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Self-Continuity: A Hidden Reason for Not Staying Broken Up

New research examines an implicit, fundamental consideration.

People stay with incompatible, unhappy relationships for many reasons, some more obvious than others . We invest a great deal in relationships—psychologically, socially, pragmatically, financially—and one theory says we stay together to preserve those resources.

There's a strong tendency for people to simply keep doing the same thing, a kind of impalpable momentum which keeps us moving in the same direction. Psychologists aptly call this the status quo effect. We also absorb our parent's style into our own self-parenting , which can further propel some into dysfunctional adult relationships .

Furthermore, social convention can hold people together, depending on the values of those who surround them. We often stay together for much longer than we want, against our better judgment, perhaps for unclear reasons even when we think we know why.

Self-Concept and Attachment Style

Cope and Mattingly, authors of a recent study in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships ( 2020 ), highlight additional important factors. Breakups, we know, are often very painful, even without overt rejection. Breakups may be accompanied by powerful cognitive and emotional responses: obsessions and rumination, intrusive thoughts about the other person being with someone else, loss of a way of life and sense of oneself in relation to an intimate other. Loss of a relationship, for some, is tantamount to loss of self—or at least is perceived as—an existential threat to one’s very identity.

They describe a rich body of research which tells us that when we form relationships, we take on certain views and characteristics of the other person. We share bits of our identities, coming to enjoy similar activities through compromise and shared exploration of novel activities. We grow and define ourselves in relation to others more and more with passing time, developing a “state of cognitive interdependence in which partners’ identities are cognitively connected."

When it works right, partly overlapping identity leads to greater closeness and better relationships, heightening one’s clarity about oneself and spurring development. Such clarity, however, is constrained by who the other person is and what they are like.

And on average, when people lose self-concept clarity, it contributes to feeling down, and possible clinical depression. The loss of self-clarity, authors hypothesize, could drive some back together while others go on the rebound, the search for a new self, perhaps.

What self-concept clarity means may be connected with attachment style. People with a dismissive attachment style are less likely to move into closeness, and when faced with intimacy may avoid bonding more deeply. When faced with a breakup, they may fly away at lightspeed.

On the other hand, those with an anxious attachment style are preoccupied, seeking to fend off any threats to the relationship and avoid the emptiness of separation at all costs. Anxious attachment predisposes to greater merging with the other's identity via conscious and unconscious choices.

How important is self-concept clarity for breaking up?

To investigate the relationship among the desire to get back together, attachment style, and self-concept clarity, Cope and Mattingly conducted two studies using the same approach with two different groups, both via an online survey pool, Amazon’s Mechanical Turk, which recruits representative participants for such research. The first group of 181 participants completed measures about past relationships, while the second group of 180 responded regarding current relationships. Participants were on average in their mid-30s.

They completed the same set of measures: attachment style, via the Experiences in Close Relationships, Short-Form; self-clarity, via the Self-Concept Clarity Scale 1 and Sense of Self Scale 2 [the items from these scales are listed below for reference]; and four questions about how strongly they sought or wanted to rekindle desire, in the case of past and current relationships, respectively.

Results for both studies were similar: Anxious attachment was associated with greater desire to rekindle a relationship. Anxious attachment was also correlated with greater loss of self-clarity upon breaking up. Low self-concept clarity, importantly, predicted a strong desire to get back together.

The two studies differed in that, for the group looking back on past relationships, attachment anxiety was a weaker predictor of wanting to get back together, whereas for the current relationship group, only low self-concept clarity was significant. Low self-concept clarity also moderated attachment anxiety, increasing its impact.

Self-clarification, relationships, and personal growth

Self-concept clarity is an important factor to consider when evaluating relationships we are in, and the decisions we make about them, especially for people who tend toward anxious attachment and for whom being in the relationship has become a pillar of self-identity. In addition to other key factors such as investment, inertia, and social pressure, it's impossible to understate the particular importance of recognizing how much one's sense of self depends on being in a dysfunctional relationship.

For those in satisfying relationships, awareness of self-concept clarity and interdependence can serve to deepen mutual understanding and enrich relationships by bringing into relief areas of overlap and differentiation, creating opportunities for greater mutuality while fostering healthy independence.

If the relationship is not sufficiently rewarding or satisfying, and making a change is the desired course of action, recognizing the presence of anxious attachment is a signal that special attention be paid to changes in identity which may come with breaking up, in order to successfully disentangle and move on.

Cultivate a great relationship with your future self

Noticing over-dependency and identity entanglement, and addressing them actively, can make all the difference in the world. It’s important to tolerate post-breakup confusion and ambiguity to get to the other side, especially when there is an excessive fear of loss or being alone. Self-concept clarity is the axis around which identity and enmeshment may revolve.

Beware the need to resolve the situation quickly, as this drives poor decision-making. People often leave relationships in order to grow personally. Returning to such relationships puts off change.

The authors note that repeated unresolved break-ups can result in progressive erosion of self-concept clarity, concluding:

Romantic relationship dissolution is often a painful experience that impacts individuals’ sense of self. The current studies provide support for the hypothesis that those high (vs. low) in attachment anxiety desire to rekindle a dissolved relationship in order to resolve breakup-induced self-concept confusion both concurrently and retrospectively. Though rekindling may temporarily restore individuals’ identities, there could be deleterious long-term consequences that make them more vulnerable to future self-concept disruptions.

Learn more about personality, and personality change:

How To Polish Your Personality

Doorknob Comments Podcast: Personality Talks

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1. Self-Concept Clarity Scale

from Campbell, J. D., Trapnell, P. D., Heine, S. J., Katz, I. M., Lavallee, L. F., & Lehman, D. R. (1996). Self-concept clarity: Measurement, personality correlates, and cultural boundaries. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 70(1), 141-156.

My beliefs about myself often conflict with one another.

On one day I might have one opinion of myself and on another day I might have a different opinion.

I spend a lot of time wondering about what kind of person I really am.

Sometimes I feel that I am not really the person that I appear to be.

When I think about the kind of person I have been in the past, I'm not sure what I was really like.

I seldom experience conflict between the different aspects of my personality.

Sometimes I think I know other people better than I know myself.

My beliefs about myself seem to change very frequently.

If I were asked to describe my personality, my description might end up being different from one day to another day.

Even if I wanted to, I don't think I could tell someone what I'm really like.

In general, I have a clear sense of who I am and what I am.

It is often hard for me to make up my mind about things because I don't really know what I want.

2. Sense of Self Scale

from Judith M. Flury & William Ickes (2007) Having a weak versus strong sense of self: The sense of self scale (SOSS), Self and Identity, 6:4, 281-303.

I wish I were more consistent in my feelings.

It’s hard for me to figure out my own personality, interests, and opinions.

I often think how fragile my existence is.

I have a pretty good sense of what my long-term goals are in life.

I sometimes wonder if people can actually see me.

Other people’s thoughts and feelings seem to carry greater weight than my own.

I have a clear and definite sense of who I am and what I’m all about.

It bothers me that my personality doesn’t seem to be well-defined.

I’m not sure that I can understand or put much trust in my thoughts and feelings.

Who am I? is a question that I ask myself a lot.

I need other people to help me understand what I think or how I feel.

I tend to be very sure of myself and stick to my own preferences even when the group I am with expresses different preferences.