How to Recover From Failed Love

Rediscover who you are without your partner.

January 11, 2015, 6:38 AM
PHOTO: Ending a romantic relationship can lead to despair and loneliness.
Ending a romantic relationship can lead to despair and loneliness.
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— -- All broke up over breaking up? Let's talk, but maybe not too much.

Few experiences in life are more difficult, and more common, than ending a romantic relationship. For some, it's just a matter of picking up the pieces and moving on. For others, the breakup leads to despair and loneliness and a sense of loss that makes recovery very difficult.

Psychologists have wrestled with that for centuries, trying to find ways to help failed lovers deal with a change that strikes at the core of their very existence.

"Everything I did during the day was totally connected to what my partner was doing, how I spent my time, who I saw, even down to what I ate and what I wore," psychologist David Sbarra of the University of Arizona said in describing what he has heard over and over during the years he has studied this issue.

Sbarra's latest study, conducted with Grace M. Larson who is now with Northwestern University, involved 210 college-age participants whose romance had recently ended.

The study, published in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science, was conducted over a nine-week period and found that those who had the most trouble dealing with the failed relationship were not just searching for a lost love. They were searching for themselves.

Scientists call it "self-concept clarity," defined as "ones understanding of who he or she is as a person," and it can be severely damaged during the painful process of trying to recover from lost love. Two lives become so intertwined that it is almost impossible to separate them into distinct personalities.

How often have you heard that two persons in love become as one? It's part of nearly every marriage ceremony.

Other recent studies have shown that social networks like Facebook can make it even more difficult to readjust to a new life without someone who was supposed to always be there. Photos will pop up showing the couple together, old emails will resurface, there is no escape.

So how do you heal a broken heart?

"Most people don't need therapy. They don't need intense writing in a journal," Sbarra said in a telephone interview. What his research suggests, he added, is they need to talk. "What they need is to spend a little time deliberating about what's happening, where they go from here, and then do it again and again."

Participants in the study were divided into two groups. One group spent nearly three hours in four sessions, completing questionnaires and talking about how the break had affected them. The other group went through a series of exercises, although much less intense.

Along the way they were asked to respond to statements like these: "I do not feel like myself anymore," and "I have regained my identity."

Those two statements are interrelated. The study showed that those who felt they had regained their identity were far more likely to show signs of dealing with their loss in a constructive way. They didn't lose their loneliness, but they had rediscovered who they were.

Sbarra said he thinks that is a critical part of getting on with life after a failed romance. But it has limitations.

Sbarra and Larson launched this study because of disturbing results from earlier research. A couple of years ago they worked with recently divorced couples, employing a technique that is much in vogue these days. They had some of the participants engage in "expressive writing," committing one's deepest concerns to writing in a journal, which has shown some promise for persons suffering from post-traumatic-stress-disorder.In this case it backfired.

"For some people, doing a certain type of emotional writing led to a poor outcome," Sbarra said. "We actually had the experience of making some people worse when they were involved in a study with us."

He said those persons tended to be "ruminators," putting themselves through the divorce over and over because they couldn't get it out of their heads.

Thinking that perhaps a middle road would be more successful, the researchers resorted to a less intense, non-interventional process: Encourage them to talk, but don't overdo it.

That seems to have worked.

"There is this delicate balance between distance and over involvement," he said. "We aren't doing any heavy handed intervention or creating an expectation. We are simply getting people to reflect on their experience, to share their experience, and then we get out of the way and let the actual course of coping take over."

He offered an analogy."You wouldn't keep scratching a wound," because it wouldn't heal, he said. "But if you have a pulled hamstring, you have to work the muscle a little to help it recover. You can't totally keep your distance from it."

The work suggests, but does not demonstrate, that just talking with a friend may be the best therapy. Get a little help with that hamstring.

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