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Breakup Survival May Not Be So Hard

Many People Overestimate Distress After Relationships Go South, Study Shows
By
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

Aug. 21, 2007 - Surviving a breakup is easier than you think, according to a new study.

Breaking up can be hard to do, just as the song suggests. But forget all that other stuff promoted by country music -- moping around for months, devouring tons of chocolate, becoming a hermit and whining that you'll never find love again.

Turns out, ending a romantic relationship is more like ripping off a bandage than enduring months of a terrible stomachache, at least for most people. The problem is, most of us grossly overestimate how bad a breakup will be and how long it will affect us, say Paul Eastwick and Eli Finkel, both psychology researchers at Northwestern University who co-authored the new study.

"People seem to be very poor at predicting what their emotional responses will be," says Finkel, PhD, an assistant professor of psychology. He and Eastwick, a graduate student in psychology, found that breakups are not nearly as difficult as people imagine.

"We're not trying to say that breakups are this wonderful, happy experience," says Eastwick. "They are distressing. People do report an elevation in their level of stress and distress. But when you ask people to predict how bad it is going to be, they systematically think it is worse [than it turns out to be]."

(How did you break up with your latest love interest? In a restaurant? Over the phone? On a Post-it? Tell the story on WebMD's Couples Coping message board.)

Surviving a Breakup

Eastwick and Finkel asked 69 Northwestern University students, all freshmen who had been in a dating relationship for two months or longer, to take part in the study. The participants answered questions about their relationship, such as how much in love they felt and how badly they would feel if it ended. Then, they completed biweekly questionnaires online, reporting whether they were still dating the person.

Eventually, the research focused on the 26 participants, including 16 men and 10 women, whose romantic relationships ended during the first six months of the study. On average, they had dated for 14 months at the beginning of the study.

If the relationship had ended, they answered questions about their distress level over the next three months. The researchers compared the predicted distress with actual distress at four different time points after the breakup.

Overall, the students predicted a much bleaker picture about surviving a breakup than what emerged, Finkel and Eastwick found. No gender differences were found in the mistaken predictions.

Especially likely to predict doom-and-gloom were those who had reported being greatly in love with their partner, those who didn’t initiate the split, and those who said they wouldn't be likely to start a new relationship soon if the current one ended.

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