Living Single

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Becoming Single Again: People Who Are Kind to Themselves Do It Better

The triumph of compassion over self-flagellation

Getting divorced can be a painful and distressing experience. Even if the parting is your idea and you really think it is the right thing to do, the process has the potential to be devastating. So what is a good way to cope, so that when the one-year mark of the dissolution of your marriage is approaching, you are doing a lot better than you were before?

There is a lot of public blaming and shaming of people who divorce, especially if they have children. Should you internalize that damning message, and tell yourself that it is all your fault and you deserve to feel desolate and isolated and alone? Or should you show yourself a little compassion?

That's the question that Dave Sbarra and his co-authors addressed in an article just published today. They studied more than 100 people who had recently split (an average of 3 or 4 months before the study began).  The participants were not leaving people they had been married to for just a short time - on the average, they had been with their partners for more than 13 years.

When the participants first arrived for the study, they were asked to think about their former partner, then talk about their feelings and thoughts about the separation. They said whatever they wanted to about their experiences for 4 minutes, while being tape-recorded.  

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Trained researchers listened to all of the tapes and rated the degree to which the people seemed to be compassionate toward themselves. Self-compassion includes being kind to yourself, recognizing that failings are part of the human condition, and being mindful of experiences that are not all negative.

Here are some sample quotes from the transcripts.

From a person who showed some self-kindness:

"Looking back, you have to...take the best out of it and move on...just forgive yourself and him for everything you did or didn't do."

From a person who showed little or no self-kindness:

"It was all my fault."

From a person who recognized the common humanity in the situation:

"...you tell yourself you're not the only person to experience this."

From a person who did not recognize the common humanity in the situation:

"I am so alone with this."

At several different points in time, including when the participants first arrived for the study and then again 9 months later, they described their adjustment to the divorce by answering a standardized set of questions. People who are having an especially hard time with the divorce say, for example, that almost any reminder can bring back bad feelings about the process, that they are jumpy and easily startled, and that their emotions can get the best of them over the course of their everyday lives.

During that very first session, when the participants talked about their thoughts and feelings about the separation, the people who were most compassionate toward themselves were already feeling less distressed than the people who were harder on themselves.

Nine months later, just about everyone was feeling better than they had been when the break-up was still fresh in their lives, but the people who were more compassionate toward themselves in the way they talked about their experiences were doing especially well.

As the authors noted,

"People high in self-compassion may feel the pain of marital separation, but they avoid ruminating about their negative mental states, punishing themselves for real or perceived transgressions, and wallowing in their isolation and loneliness."

People who give themselves some love, the authors suggest, "may find opportunities to grow and even flourish from the experiences surrounding the end of their marriage."

[Notes: If you are interested, check out my post on my "Single at Heart" blog on the shaming of single women in China. Also, as always, you can find the latest feeds from other singles bloggers at Single with Attitude. Finally, the person who co-authored the study I talked about in this post, David Sbarra, was also a co-author of a study I described in another post that was popular here at "Living Single," Adjusting to being single again: What we can tell by listening for just 30 seconds.]

 

Bella DePaulo, Ph.D., is author of Singled Out: How Singles Are Stereotyped, Stigmatized, and Ignored, and Still Live Happily Ever After. She is a visiting professor at UCSB.

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