What Break-Ups Leave Behind

Why are some splits a breeze while others feel like a kick in the gut? And how long does it really take to recover? New research expands our understanding of a well-worn rough patch.

By Matt Huston, published January 2, 2018 - last reviewed on April 17, 2018


Comparison Stings

Many people on the receiving end of "It's over" find themselves asking their partner, "Is there someone else?" A series of studies by Cornell researchers confirms that it can feel worse to be rejected for another person than to be ditched for a different reason. When participants imagined that a person they had recently started dating cut the relationship short, they anticipated experiencing more negative emotions—and a stronger sense of exclusion—if they learned that there was someone else the ex wanted to date. And people who wrote about past rejections, or who were turned down as collaborators in experimental tasks, reported feeling worse if someone had been chosen over them than they did if there was no sign that another had taken their place. 

Affections Linger

How to handle unwelcome reminders of an ex and the uncomfortable feelings that come with them? In a study at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, participants tried several tactics for managing their feelings of affection just before viewing photos of a former partner. Meanwhile, researchers recorded their brain response using EEG. "We know from other research that a particular brainwave signifies how much attention you give that picture," explains lead author Sandra Langeslag. This marker of attention declined after participants viewed messages prompting them to think about an ex's negative features, focus on positive distractions, or accept any romantic feelings they had. The negative thoughts, while leaving subjects more downcast, also blunted their reported feelings of love in the near term. "I suspect that in the long run, thinking negative things about your beloved may help you get over a breakup faster," Langeslag says, "even if it makes you feel bad in the moment."

Self-Esteem Rebounds

The end of a cherished bond can undermine a person's sense of worth. A large, years-long study of German teens and young adults clarifies how long that effect usually lingers. People who said they had recently split from a long-term partner showed a dip in self-esteem, on average, but by the following year, their ratings had recovered—even if they remained single. The blow to self-esteem might be heavier for some, especially those who doubt their chances of finding another satisfying relationship, says study co-author Ulrich Orth of the University of Bern, but "the findings indicate that most people are relatively resilient."

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