This Is Why Breakups Can Be So Brutal

New research on who bounces back from rejection, and who just can't.

Posted Jan 16, 2016

Antonio Guillem/Shutterstock
Source: Antonio Guillem/Shutterstock

When involved in a serious romantic relationship, many of us fear rejection by our partners. We may wonder how we’ll go on if we lose a valued relationship. Most research on recovery from romantic rejection suggests that for the average person, these fears are greatly exaggerated. Most people get over break-ups much more quickly than they had anticipated1,2 and eventually end up just as happy as they were prior to the break-up.3 But these are average effects. That means some people might end up feeling better than ever after a break-up, but others might end up feeling worse than ever.3

So what determines who will recover well after a break-up?

New research by Lauren Howe and Carol Dweck shows that how you take rejection depends on how personally you take it.4 And whether or not you take rejection personally depends on your beliefs about the nature of personality—specifically your ideas about how changeable personality traits are.

Implicit Personality Theories

According to a large body of research, people differ in the extent to which they hold entity or incremental beliefs about the nature of personality. These are called implicit personality theories.

  • If you hold an entity view of personality, then you believe that personality traits are fixed: People are the way they are, and there’s not much you can do about it. Having an entity theory of personality also implies that things you do or things that happen to you don’t change you, but rather they may reveal your true, underlying self.7
  • If you hold an incremental view of personality, then you believe that personality traits can change: People can work to improve themselves and things that happen to you can change who you are.5,6

Implicit Theories and Rejection

So how are these implicit personality theories tied to our reactions to rejection? When they’re rejected, those with an entity theory are more likely to assume that the rejection means there is something wrong with them. Just because you think traits are fixed doesn’t mean that you’re sure that you completely understand yourself at this moment. Having an entity theory of personality means that you think personality is fixed, so if something goes wrong in your relationship, you may "realize" there was something wrong with you "all along." So if you’re an entity theorist, rejections can make you question who you are and feel bad about yourself.

Because rejections create these "realizations" about the self, entity theorists will also find themselves more negatively affected by break-ups:

  • It will take them longer to get over a rejection emotionally.
  • They will also anticipate that their future relationships will turn out poorly now that this past relationship has led them to believe there’s something wrong with them.
  • And they may avoid talking to their current partners about past rejections because they’re afraid that those conversations will reveal some fatal flaw (since the break-up itself must have been due to a fatal flaw).

The Research

Howe and Dweck conducted a series of studies to examine the links between implicit personality theories and responses to break-ups.4 The first two studies were surveys, with a total of 419 participants between them. In both studies, participants completed a scale designed to measure implicit theories. Participants rated how much they agreed with statements describing an incremental theory, such as "Everyone, no matter who they are, can significantly change their basic characteristics," and statements describing an entity theory, such as "The kind of person you are is something very basic about you and it can’t be changed much."

Participants were then asked to think about a painful romantic rejection that happened in the past (participants also rated how long ago it occurred and how severe it was, so these factors could be statistically controlled for in the analyses). They rated how much the experience changed their self-definition: "I worry there is something wrong with me because I got rejected" and how much they felt others would see them differently. They also evaluated how much of a lingering impact it had on future relationships: "When I start a new relationship, I worry about discussing past times when people ended relationships with me." Participants in the second study also answered questions about the likelihood of future rejections: "Deep down, I sometimes worry that I might never find someone who really loves me," "Because of this experience, I sometimes 'put up walls' to protect myself in new relationships."

Both studies showed that the more people endorsed an entity theory of personality (i.e., saw personality as unchanging), the more they felt that the rejection changed their view of themselves, changed how others would see them, and would have a lingering impact on their romantic life, and it was this altered view of themselves that led to that lingering impact.

In the third study, 184 participants completed the implicit theories questionnaire and were asked to think about a past painful rejection. But rather than answering specific questions about the experience, like the first two studies, they were asked to write about what they took away from the relationship, and these responses were coded by the researchers. In their essays, entity theorists were more likely to make a "universal claim" about their future romantic life, such as, "I am too sensitive, and this characteristic makes people crazy and drives them away" and "No matter how hard I try, I cannot make someone love me." There was also a correlation between entity theory and the overall negative tone of the passage.

The first three studies all asked people to think about a real past rejection. But of course people have different types of experiences. So in the fourth study, the researchers asked participants to imagine a hypothetical rejection scenario. They were asked to imagine a minor romantic rejection (meeting someone at a party and feeling a spark, but then overhearing that the person wasn’t interested in you) or a major rejection (a romantic partner of several years leaves you suddenly after an argument). Once again, participants were asked to evaluate their reactions to the situation. The results showed that whether it was a major or minor rejection, entity theorists felt it reflected more on their character and would have more of a lingering impact. You might expect that the difference between entity and incremental theorists would be more pronounced when the rejection was major, but even when the rejecter barely knew them, entity theorists were more likely than incremental theorists to think the rejecter was onto something, and some deep flaw had been revealed.

In the final study, the researchers wanted to see if experimentally manipulating people’s implicit theories would affect how they reacted to a hypothetical rejection. This would help them to determine the extent to which holding these beliefs causes different responses to rejection. Since the other studies were correlational, it is possible that those who endorse an entity theory of personality also possess other traits or attitudes that differ from those who endorse an incremental theory, and this could be responsible for their differing reactions to rejection.

In this experiment, 121 participants read supposed articles from Psychology Today describing research that supported an entity view (traits and social abilities are fixed) or incremental view (traits are changeable), and completed the implicit theories questionnaire to confirm that the manipulation was effective. Then they were asked to imagine that they had suffered the major rejection described in the fourth study. Those who were induced to have an entity theory predicted that they would feel worse about themselves and have greater fear of future romantic troubles than those induced to have an incremental theory. However, participants in these two conditions didn't differ in the extent to which they felt the impact of the break-up would linger. These results suggest that these beliefs do have a causal influence on reactions to rejection. Also, the very fact that the researchers were able to manipulate implicit theories in this way shows that it's possible to adjust your outlook.

What Does This All Mean?

Although the authors of the paper don't discuss it, there is a link between the reasoning of entity theorists and the reasoning of those who are depressed. Seligman posits that when negative events, like break-ups, happen, those who are depressed tend to believe those events are caused by their own stable, internal traits.8 So if someone believes personality is fixed, that goes along with reasoning that "there's something wrong with me" when bad things happen.

The authors of these studies examined reactions to a negative event, rejection. But I wonder how entity theorists would respond to a positive event. Presumably, they would assume that the positive event was indicative of an underlying desirable attribute. That kind of response would be very different from the responses of depressed individuals, who tend to view their successes as related to transitory factors. When it comes to dealing with romantic rejection, holding an entity theory leads to maladaptive patterns, but this may not be the case when interpreting some positive events. However, a large body of research shows that holding an entity theory about intelligence (i.e., believing intelligence is fixed) is associated with poor academic coping strategies. Further research is necessary to determine the circumstances under which holding each type of implicit personality theory would be most adaptive.

While the link between entity theory and reactions to rejection sheds light on how we respond to rejection, implicit personality theories are certainly not the only relevant factor. Other research has shown that romantic attachment style9 and features of the relationship itself10 also affect how well we recover from rejection.

If you believe personality is unchangeable then it’s more likely that romantic rejections will create self-doubts. These rejections can have you questioning who you are and worried that you've been rejected because of some heretofore unrealized flaw – A flaw that you'll try to hide from future partners by not discussing your painful break-ups.

You may be wondering: Can personality change or not? That’s a totally different question, but there is evidence that personality is both malleable and stable at the same time, and so both entity and incremental theorists are onto something. But what you believe can affect how you handle rejection. And there is evidence from the final study in this paper, and other research on implicit theories, that you can change your implicit theory of personality (so an incremental theory seems to apply understanding the nature of implicit theories themselves). Next time you’re dealing with rejection, try to take an incremental view of personality.

Gwendolyn Seidman, Ph.D. is an associate professor of psychology at Albright College who studies relationships and cyberpsychology. Follow her on Twitter for updates about social psychology, relationships, and online behavior. Read more articles by Gwendolyn Seidman on Close Encounters.

References

1 Eastwick, P. W., Finkel, E. J., Krishnamurti, T., & Loewenstein, G. (2008). Mispredicting distress following romantic breakup: Revealing the time course of the affective forecasting error. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 44, 800-807.

2 Gilbert, D. T., Pinel, E. C., Wilson, T. D., Blumberg, S. J., & Wheatley, T. P. (1998). Immune neglect: A source of durability bias in affective forecasting. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 75, 617-638.

3 Lucas, R. E., Clark, A. E., Georgellis, Y., & Diener, E. (2003). Reexamining adaptation and the set point model of happiness: Reactions to changes in marital status. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 84, 529-539.

4 Howe, L. C., & Dweck, C. S. (2016). Changes in self-definition impede recovery from rejection. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 42, 54-71.

5 Dweck, C. S.,  & Legget, E. L. (1988). A social-cognitive approach to motivation and personality. Psychological Review, 95, 256-273.

6 Chiu, C., Hong, Y., & Dweck, C. S. (1997). Lay dispositionism and implicit theories of personality. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 73, 19-30.

7 Plaks, J. E., Levy, S. R., & Dweck, C. S. (2009). Lay theories of personality: Cornerstones of meaning in social cognition. Social & Personality Psychology Compass, 3, 1069-1081.

8 Seligman, M. E., Abramson, L. Y., Semmel, A., & von Baeyer, C. (1979). Depressive attributional style. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 88, 242-247.

9 Davis, D, Shaver, P. R., Vernon, M. L. (2003). Physical, emotional, and behavioral reactions to breaking up: The roles of gender, age, emotional involvement, and attachment style. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 29, 871-884.

10 Sprecher, S., Felmlee, D., & Metts, S. (1998). Factors associated with distress following the breakup of a close relationship. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 15, 791-809.