As they say, chaos is the precursor to all great change. And there’s no question that the aftermath of a breakup, even an amicable one, can feel like chaos.
One framework for understanding this post-breakup confusion comes from the husband and wife team of developmental psychologists Erik and Joan Erikson. Aside from being credited with coining the term identity crisis, they observed trends in the stages of human development that explain why everyone tells you to “go find yourself” after a breakup.
According to the Eriksons, most people experience development in stages, where different needs drive different behaviors in each stage. Throughout our teens and early twenties, they observe that most of us are strongly driven by the quest to establish an identity independent of inherited factors. During these years we experiment, sometimes radically, with our choices, beliefs and tastes (as one look at my high school yearbook can confirm).
These years of exploration, they say, are a necessary foundation for the next major phase of our lives: in our twenties and thirties, most people become driven to seek out romantic partnerships. Only once we’ve developed clear personal identities can we build romantic, deeply intimate relationships. We must be strong as individuals before we can be strong as partners.
Over half a century after the Eriksons published their theory, an observational study in the Journal of Adolescent Research seems to confirm a link between our identity and our ability to be intimate. Of the 473 adolescents ages 12-24 whom the researchers interviewed, those with a stronger sense of their psychosocial identity were more likely to report having had intimate relationships. They were also more likely to possess other traits associated with a stronger sense of identity: they were less self-conscious, more able to be passionate in their relationships (a sign of vulnerability), and they tended to prefer being in committed relationships. It makes sense that the more sure we feel of ourselves, the more certain we can be of what we want, and the more authentically we can ask for it.
Of course, categorizing life and our deepest drives into clean stages with finite beginnings and endings probably doesn’t do justice to the reality of being human. Life is a lot more complicated than a flow chart of development. But if you’ve gone through a breakup and are whipsawed by confusion, take heart: sometimes we must move backward to move forwards.