- People differ in their reactions to romantic separation, both immediately after the split and over the long-term.
- Trait resilience may help someone cope constructively and successfully with interpersonal losses, including a lost relationship.
- Engaging in a new relationship may also promote life satisfaction after a separation, new research finds.
- Repartnering may not be the best choice for everyone, however.
Romantic relationships are often meant to last forever—but they may also end in separation and divorce.
Separation and divorce are emotionally stressful life events that may alter people’s life satisfaction. In fact, people who have divorced tend to report lower physical and psychological health and lower well-being compared to people who were still married, while people who have separated tend to report more loneliness in addition to other less beneficial individual, social, and economic consequences that might have resulted from the separation.
In the long term, however, people who have separated or divorced often show a rebound in their life satisfaction. For example, Louis, who has separated very recently, reports low life satisfaction but Emma, who has separated 3 years ago, reports high satisfaction with life.
People Differ in Their Reactions
At the same time, people—such as Louis and Emma—differ in their reactions to life events, and so they might differ in how they react to separation and divorce. While some people might recover very fast from a separation, others might recover more slowly from this life event.
Possible factors that might account for these different reactions are personality characteristics, such as trait resilience, which helps someone cope constructively and successfully with interpersonal losses. And this is not the only benefit. People who are high in trait resilience might have a double advantage after separation: They would not only recover faster from the separation but they might also be more likely to find a new partner. Engaging in a new relationship, in turn, can contribute to decreases in psychological distress after dissolution and can promote increases in life satisfaction.
Life Satisfaction After Separation
Researchers led by Sandra Gloor from the University of Bern in Switzerland were interested in these differential consequences of separation and divorce, and examined the trajectory of life satisfaction and the likelihood of repatterning after dissolution. In their research, the authors specifically focused on people from middle and late adulthood, for the following reason: In the past decades, there has been an increasing number of romantic dissolutions in these life stages, also termed “grey divorces.” Yet, still little is known about the adaptive processes and the likelihood of repartnering after separation in these age periods, so more research is needed to study these developmental periods.
How Researchers Study the Effects of Separation
But how can researchers study romantic dissolutions and their effects on well-being? Given that separation and divorce cannot be manipulated by experiments, researchers typically rely on natural experiments. That is, given that separation and divorce naturally occur in populations, researchers usually follow a sample of people over time, of which some may experience separation and divorce.
With that strategy, Gloor and colleagues were able to study 199 people (162 women and 37 men) who had separated. The authors followed these participants across four years, with an assessment every two years. In these assessments, participants were asked to indicate their life satisfaction and their trait resilience. The latter was assessed with items such as “If I have plans, I pursue them” or “I can usually look at a situation from multiple perspectives.” Moreover, because the researchers were interested in the potentially beneficial role of repartnering, participants provided information on whether they had a new partner.
A New Relationship Increases Life Satisfaction After Separation
What did the authors find? As the authors had expected, trait resilience was positive for people’s initial life satisfaction after separation and may thus serve as a protector when people separate. Trait resilience, however, did not account for changes in people’s life satisfaction after separation.
The only aspect that was important for changes in life satisfaction was whether people had engaged in a new relationship: People who remained single after separation did not change in their life satisfaction but people who had a new partner increased in their life satisfaction. The authors explain the beneficial role of a new relationship in that a new partner may provide support after separation and may generally amplify satisfaction with one’s life. Interestingly, men were more likely than women to enter a new relationship but people of different ages were not more or less likely to repartner.
So, should we all engage in new relationships after separation to enhance our life satisfaction? Not necessarily—the findings from Gloor et al. (2021) should not be taken as an initiative to immediately repartner after separation.
Their data came from a natural experiment study, in which people have freely chosen to repartner. In addition, due to the study design, the authors could not capture immediate repartnering after separation but asked participants at the two follow-up occasions whether they had been in a new relationship. Hence, more unsatisfying, short-term relationships were not included in their design.
To conclude, on average, repartnering might be beneficial for life satisfaction after separation—but it might not be the best choice for everyone, and not every new relationship might be satisfying and amplifying one’s satisfaction. Thus, a new relationship can be considered a promoter for people’s life satisfaction after separation—but future research is needed to unveil the exact mechanisms by which engaging in a new relationship increases people’s life satisfaction after separation.
Gloor, S., Gonin-Spahni, S., Znoj, H., & Perrig-Chiello, P. (2021). Repartnering and trajectories of life satisfaction after separation and divorce in middle and later life. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships. Advance online publication. https://doi.org/10.1177/02654075211009594