakup during the BMAT also showed poorer self-concept recovery. In addition, the more this facial-muscle activity was present, the stronger that person's association between greater love and worse self-concept recovery. The facial-muscle data was actually more predictive of self-concept recovery than the self-report measures were — indicating that self-reporting may not fully tap into the damage that occurs after a breakup.

What These Results Mean For You
First, it is important to point out that facial activity isn’t likely causing worse self-concept recovery. You can’t simply Botox your eyebrows to improve your emotional healing process; rather, the involuntary muscle activity in the eyebrows reflects your inner psychological experiences.

What is clear from all of these results is that repairing one’s self-concept post-breakup should be a priority for anyone hoping to cope with relationship loss. Getting back to the life, work, loved ones, and hobbies you prioritized before the relationship could be the key to moving on in a healthy way.

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