Break-ups are tough. 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 your self.1 In fact, after breaking-up, people have fewer responses to provide to the question “Who am I?”, and they generally feel more unsure about who they are as a person. Given the potential damage to one’s self-concept, recovery from break-up should go more smoothly when individuals focus on restoring their 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 people whose long-term relationships (which averaged just under 2 years) had ended recently. Over the next 2 months participants came into the laboratory 8 times (about every 2 weeks) to complete self-report measures of love toward their former partners, 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 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 participants truly feel in comparison to self-report which may not be as accurate.
Researchers recorded this data while participants completed a “Breakup Mental Activation Task” (BMAT) that instructed participants to “concentrate on the question by letting any relevant thoughts, feelings, or images come to mind” 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.”, “What do you remember about the breakup itself, the actual time during which the two of you decided to stop seeing each other?”
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 2 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 the failure to redefine the self post-break-up contributes to greater breakup-related distress.
Those who had greater corrugator supercilia facial muscle activity (located on the inside part of the eyebrows near the nose…sorta like when you furrow your brows) when thinking about their break-up during the BMAT predicted poorer self-concept recovery. In addition, when greater corrugator activity was present, the association between greater love and worse self-concept recovery was even stronger. Importantly, the facial muscle data was more predictive of self-concept recovery than the self-report measures — this disconnect between self-report and physiological measures indicates that self-report may not fully tap into the damage to one’s self-concept that occur following a breakup.
What These Results Mean For You
First, it is important to point out that facial activity isn’t necessarily causing worse self-concept recovery. Thus, you can’t simply Botox your eyebrows to improve post-breakup self-concept recovery; rather, the involuntary muscle activity in the eyebrows reflects psychological experiences.
What is clear from all of the results is that repairing one’s self-concept post-breakup should be a priority for anyone hoping to cope with relationship loss. Though published research has not explicitly examined the potential benefits of self-concept repair following break-up, these results suggest that activities that help fill in lost elements of the self, or help rediscover aspects of the self that were minimized or diminished during the relationship, may be useful.
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1Lewandowski, G. W., Aron, A., Bassis, S., & Kunak, J. (2006). Losing a self-expanding relationship: Implications for the self-concept. Personal Relationships, 13, 317–331.
2Mason, A. E., Law, R. W., Bryan, A. E. B., Portley, R. M., & Sbarra, D. A. (2012). Facing a breakup: Electromyographic responses moderate self-concept recovery following a romantic separation. Personal Relationships, 19, 551–568. doi: 10.1111/j.1475-6811.2011.01378.x
Dr. Gary Lewandowski – Science of Relationships articles | Website
Dr. Lewandowski’s research explores the self’s role in romantic relationships focusing on attraction, relationship initiation, love, infidelity, relationship maintenance, and break-up. Recognized as one of the Princeton Review’s Top 300 Professors, he has also authored dozens of publications for both academic and non-academic audiences.