There’s no question that romantic breakups can be really hard. Losing a partner we’ve become very close to means losing someone who was previously part of our daily lives. As a result, breakups can undermine our ability to sleep and eat well (among other things). Research has revealed that experiencing a breakup has several unique effects on our sense of self or self-concept (i.e., everything that makes us who we are) as well. For example, research has demonstrated that, after a breakup, people feel that their self-concept is smaller than it was before the breakup; in other words, they feel like their self-concept has diminished somewhat.1 This makes sense, since over time people tend to incorporate their romantic partner into their self-concept, meaning that their individual identities begin to merge (that is, “me” and “you” becomes “we” and “us”). In the wake of a breakup, then, the self-concept may feel reduced or contracted because there used to be another person involved in it (e.g., part of “me” used to include being a loving partner to a specific person, and now that part is gone).
Not only that, but breakups seem to influence our self-concept clarity (the degree to which we have a clear sense of who we are). In a series of three studies, Erica Slotter and her colleagues found that, after imagining or actually experiencing a breakup, people experienced a reduction of self-concept clarity. This hit to self-concept clarity was associated with a desire to change things about themselves or their routines (e.g., cutting or coloring their hair to help “redefine” themselves, changing activities they engage in, etc.). Reduced self-concept clarity following a breakup also predicted the emotional distress people felt.2 Thus, breakups seem to make people feel a bit confused about who they are, and this may (a) motivate them to establish a new “me” that doesn’t rely on the former “us,” and (b) help explain why they get so upset and distressed when their relationship ends.
Interestingly, the effects of breaking up on the self-concept are stronger for individuals who are more anxiously attached.3 People with higher attachment anxiety tend to worry and ruminate about their relationships to a greater extent than those who are less anxiously attached, and often cling more tightly to their relationships and partners (e.g., by desiring extreme closeness with their partners and wanting to merge completely with them). Consequently, highly anxious individuals have so much of themselves wrapped up in their relationships that when a relationship ends, they are left feeling particularly empty and confused about who they are.
To sum up, your partner can be a hugely important part of your life and self-concept; when your relationship ends, therefore, you may feel a bit lost without him or her and wonder who you are now that part of you is gone. A notable silver lining here is that most people become less distressed about breakups over time. Thus, after breaking up, you will be able to restructure your sense of self and feel like you have a “me” again, though this may take time.
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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.
2Slotter, E. B., Gardner, W. L., & Finkel, E. J. (2010). Who am I without you? The influence of romantic breakup on the self-concept. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 36, 147-160.
3Slotter, E. B., & Gardner, W. L. (2012). How needing you changes me: The influence of attachment anxiety on self-concept malleability in romantic relationships. Self and Identity, 11, 386-408.
Sarah Stanton, M.Sc. – Science of Relationships articles | Website/CV
Sarah is interested in how different types of people think, feel, and behave in relationships, the positive and negative relationship outcomes associated with low self-regulatory ability, and how relationship experiences influence goal pursuit, bodily stress responses, and mental and physical health outcomes.