When singer of the Beach Boys, Brian Wilson famously wrote “God only knows what I’d be without you,” he wasn’t really looking for answers. But researchers at Northwestern University have one: probably left confused. The researchers sought to understand how breakups alter the way we understand ourselves and how that change affects us after a breakup. Researchers were specifically interested in understanding what happens to the “self concept,” which they define as all the things that we use to define ourselves. This could be anything from how we look, to what we believe, to what we have – if it helps shape how we think about ourselves, then it’s part of our self concept.
The science has been clear for a long time that relationships have a huge impact on who we are and that breakups can bring major emotional distress (as if we needed research to confirm that). Other research has shown that couples with greater commitment between them become interdependent in how they think, blurring the lines of self as they remain together.
So what happens to those couples who become codependent in their thinking if the relationship ends? The researchers performed 3 studies (survey-based, observational, and longitudinal) to gauge the relationship between our breakups and how we see ourselves. Researchers surveyed participants about their relationships, collected real-time diary updates from people who had just gone through heartbreak and analyzed what participants wrote in response to very specific questions about themselves, their partners and their relationships.
Those who had gone through a breakup recently wrote less information about themselves and they wrote it less clearly. Those who hadn’t recently gone through a breakup were asked to imagine a split from their current partners. When they did, those with the most commitment to their partners predicted the most confusion and change to their selves. Though the research collection didn’t last long enough to track the whole restructuring process, analysis of the content and structure of self-descriptions over time did show that those who went through breakups started to change the framework within which they viewed themselves, and the clarity of their self concepts began to increase again.
The bottom line: we essentially re-define ourselves in the wake of loss, and that period of time is necessarily confusing. If you’re suffering, take comfort in the normality of it all. Having to redefine yourself (and the gut-wrenching confusion that comes along for the ride) is a necessary part of losing a relationship and gaining a new, stronger self.