Be a Better Support System When a Friend has a Breakup
... and what to offer instead.
Posted January 27, 2016
Only a lucky few find their perfect match with just one try; the rest of us have first-hand experience with the heartache of a romantic breakup. Scholars have shown that breakups cause significant emotional and cognitive distress, placing people at risk for serious mental-health problems such as depression or anxiety (Boelen & Reijntjes, 2009). At such a vulnerable time, individuals often turn to their friends for help coping (Perilloux & Buss, 2008).
There’s no doubt that friends can help us recover from a relationship loss, but sometimes they fall short. Have you ever had a friend say something intended to help, but it only makes you feel worse, even though the intentions were good?
Do you know what not to say when a friend has just had a breakup? Research on relationship adjustment suggests you steer clear from this type of "advice":
- "I never liked you guys together, anyway."
Admitting this might seem like support, but the idea that you weren’t a fan of your friend’s relationship can rub a grieving friend in the wrong way—even if it’s true. A friend might wonder why you didn't express any concerns earlier, potentially saving him or her from devoting time to an ill-fated relationship. We know that friends can usually predict the fate of a relationship more accurately than the people in it, particularly female friends (Agnew, Loving, & Drigotas, 2001), but it can still be problematic to share these beliefs. Further, many couples break up and then get back together, so saying you didn't like them together (when it was not an abusive or harmful relationship) could introduce tension into your friendship if (or when) they reconnect.
- "You’ll be fine; you didn’t date for very long anyway."
From an outsider’s perspective, you might see a friend’s one-month (or even one week) relationship as hardly sufficient to warrant his or her emotional reaction. However, time spent in a relationship is not the same as emotional involvement, and emotional involvement is an independent predictor of distress following a breakup (Davis, Shaver, & Vernon, 2003). Better to trust our friends’ own assessments of how well they are coping.
- "Don’t worry. You’re still young!"
Many people feel pressure from family or friends to find a romantic partner, and to do so early in life. Such pressure could lead an individual to stay in an unsatisfying relationship or settle for a relationship that is not rewarding. Age can be a factor in relationship initiation (though not always), and, of course, biology offers some constraints related to childbearing (even though these are not as strict as we often believe). Yet these issues are not as important as the health and well-being of a friend, who could be much happier and live a much fuller life as a single person.
- "Let’s check out his [or her] Facebook page and see what he’s doing."
Social media can make it hard to disconnect fully from an ex, and instead enable the kind of online surveillance that can harm post-dissolution adjustment. A study of more than 450 individuals showed that looking up ex-partners on Facebook is associated with more breakup distress, more longing for the ex-partner, more negative feelings like anger and sadness, and less post-breakup personal growth (Marshall, 2012). This tells us that discouraging a friend from monitoring an ex-partner’s online presence is more supportive than helping him or her engage in such behavior.
- "Just don’t go changing your hair color. Be yourself!"
It might be tempting to try to support a friend by encouraging them not to change, but research shows that individuals heal from breakups in part by rediscovering their own self. When people begin a relationship, their self-concepts expand, taking on some characteristics, habits, and interests of their partner. When a relationship ends, individuals experience a shrinking of the self-concept (Slotter, Gardner, & Finkel, 2010). These findings suggest that a healthy goal post-breakup is to rebuild the self—and trying new hairstyles or clothing styles, taking up new interests, or quitting old habits might help.
- "Be single for a while; don’t try to date anyone right away."
Rebound relationships have a scandalous reputation as unhealthy or desperate attempts at love (or sex), with no real potential for stability. Research, however, suggests the opposite: In a study on individuals who recently experienced a breakup, those who were seeing someone new reported “getting over” the ex more quickly, and had more confidence about their own desirability. And the faster they started seeing someone new, the better their psychological health (Braumbaugh & Fraley, 2015). These findings suggest that good friends might encourage friends experiencing a breakup to get out there and meet someone new.
To help a friend dealing with a breakup, instead of saying...anything listed above, just tell them that you’re there and that you know this can be a tough time. Remind your friend of all that you love about him or her. Then, instead of waiting for the friend to say they need help, be proactive in offering support. Call and text, and make sure your mutual friends are reaching out as well. Invite your friend on a walk or to the gym—physical exercise improves mood; conversely, so does chocolate!—take your friend somewhere new to help them build new memories (and rebuild their self-concept), and just make sure your friend is getting out and being with people. These are just a few research-based suggestions; there are many other good ways to support a friend.
- Agnew, C. R., Loving, T. J., & Drigotas, S. M. (2001). Substituting the forest for the trees: social networks and the prediction of romantic relationship state and fate. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 81, 1042-1057.
- Boelen, P. A., & Reijntjes, A. (2009). Negative cognitions in emotional problems following romantic relationship break‐ups. Stress and Health, 25, 11-19.
- Brumbaugh, C. C., & Fraley, R. C. (2015). Too fast, too soon? An empirical investigation into rebound relationships. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 32, 99-118.
- 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.
- Marshall, T. C. (2012). Facebook surveillance of former romantic partners: associations with postbreakup recovery and personal growth. Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking, 15, 521-526.
- Perilloux, C., & Buss, D. M. (2008). Breaking up romantic relationships: Costs experienced and coping strategies deployed. Evolutionary Psychology, 6, 164-181.
- Slotter, E. B., Gardner, W. L., & Finkel, E. J. (2010). Who am I without you? The influence of romantic breakup on the self-concept. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 36, 147-160.