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The Best Way to Move on After a Breakup

... and it only takes 8.5 minutes.

The ability to find a silver lining in the midst of bad news may seem beyond your grasp. Your partner has left you for someone else, you’ve been passed up at work for a promotion, or a new opportunity you thought you had in the bag turned out to be a dead end.

Ivanova Natalia/Shutterstock
Source: Ivanova Natalia/Shutterstock

What makes an ending particularly difficult depends on the situation. If it’s the end of a romantic relationship, you may very well feel a loss of trust. There are also the emotions of shame, humiliation, and anger. When it’s an opportunity that you’ve lost out on, such as a promotion, you can be overwhelmed by feelings of failure and disappointment. You may have believed that you were a perfect fit but it turns out that those in charge didn’t see things that way. You're left thinking there must be some flaw in you that led them to pick someone else.

After the hurt, anger, and disappointment subside, you may be able to look at the situation from a more rational perspective. With luck, you’ll see it as a learning opportunity from which you can glean strategies to help you the next time around. If the ending involved a close relationship, you may later be able to accept the fact that it’s over, see if there were clues to the relationship’s flaws that you missed, and maybe even decide that you’re better off on your own.

Coping with stressful situations such as the end of a relationship can take several routes. In emotion-focused coping, you realize that you can’t change the situation, but in order to soothe your anguished feelings, you can change the way you feel about it. In problem-focused coping, you try to change the situation itself. The coping strategy that works best for reducing stress depends on the changeability of the actual situation. If you can turn things around by altering a situation’s reality, you’ll be on your way to reducing stress. If, as with the end of a relationship, there’s nothing you can do, emotion-focused coping may be your best friend.

The ending of an important relationship may eventually turn out to be a significant event that shapes the course of your life. If it’s marriage or something close to it, that ending will become part of the story you tell about your life. As you move further past that ending in time, you’ll undoubtedly reshape the way you tell that part of your story. Thinking about that experience over the passage of months and years, you’ll most likely forget or morph some of the details—and the sharp edges may soften.

Villanova University’s Erica Slotter and Deborah Ward (2015) decided to examine the coping strategy of finding the “silver lining” in the ending of a relationship. They believe that this tough, but favorable, outcome can be achieved through two forms of mental readjustment, both involving ways of rethinking the ending and its effect on you.

One form of coping with negative news that you can’t change is to take a look at it from a different perspective, in what is called cognitive reappraisal. In classic cognitive reappraisal, you take a stressful situation and look at it as a challenge rather than a threat. To use cognitive reappraisal with an ending means that you take away its sting by seeing it as an opportunity rather than a loss.

Slotter and Ward maintain that a second way to cope with an ending is to reframe its role in your life through what is called the redemptive narrative. Defined as the “particular pattern of storytelling” you use to tell others (and yourself) about who you are and what you’ve been through in life, redemptive narratives regarding a relationship’s ending “encompass the idea that negative life events or circumstances can be meaningful points in individuals’ lives that result in positive outcomes or silver linings” (p. 739).

To test the idea that individuals who suffered a romantic breakup would benefit from these two coping strategies, Slotter and Ward asked an online sample of adults ranging from 19 to 64 years of age (all non-students) who'd recently been involved in a relationship dissolution to complete a four-day diary study. In their entries, which averaged 8.5 minutes across the four days, participants responded to one of three prompts: Either to write about the ending from their personal perspective, the perspective of the relationship, or with no particular focus at all.

Both computer- and human-coding procedures were used to record the extent of “cognitive processing” used by participants and the number of redemptive narratives that appeared in the diary entries. Participants also completed questionnaires to assess their emotional distress.

As predicted, at the end of the four-day diary period, the participants felt less distressed by the loss of their relationship. Once the joint effects of both cognitive processing and redemptive narrative use were teased apart, it was found that the redemptive narratives had greater importance. The simple act of writing wasn’t enough to cause change, nor was the ability to reframe the relationship’s ending in more intellectual terms. Instead, it was the reshaping of memories of the breakup, and the role the breakup played in the individual’s personal story, that seemed to reveal the silver lining.

From this study, it appears that finding meaning, learning lessons, and allowing yourself to see positive outcomes are the path toward feeling better after a relationship ends. However, it’s not enough to repeat these ideas: You need to work them into your own reconstruction of the event. This does not seem like an overly time-consuming task to undertake given that a simple 8.5 minutes a day was enough to reduce distress in Slotter and Ward's study participants.

Fulfillment in life involves being able to cope with the many curveballs thrown our way. With some rewriting, we may be able to turn those curves into opportunities for growth.

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Slotter, E. B., & Ward, D. E. (2015). Finding the silver lining: The relative roles of redemptive narratives and cognitive reappraisal in individuals’ emotional distress after the end of a romantic relationship. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 32(6), 737-756. doi:10.1177/0265407514546978

Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne, 2016