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6 Degrees of Yearning for an Ex

5. Automatic approach.

Key points

  • The ending of a close romantic relationship can create a state of yearning in which you continue to seek solace from the ex-partner.
  • New research identifies 6 steps along the way from attachment style to the need to be close to yearning.
  • By finding ways to move beyond yearning, you can eventually replace the lost partner with another who can foster your fulfillment.

The emotional connections that people have with their partners can provide deep sources of validation. Knowing that someone cares about you can help you feel that you’re safely being looked after and don’t have to fear the unknown. When one partner decides to sever the relationship, consequently, the impact on the other partner can be profound and long-lasting.

According to the University of Groningen’s Maarten Eisma and colleagues (2022), romantic breakups tend to be more prevalent in young adults as they explore potential long-term relationships with a variety of partners. Although most people would prefer not to be left behind by their partner, at that point in life, they eventually find a way to cope and move on. Those who don’t, the Dutch researchers note, are at risk for mental health problems including major depression and suicidal behavior. The purpose of the Eisma et al. research was to provide an in-depth look at the factors predicting adjustment to relationship breakups.

An Attachment View of Relationship Endings

Within the framework of coping theories, the authors note, it is the individual’s attachment style that can provide the central predictor of the development of post-breakup mental health problems. Attachment theory proposes that your closest adult relationships can represent a pattern that follows along the lines of your earliest relationship with your primary caregiver (often the mother). These patterns are best described, Eisma et al. propose, along the two dimensions of attachment anxiety (fear of being abandoned) and attachment avoidance (a desire to avoid closeness).

As you can undoubtedly see for yourself, people who fall into the healthy end of both dimensions should be less disrupted from their life pathway by the ending of a close relationship. They may feel temporarily abandoned and wish to take a breather before returning to the dating scene, but they won’t become despondent. They may regret the loss of the partner, but they don’t, in the words of the authors, desire “to use the lost person for attachment-related functions critical for healthy adaptation to interpersonal loss.”

Attachment style is more than a stable or static component of an individual’s personality, though, according to the University of Groningen researchers. After a breakup, there are what the authors call “dynamic” aspects of attachment bonds that can include, even in securely attached people, “direct needs for security, support, companionship, and reassurance towards a former partner,” even though they realize that the partner won’t be providing these. This desired attachment becomes the foundation for yearning, the wish to reunite and remain close to the ex-partner.

The 6 Degrees of Yearning for Re-attachment

The Dutch authors maintain that determining who will be least able to take that step of unattaching from the ex-partner and moving on either to a new partner or to a breather requires understanding a complex set of processes. The 62 undergraduate participants in the University of Groningen sample (76 percent female) averaged 21 years of age, and most experienced a romantic relationship breakup in the past 12 months.

The complex model predicting how well participants would recover from the breakup included the following six components, or what you can consider “degrees” of yearning:

  1. Attachment anxiety: As a stable personal quality, attachment anxiety reflects the individual’s position along the continuum from feeling confident in their partner’s concern for them to requiring reassurance that the partner won’t leave them. This is perhaps the most constant predictor of reacting to a break-up and was measured in the Eisma et al. study by an existing attachment style measure.
  2. Rumination: In rumination, you go over and over again in your mind the way a situation played out, and although it may be particularly likely to occur after a breakup, there are individuals more given to this cognitive style who engage in it frequently. To tap into breakup-related rumination, the authors adapted a grief rumination scale that asked participants to indicate how often, in the past month, they thought about the consequences of the breakup.
  3. Breakup distress: Similar to the rumination measure, the authors adapted a pre-existing grief measure to assess how much distress the participants in their study experienced with regard to the loss of the partner.
  4. Desired attachment: The authors translated the dynamic form of attachment style into a behavioral type of measure in which participants indicated whether, compared to other people in their life, they would seek their partner for the functions of “proximity seeking” (being with the partner), “safe haven” (using the partner for comforting), and “secure base” (valuing their opinion of them).
  5. Automatic approach: Using a computer-based test known as the Approach-Avoidance Task (AAT), Eisma et al. asked participants to move a manikin representing themselves toward or away from the photo of their ex-partner, a matched stranger, or a landscape. The authors could literally, then, measure how fast the participants ran toward or away from their ex in relation to these other stimuli.
  6. Feelings of longing, or yearning: Finally, turning now to the measure of yearning, participants responded to statements such as “I find myself wishing that things could be the way they were when I was with…”

Turning to the findings, although the authors used breakup distress as the outcome, scores on this measure were highly related to yearning. People higher in desired attachment were more likely to “run” toward their partner in the computer simulation. This dynamic form of attachment, in which people seek their ex-partners to fulfill their basic attachment functions, could account for the difficulty that people who continue to yearn are unable to transfer their attachment to a new person.

How to Move From Yearning to Acceptance

If indeed the goal of adapting to the loss of a romantic partner is the ability to place your attachment needs elsewhere, then the Eisma et al. findings suggest that examining where you are in the six-degree process can help you gain greater perspective. Are you stuck in rumination? When you’re in need of help, reassurance, or just someone to talk to, is it your partner you continually run back to, in reality or in your imagination?

The process of yearning is rarely discussed in relationship psychology, as indicated in part by the need the authors had to borrow from the grief literature for some of their key measures. Even though you may not think of the average 21-year-old as someone in “mourning” for a lost boyfriend or girlfriend, it would appear that the depth of feelings that a breakup can trigger is nevertheless worthy of attention. If you’re of that age, or older, and experiencing some of these same feelings, it can be reassuring to know that the pain of a dissolved relationship is real.

To sum up, the yearning process is one worthy of your attention, but it is also one that can be eventually overcome. Being unable to be close to the person who was once the center of your universe may require deliberate effort, but it is an outcome that can help you potentially find new and unexplored areas of fulfillment.

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Eisma, M. C., Tõnus, D., & de Jong, P. J. (2022). Desired attachment and breakup distress relate to automatic approach of the ex-partner. Journal of Behavior Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry, 75, 1–8. doi: 10.1016/j.jbtep.2021.101713U