Breakups rock our world. By the time we’re in our mid-20s, most of us have experienced our fair share of doozies. (You know, crying on the bathroom floor, playing angry love songs on repeat…) But seriously, we all revert to infancy when we experience this sort of emotional turmoil, and there’s no reason to be ashamed of that. Substantial research suggests that adult romantic relationships are really just “adult versions” of infant-caregiver bonds. It makes sense, then, that breaking up almost feels like losing a parent. Even if the breakup was “the right thing to do,” we often still crave the bond we once had with our ex. That’s just a part of being the intelligent infants that we are.
Although we all go through similar pain, our breakup experiences are vastly different. Some of us will crave certain aspects of the relationship that we’ve lost, such as the support, reassurance, or security that our partner once gave us. Others will cut all ties and never look back. But there is conflicting research on exactly how much rumination we should be doing post-breakup. Research on grief work indicates that reflection is part of moving on, but recent studies argue that it can put us in a worse mood and is counterproductive to breakup recovery.
Some research suggests that attachment styles may have much to do with how we handle breakups. As opposed to a secure attachment style (which is just as it sounds), a person with an anxious attachment style will worry excessively about a partner abandoning or rejecting them. On the other hand, a person with an avoidant attachment style will be uncomfortable with closeness and will prefer to remain independent within a relationship. In a recent study, Fagundes (2012) examined how reflecting on negative emotions after a breakup impacts how well we emotionally adjust to the breakup. The research hypothesized that rumination is especially harmful for anxiously attached people, as they tend to continue to use their partners as attachment figures after the relationship is over.
In Fagundes’ study, 108 undergraduate students were recruited who had recently ended a romantic relationship. (What a charming sample!) The participants were examined twice over a one month period, and the results were as expected. The participants who reported high levels of reflection post-breakup were less likely to recover emotionally from the breakup one month later, particularly if they were in the anxiously attached category. In fact, anxiously attached individuals had a hard time emotionally adjusting in general.
While these results may seem obvious, breakups affect our health (both mentally and often physically) and thus require serious consideration. In particular, adolescents are at a heightened risk of depression and suicide after a breakup, and for those adolescents who fit into the anxious attachment category, breakups are particularly difficult. While much of the grief work literature suggests that working through emotions is a good thing, encouraging anxiously attached individuals to reflect on their breakup may lead to more serious health implications.
So be aware. Popular articles may claim that there is a “right” or “wrong” way to break up, but it’s clear that coping with a breakup is an individual process that requires individual coping strategies. If you do break ties with your partner, the best advice may simply be to recognize and accept your own process. If you’re able to do that, you’ll be one step closer to appreciating the beauty of single life once again.
Fagundes, C. P. (2012). Getting over you: Contributions of attachment theory for postbreakup emotional adjustment. Personal Relationships, 19(1), 37–50. doi:10.1111/j.1475-6811.2010.01336.x
“The wound is the place where the Light enters you.”