Most of us have experienced a romantic breakup at some point in our lives and it’s no surprise that breakups hurt. You may feel hurt, angry, betrayed or scared of being alone. You may obsess about your ex-partner and feel jealous of the people he is dating now. Or you may feel inadequate, unattractive, and not worthy of love. Research shows that breakups lead us to view ourselves and others more negatively. Although breakups are painful, some people are better able to pick themselves up and move on, while others ruminate for months and years in ways that hurt their chances of successfully finding new relationships. What makes the difference?
Researchers Lauren Howe and Carol Dweck of Stanford University looked at the effects that our personal stories about the breakup have on psychological distress and our ability to adjust. After a breakup, most people try to make sense of the event by asking: “Why did this happen?” “Was it my fault?” and “What does this mean about me and my chances for future love?” The way we answer these questions can either help us cope or exacerbate and extend the psychological damage.
According to the researchers, we look to other people as sources of information about ourselves. Therefore, rejection by somebody who we think knows us well can be particularly devastating. However, people have different views about how much we can grow and change versus being stuck with fixed traits and personalities. Those of us who see our personalities and attributes as fixed and unchangeable (known as fixed mindset) are more likely to attribute the breakup to fixed, negative aspects of ourselves. The stories we tell ourselves about the breakup highlight our own deficits, such as being too needy, not sexy and attractive enough, not smart enough, too boring, and so on. On the other hand, people who see their traits and personalities as changeable (known as growth mindset) tend to create less damaging stories about the breakup. They may be more able to see it as an opportunity for growth and expect to have better relationships the next time around. They may think, “I can be less controlling next time” or “I can take things slower to make sure she is ready for commitment.” This gives them more hope for future relationships and they may be more likely to get back out there and try to find one.
In several studies, Howe and Dweck found that those participants with fixed mindsets were more likely to attribute the breakup to their toxic personalities – to negative attributes that would still be a problem in future relationships. This led the effects of romantic rejection to linger. For example, one participant reported not being over a breakup that happened more than 5 years ago. Another reported being guarded and not letting possible future partners get to know her: “I feel like I constantly withhold myself in possible future relationships in fear of being rejected again.” When we isolate ourselves following a breakup, we deprive ourselves of the opportunity to learn that our negative assumptions are not true.
Below are some things you can do to maintain a growth mindset following a breakup:
In relationships, both people often contribute to difficulties in communication or intimacy. It’s likely not just you. Even if you were critical, perhaps the other person didn’t speak up enough. Or if you felt like a doormat, perhaps the other person took you for granted.
Perhaps you were both too young or had different goals. Perhaps your partner wasn’t ready to settle down. Or perhaps external stresses (like studies, distance, families, or finances) got in the way.
You aren’t the only person to be rejected. Rejection is one of the most common human experiences. Sometimes people don’t let on they’ve been rejected, so you can’t always tell.
What lessons might you take away from this experience? For example, you might learn to be more open and speak up, to be more aware of your partners’ feelings and needs, or to look for a different kind of partner. You might learn how to pick yourself up when you experience adversity.
When you feel low is the time to be kind to yourself, rather than criticize. Try to lift yourself up and think about your own positive qualities. Give yourself credit for trying to make things work, even if you didn’t ultimately succeed. Think about what you might say to a dear friend in this situation and direct these comments to yourself.
Howe LC, Dweck CS. 2015. Changes in Self-Definition Impede Recovery From Rejection. Personality & Social Psychology Bulletin. PMID 26498977 DOI: 10.1177/0146167215612743
Melanie Greenberg, Ph.D., is a practicing psychologist in Mill Valley, California, and former Professor of Psychology at the California School of Professional Psychology. She is an expert on relationships, stress, and mindfulness. She provides workshops, speaking engagements, and psychotherapy for individuals and couples. She regularly appears on radio shows and as an expert in national media. She also does long-distance coaching via the internet. She is the author of The Stress-Proof Brain (now on presale at Amazon.com)
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