Is How You Describe Your Divorce a Sign You're Not Over It?

New research examines if "we-talk" about divorce relates to greater distress.

Posted Oct 02, 2019

 stevepb via Pixabay
Source: stevepb via Pixabay

If you or someone you know is divorced, how do you talk about the divorce? Do you say "We were frustrated with the constant fighting. Things got really stressful for us at the end" or "I was frustrated with the constant fighting. Things got really stressful for me at the end?" That is, do you engage in "we-talk" when describing your former relationship? This kind of language may reflect an ongoing attachment to an ex-partner. A new study by Kyle Bourassa and colleagues, just published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships examined how we-talk is related to psychological distress four years after divorce. 

It goes without saying that divorce is stressful. Marriage is a strong bond and involves forming a deep attachment to your partner. Even if the relationship is bad – bad enough to end in divorce – you can still have a strong attachment to your spouse. But how you deal with the detachment process may depend on your attachment style, which is a trait-like orientation toward your romantic relationships.

Detaching from an ex-partner may be especially difficult for people who are anxiously attached in the first place. Some people are especially concerned that their partners won't love them enough or don't really want to be with them. These individuals would be characterized as having high levels of attachment anxiety. When they feel that their relationship is under threat, they tend to get clingy and want to reconnect with their exes as a way to feel more secure.

On the other hand, people who are intimacy-avoidant in their relationships react quite differently to relationship threats. When there's a problem with their relationship, they disengage and try to emotionally distance themselves from their partner as a way to feel more secure. This can be a serious problem when they're currently in a relationship because it causes them to avoid working on any problems in their relationship. However, this might make it easier for them to adjust to a break-up, since they will quickly be able to put emotional distance themselves and their ex.

Bourassa and colleagues noted that the way people talk about their relationships can be a sign of anxious or avoidant attachment to their partner. One type of language use they examined was "we-talk." We-talk refers to the use of first-person plural pronouns, like we, us, and our. For couples who are still together, we-talk is a sign of a healthy relationship. Couples who use more we-talk tend to feel closer to their partners and are better at working together to solve problems. But we-talk may not be a positive sign once your relationship is over. It may be a sign that you're unable to let go and truly separate yourself from your ex. In fact, research shows that people who engage in more we-talk when discussing a recent break-up tend to have a less clear sense of self following the break-up.

In their research, Bourassa and colleagues examined how we-talk was related to long-term adjustment following divorce. They surveyed 84 adults who recently separated from their spouse. They were able to survey them several times: Right after they separated, 3, 6, and 9 months later, and 4 and a half years later.

The study participants attended in-person laboratory sessions where they talked about their divorce. They were asked to imagine a detailed image of their partner or of them and their partner doing something together. They were told to hold that image in their minds for 30 seconds. Then they were asked to speak for four minutes about their partner and their separation, saying whatever came to mind. These 4-minute sessions were recorded and then the researchers coded them for the use of we-talk. Prior to the lab session, participants completed several questionnaires about themselves and their relationship: How accepting they were of the divorce, their level of depression, how much they were still experiencing emotional reactions to the event (for example, feeling angry about it or having intrusive thoughts about it), how much they felt they lost their sense of self since the break-up, as well as how much they felt they had recovered aspects of themselves following breakup.

The researchers found that participants who used more we-talk when describing their separation from four years ago reported more psychological distress. Importantly, we-talk was associated with distress even when statistically adjusting for initial levels of distress. That means that people who continued to we-talk years later were more distressed, regardless of how upsetting the initial separation was.

But why was we-talk related to more psychological distress? The results suggest that it was because those who engaged a lot of we-talk had more self-concept disturbance. They had lost some of their sense of self and had been unable to recover it. If your sense of self is still very much tied to your partner and your relationship, that can be reflected in how you talk about it. If you still see yourself as a "we" even four years after a divorce, that suggests you haven't psychologically separated who you are from the relationship — and that could make the divorce continuously painful. Putting it in concrete numerical terms, the authors point out that "A person who used approximately four to five more first-personal plural pronouns a minute on average when reflecting on their separation would recover half as much as those with average levels of we-talk."

But is we-talk simply a sign of psychological distress or does it directly contribute to that distress? This can't be determined by the data from this study. It's possible that people who were really upset about their divorce and still deeply attached to their partner happened to use more we-talk. It is also possible that the use of we-talk makes it harder to detach from the relationship, contributing to continued distress over the break-up. Perhaps both of these explanations are partially true.

The researchers had expected that we-talk would be related to attachment anxiety. That is, they thought people who are worried about being abandoned by their partner and not being loved would engage in more we-talk after the divorce. However, this was not the case: We-talk was unrelated to attachment anxiety. This suggests that something else is driving we-talk. Perhaps we-talk occurs more if the former relationship was particularly good at some point and thus the divorce is characterized by more ambivalence. Another possibility is that we-talk occurs more when the break-up is one-sided, with your partner being the initiator of the divorce.

Regardless of the cause of the we-talk, if you find yourself or someone you know still describing their former relationship with "we" and "us," it could be one sign of continued distress about the break-up.