By Zoe Weston and Dr. Lindsey Beck
It’s a universal feeling. Your partner was too unavailable, or you were too emotionally attached, but whatever the reasons, you ended up on the wrong side of a breakup. You reach for the ice cream and prepare for the deluge of emotions.
We’ve all been in this position before. Those of us who have experienced love have probably experienced hurt as well—But why? What factors contribute to a bad breakup, and what makes some breakups worse than others? Through relationships research, we can uncover why some breakups seem relatively painless and why others seem to drag on into eternity.
Many factors contribute to the way we process information, so it makes sense that many factors also contribute to how upset we feel after a breakup. For example, a survey study1 on young adults’ reactions to a recent breakup revealed multiple influences on their feelings of distress, including how the relationship started, what the relationship was like, how the relationship ended, and how each partner perceived relationships in general.
Specifically, people felt more distress after the breakup when they had pursued the relationship in the first place, when they felt more satisfied and committed during the relationship, and when they had a longer-lasting relationship. People also felt more distress when they didn’t initiate the breakup and when they thought their partner was interested in someone else (in other words, when they felt like they had been “left” for another partner). Finally, people’s thoughts, feelings, and beliefs about relationships—that is, their attachment style—influenced their distress; people who were more anxiously-attached (who desire excessive closeness and tend to be clingy) felt more distress after the breakup.
Other research supports the idea that our attachment style shapes how we react to breakups. For instance, an online survey2 of over 5,000 participants showed that anxiously-attached people tended to react to breakups with feelings of distress, as well as with a whole host of other negative emotions and behaviors, including self-blame, anger, depression, and even obsessive thoughts and attempts to get back together with their ex. On the other hand, avoidantly-attached people (who feel uncomfortable being close to and needing others) tended to react by…well…avoiding others, including ex-partners and potential new partners, as well as friends or family who might be able to support them. In contrast, securely-attached people (who feel comfortable being close to and relying on partners) tended to react by turning to friends or family for support.
Securely-attached people seem to have the right idea when it comes to coping with the end of a relationship, according to another survey study3 of young adults’ adjustment to breakups. This work highlights the links between people’s attachment styles and their social connectedness (that is, their general sense of support from their social environment, such as their friends, family, and community). This study suggests that people who were securely-attached believed that they had a supportive social environment that could help them through distressing times. And the stronger the social support system people believed they had outside of their romantic relationship, the better they were able to adjust after that relationship ended.
Although there seems to be no cure (yet) for a broken heart, this research suggests that many factors can help make heartbreak less painful. In fact, one of the biggest determinants of how you react to a breakup may be the kind of attachment style you have. Feeling comfortable with closeness, feeling confident in yourself, and feeling secure in your ability to find love can set you up to handle a breakup with a clear head and an open heart. Furthermore, having a strong support system to help you through stressful times can ease the blow of a breakup. So put down the ice cream, call up your friends, and surround yourself with people who can remind you to love yourself and stay optimistic even in the toughest times.
1Sprecher, S., Felmlee, D., Metts, S., Fehr, B., & Vanni, D. (1998). Factors associated with distress following the breakup of a close relationship. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 15(6), 791-809.
2Davis, D., Shaver, P. R., & Vernon, M. L. (2003). Physical, emotional, and behavioral reactions to breaking up: The roles of gender, age, emotional involvement, and attachment style. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 29(7), 871-884.
3Moller, N. P., Fouladi, R. T., McCarthy, C. J., & Hatch, K. D. (2003). Relationship of attachment and social support to college students’ adjustment following a relationship breakup. Journal of Counseling & Development, 81(3), 354-369.
Zoe Weston is a senior undergraduate at Emerson College studying Communication Sciences and Disorders with a minor in Psychology. She plans to continue her studies in graduate school, focusing on clinical neuroscience and rehabilitation.
Dr. Lindsey Beck – Articles | Website
Dr. Beck’s research examines how people initiate and develop close relationships, including why some people—but not others—choose to avoid situations that would help them form relationships, how partners ask for and offer support as they develop relationships, and how couples respond to stressful situations in newly-formed relationships.