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Breakup Survival May Not Be So Hard

Many People Overestimate Distress After Relationships Go South, Study Shows

Surviving a Breakup continued...

"People who were more in love with their partner were indeed a little more distressed after the breakup," says Finkel. "But they dramatically overestimated how distressed they would be [later]."

After the initial distress over the breakup, most felt better pretty quickly, the researchers say. “Our first assessment was approximately one week after the breakup,’’ Finkel says, “and the forecasting error [that they would feel distressed] was already apparent that soon after the breakup.”

“Participants were basically back to ‘normal’ -- their pre-breakup level of happiness -- at about the two-month mark,” Eastwick tells WebMD. “That’s on average, of course.”

The study is published in the Aug. 20 online issue of the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.

Overestimating the Distress

How to explain the findings that surviving a breakup is easier than most people think it will be?

"People don’t know how resilient they are," Eastwick says.

It may be natural to over-predict distress right at the time of the breakup, says Eastwick, because "maybe when you are making those predictions, you are thinking about all the awful things [of not being in a relationship.]"

Soon after the split, however, the person may begin to think about good things that are happening or good things about being single, the researchers say. For instance, the students might look forward to going home at the end of the quarter and seeing old friends or of not having to coordinate schedules. Or it could dawn on them that they may meet someone new to date.

This tendency to over-predict distress, the co-authors say, has been found in other situations, both positive and negative. For instance, people facing surgery have been shown to predict the event as causing greater distress than what actually occurs. People have been found in other studies to over-predict the positive effects of situations such as winning money.

While none of the study participants were married, Finkel says, "We are reasonably confident these results will generalize to marriage."

He adds: "We aren't saying a two-month relationship and a marriage [breaking up] are equally distressing." The error in forecasting how bad things will be is what will probably be similar, he says.

Bouncing Back From a Breakup

The new research ties in to previous studies finding that most people don't realize how much they will bounce back after a distressing event, says Dan Ariely, PhD, the Alfred P. Sloan Professor of Behavioral Economics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge.

"When bad things happen, the future is not as gloomy as we think," he says. "We often understand that over time we will be better. But we mis-predict how we will feel the day after. The mistake is the day after [the breakup], the immediate bias."

Turns out, the predictions of how bad it will be after a distressing event are almost always wrong, Ariely says. "Almost at the moment it happens, [people] are much better than they think they will be."

The new research begs another intriguing question, Ariely says. "What is this misguided prediction causing people to do? Is it causing people to stay in relationships longer [even if they are not ideal] because they think it will be awful to break up?"

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