Why It Feels So Good to Hear That Your Ex Got Dumped

Research suggests 3 reasons we may view an ex’s breakup as a personal triumph.

Posted Sep 20, 2016

AJR_photo/Shutterstock
Source: AJR_photo/Shutterstock

You’ve broken up with your partner and you’ve moved on. Or your partner has broken up with you and you’ve both moved on. Or maybe you haven’t moved on at all. Whichever applies to you, why does it feel so good when you find out that your ex has been dumped by his or her latest partner?

1. It reinforces your own decision to dump your partner.

Researcher van Dijk (2013) states that in order for us to rejoice in another’s misfortune, that misfortune should somehow be beneficial to us. Recognizing that another person agrees that your ex wasn’t a good partner can reinforce your feeling that you made the right decision in breaking up with him or her. Just as we can copy others’ positive mate choices (Waynforth, 2007), our conviction regarding a breakup receives additional support when our ex is also dumped by someone else. 

2. It appeals to our sense of justice.

If your ex was the initiator of your breakup, you may feel a sense of karma or restoration of justice when he or she is dumped by someone else. Van Dijk and colleagues (2009) found that when others seem to deserve their misfortune, we are more likely to feel happiness at their hardships. (But when others do not seem to deserve adversity, we are more likely to feel sympathy for them.) If your ex initiated your breakup, you may perceive that he or she deserves to suffer due to the suffering you endured during your breakup. Or if your ex was dumped due to his or her infidelity, you may feel that he or she deserves their heartache. However, if your ex treated you particularly well, you may feel a sense of justice if he or she does not have to suffer through a bad breakup.  

3. We favorably compare ourselves to our exes.

Sometimes—but especially when our self-esteem is threatened—we prefer to compare ourselves to those who are worse off than we are, a phenomenon known as downward social comparison (see Gibbons and Gerrard, 1989; van Dijk, 2013; Taylor and Lobel, 1989). Favorably comparing ourselves to others enhances our mood and self-esteem (Gibbons and Gerrard). So it may make us feel better about ourselves or our current relationship to compare it to our ex-partners’ unsuccessful relationships. This interpretation is bolstered by research showing that those who receive negative feedback about themselves are more likely to feel good about the negative experiences of others (Van Dijk et al., 2011). 

Not Everyone Rejoices in Others' Misfortunes

In some cases, triumphing over others' misfortunes may be domain specific (see van Dijk et al., 2011): If you think about your former partner experiencing the same difficulties you felt after your breakup, you may be happy about those misfortunes, but if you think about your ex's children having difficulty with a divorce, you may not be happy about those misfortunes. Further, recent research shows that the personality traits known as the "Dark Triad"—psychopathy, narcissism, and Machiavellianism—are linked with the experience of joy at others' misfortunes (Porter et al., 2014; James et al., 2014). Those individuals high in these dark personality traits may be more likely to feel happiness when ex-partners experience a breakup.  

For more information about breakups and romantic relationships please read our book, The Social Psychology of Attraction and Romantic Relationships.

Portions of this post were taken from The Social Psychology of Attraction and Romantic Relationships. Copyright 2015 Madeleine A. Fugère.  

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References

  • Gibbons, F. X. & Gerrard, M. (1989). Effects of upward and downward social comparison on mood states. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 8(1), 14-31.
  • James, S., Kavanagh, P. S., Jonason, P. K., Chonody, J. M., & Scrutton, H. E., (2014). The Dark Triad, schadenfreude, and sensational interests: Dark personalities, dark emotions, and dark behaviors. Personality and Individual Differences, 68, 211-216.
  • Porter, S. , Bhanwer, A., Woodworth, M., Black, P. J. (2014). Soldiers of misfortune: An examination of the Dark Triad and the experience of schadenfreude. Personality and Individual Differences, 67, 64-68.  
  • Taylor, S. E. & Lobel, M. (1989). Social comparison activity under threat: Downward evaluation and upward contacts. Psychological Review, 96(4), 569-575.
  • van Dijk (2013). Why do we sometimes enjoy the misfortune of others? 
  • van Dijk, W. W., Ouwerkerk, J. W., Wesseling, Y. M., & Van Koningsbruggen, G. M. (2011). Towards understanding pleasure at the misfortunes of others: The impact of self-evaluation threat on schadenfreude. Cognition and Emotion, 25, 360-368.
  • Waynforth, D. (2007). Mate Choice Copying in Humans. Human Nature, 18(3), 264-271. doi:10.1007/s12110-007-9004-2