For years well-meaning therapists and close friends have claimed that dwelling on a breakup is a bad idea, but a new study has turned that conventional wisdom on its head. It is easy to see why people think that dwelling on a failed relationship would be bad. After all, that resentment and those grudges can really eat away at you, and they can even stop you from moving on with your life.
That is what makes the new study by a graduate student at Northwestern University is so surprising. That study, by Grace Larson, a graduate student studying at the Department of Psychology and a co-author, flies in the face of conventional wisdom, which urges people to move on immediately after a breakup and put their ex-boyfriend or girlfriend in the rear-view mirror.
The new study focuses on the results of a long-term relationship and how the lives of the two partners intertwine and intermingle. Almost from the start, a serious romantic relationship involves a deep commitment with another person, and it can be extremely hard to untangle those connections. Reversing that process can be extremely difficult and quite painful, and the more committed the relationship the harder it is to reverse.
That is why dwelling on the relationship and the breakup is so important to healing. As part of his research, Larson and her co-author found that talking about the relationship and its demise is actually good for people. The study involved some 210 young adults who had experienced the breakup of a serious romantic (but non-marital) relationship within the prior six months.
As part of the study, the two participants were divided into two groups to determine the effects of talking about and otherwise dwelling on the failed relationship. One group was simply asked to complete a survey about the relationship and the breakup. The first group of participants completed one survey immediately and another follow-up survey nine weeks later.
The second group of study participants experienced a much more extensive review of the relationship and its demise. That second group was asked to complete a number of tests designed to measure the distress caused by their failed relationships.
Participants in the second group were also subjected to a series of stream of consciousness type interviews. Those interviews allowed study participants to discuss key aspects about their breakup, such as when they first realized the relationship was in trouble and how the breakup affected their views on love and romance.
The second group was asked to come in four separate times during the nine-week study period. Each participant in the second group spent a total of three and a half hours talking about and dwelling on the details of their relationship and their feelings toward their ex’s. The first group, on the other hand, spent only 45 minutes total on the exercise.
The study found that the second group had a much easier time regaining their self-concept once those nine weeks had past. Far from being bad for their psyches, dwelling on the relationship seemed to promote healing and the recovery of self-esteem.
The designers of the study also found that participants who reduced their usage of plural words like “we” and “us” were even more successful at putting the past behind them and moving on with their lives. While that particular result still requires further study, it is interesting to say the least. The reduction in plural words used to describe couples may indicate a desire to move on and put the relationship in the past, and talking about the breakup may foster that movement.
So the next time your best friend wants to talk about her lousy ex-boyfriend, do not be so eager to move the conversation in a different direction. Dwelling on a past relationship can actually be good for the soul, and providing a shoulder to cry on and an ear to listen may actually help your friend heal and move on.