How To Get Over Someone Like A Scientist: Reflect, Detach, And Heal

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Emotions can be pesky reminders of who we once were. New research says once you drop that former self, the emotions will follow. Kevin Couette, CC BY-SA 2.0

Breakups suck. In the aftermath of an ugly falling out, emotions can be a giant burden. Generally we rely on rom-coms and our trusty pal Time to get us through them. But new research argues these aren’t the only things that can help you get over someone. In fact, the very methods behind that research may be of the most value.

There’s a growing school of thought in emotional intelligence research that says our feelings are best viewed (and self-regulated) when we treat them as points of data. Negative emotions aren’t just baggage we’re forced to carry; they’re controllable. Think of them as unexpected results in the experiment that is your life. One day you’re walking merrily along, and the next you’re dry heaving your sadness into a pillow. Figuring out where the deviation occurred, and coming to terms with it, may help resolve the emotions far quicker than any pity party.

Researchers from Northwestern University recently set out to learn how tactics found in academia could help people get over their exes. For years, psychology and divorce researcher Grace Larson had looked at longitudinal, multi-method studies that asked people to consider their failed relationships. She wondered whether the process was actually counter-productive: Was getting people to talk just rubbing salt in a wound?

The latest study says no. In fact, it found the exact opposite; the research methods were highly effective. Out of two groups of people who recently underwent a breakup, the group that completed intensive psychophysiological tests four times a week for nine weeks reported feeling much better than the group that just filled out questionnaires. The first group had reached a solid level of “self-concept reorganization,” a term that describes people’s ability to change the mental pictures of themselves. Instead of seeing themselves as boyfriends and girlfriends, with a sense of personhood that overlaps with someone else, they managed to see themselves as independent people.

“The process of becoming psychologically intertwined with the partner is painful to have to undo,” Larson said in a statement. “Our study provides additional evidence that self-concept repair actually causes improvements in well-being.”

In one sense, these findings demonstrate the power that stories wield in our everyday lives. As the hero of our own, never-ending saga, relationships concretize. We see people as fixtures in our lives, especially if they have already stuck around for years when a breakup finally strikes. Larson points out we’re also the authors of our own stories, and the process of reorganizing our sense of self forces us to distance who we are from who we were.

“It might be simply the effect of repeatedly reflecting on one's experience and crafting a narrative,” she explained, “especially a narrative that includes the part of the story where one recovers.”

Included in that reflection was a regular check-in with a voice recorder, so people could express their feelings out loud — something the average person would be able to do even if the more involved tests aren’t an option. The upshot to these forms of expression is a system with clear similarities to lab-based observation. People got to see themselves as the subject. With their emotions laid out on the table, they could move them around and discard the ones they didn’t want.

"If that person can reflect on the aspects of him- or herself that he or she may have neglected during the relationship but can now nurture once again, this might be particularly helpful,” Larson said. It won’t end the emotional pain immediately, but it may help the breakup to suck a little less.

Source: Larson G, Sbarra D. Participating in Research on Romantic Breakups Promotes Emotional Recovery via Changes in Self-Concept Clarity. Social Psychological & Personality Science. 2015.

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