The Best Way to Recover from Heartbreak, According to Science

Grace Larson and David Sbarra had been studying how people recover from divorce and breakups for years when they became worried that asking these people about their breakups repeatedly may actually be causing harm. So, they decided to run an experiment to see if that was the case, and they found just the opposite to be true – it was actually helping. 

Larson and Sbarra just published the results of this 9-week study on two groups of young adults (age range 17-29, mostly female) who had experienced a non-marital breakup in the last six months. One group was asked to come in four times over the course of 9 weeks for assessments and one group was only asked to come in twice. The group that came in for four assessments spent 3.5 hours in each session, which required them to speak into a tape recorder about their thoughts and feelings and answer written questionnaires, among other tasks. The other group only answered written questionnaires during their two 45-minute assessments, and they did the tape recorder exercise once.

When the researchers evaluated the two groups for changes in emotional intrusion, loneliness and break-up related self-concept disturbance, they found that the group who did four regular assessments over the course of 9 weeks showed better recovery. They were able to re-define their self-concepts, which led to decreased emotional intrusion and loneliness. They also used fewer first person plural words (what psychologists call “we talk”) when describing their breakups, which points to them being more adjusted to single life vs. couple life.

So, what about the rest of us who can’t participate in this kind of research study when we’re going through a breakup? Larson recommended a weekly journal check-in to track how you’re adjusting to life as an independent person.

The key, according to Larson, is to turn your focus inward: “The recovery of a clear and independent self-concept seems to be a big force driving the positive effects of this study, so I would encourage a person who recently experienced a breakup to consider who he or she is, apart from the relationship. 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.” 

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