The end of a relationship carries with all sorts of pain, but the hurt that can cause the most damage is the blow to your identity. Apart from the sadness you feel about not being with your partner anymore, you feel that you’ve failed at an important life task. After a breakup, it’s natural to experience such feelings as loss of trust, low self-esteem, anxiety, worry about being hurt in future relationships, anger, depression, and preoccupation with what other people think.  Even if you’re the initiator of the breakup, your feelings of sadness are likely to linger, as you mourn not only the relationship’s ending, but the perception that you’ve hurt someone you cared, and may still care, about.

Some exes, if not divorced couples, seem to make the transition out of couplehood surprisingly well.  They remain friends, share in parenting the child they had together, or even continue to operate a joint business. University of Kentucky psychologist Brandi Frisby and colleagues (2012) wanted to learn about the communication strategies that promote the best adaptation to divorce.  Her sample consisted of 103 exes who completed an online survey. 

Frisby and her co-authors were particularly interested in the ways that partners either helped or hurt each other in specific ways.  They focused on the strategies they used to enhance or detract from their identities.  Basing her work on the theory of sociologist Erving Goffman, Frisby looked at the communication patterns partners engage in that affect each one’s identity. According to Goffman, our “face” is the positive social value we claim for ourself; in other words, it’s our social identity. In a relationship, people present two types of faces: positive and negative. Your positive face is your desire for approval, closeness, solidarity, and liking.  Your partner’s love for you bolsters this aspect of your social identity. 

Your positive face is threatened when your partner communicates to you that the relationship is no longer important to him or her in the process of breaking it off. Obviously, partners looking to end relationships want to get out, but they key is in how they carry this off.People who feel what Frisby calls “positive face threat” disagree with such statements as: “my partner’s actions strengthened the relationship between us.”  In other words, feeling rejected by your partner threatens your sense of being seen as likeable and competent in a romantic relationship.

Balancing our positive face is “negative face,” which is your view of yourself as an independent person who had control over what happens to us in the relationship.  If negative face is threato tened, you agree with statements such as “my partner’s actions made me feel like I had no control.”  Together, both types of face threat add up to lead divorcing individuals feel that they were incompetent in the relationship, no longer liked, or that they do not have a choice, all of which places them at risk for negative emotional consequences.    

Frisby believed that divorcing partners will be more resilient when their partner performs “facework,” an identity-restoring process that has the potential to soften the blow of the loss.  Facework occurs in the communication patterns between the soon-to-be exes as the divorcing spouse focuses on the partner’s positive qualities or tries to include the partner in the divorce decision.  Items measuring facework in the Frisby et al. study asked partners to indicate the degree to which the respondent felt the partner made sure not to cast them in a bad light (positive facework) and left the respondent free to make up his or her mind (negative facework).

Using a variety of questionnaire measures, Frisby and her colleagues grouped the couples in their study into one of the following 5 categories:  perfect pals, or friends who still get along in all areas of their lives; cooperative colleagues who get along as co-parents, but that’s the entire basis for their interaction; angry associates who are hostile and rarely interact with each other; fiery foes who are extremely hostile and still interact in conflicted ways, often around child-rearing, and dissolved duos, whohave no contact at all with each other.  They predicted that partners who supported each other’s identities throughout the divorce process would evolve into the perfect pals or cooperative colleague categories.

The findings showed that the more espondents experienced positive face threat and less positive facework, the more they were likely to be classified as belonging the less positive divorce types.  Needless to say, people who initiated the divorce or were part of a mutual decision process were better able to make it through the divorce transition relatively unscathed. However, there is still positive face threat for the initiator of a divorce when the decision was not mutually agreed upon.  As the person who starts that breakup conversation, you can still feel that you’ve failed in the relationship and let down your partner.  

This study implies that to recover from a breakup, you need to protect your sense of identity.  If you’re the one being left, you need to seek out ways to have your positive face supported, even if it’s not by the partner.  You need to develop your sense of independence and autonomy, as well as your ability to feel good about yourself as a romantic partner.  If you’re the one who’s initiating the decision, you need to respect these aspects of your partner’s identity.

Ironically enough, the communication patterns that temper the effect of a divorce may actually prevent the divorce from even occurring. All of the tactics that foster a good breakup can also foster a good relationship. By engaging in active listening, working together to solve problems constructively, and managing conflict, you are communicating positive face support for your partner. If it turns out the relationship is fated to end, your investment in the face support process will also help both of you transition to what can end up being a post-divorce relationship that takes on a life of its own as a friendship or partnership. You don’t have to say goodbye to your ex forever if you know how to manage the breakup.

We may take for granted the fact that our ability to remain in a long-term relationship becomes a part of our sense of self.  It is also a part of our sense of self that can be very fragile, especially if we’ve been hurt before. By respecting your partner’s face, you may also be better able to protect your own, if not the relationship's, health and longevity.

Follow me on Twitter @swhitbo for daily updates on psychology, health, and aging. Feel free to join my Facebook group, "Fulfillment at Any Age," to discuss today's blog, or to ask further questions about this posting.

Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D. 2013


Frisby, B. N., M. Booth-Butterfield, et al. (2012). "Face and resilience in divorce: The impact on emotions, stress, and post-divorce relationships." Journal of Social and Personal Relationships 29(6): 715-735.

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