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.
"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?"