There’s no doubt about it: Breakups hurt. One study found that newly single people looking at pictures of their exes had the same brain activity as those experiencing physical pain.
In the aftermath of Valentine’s Day, many people are feeling that sting. This is, unfortunately, a common time of year for couples to part. The world over, the heartsick are drowning their sorrows in discounted chocolate and binge-watching premium cable dramas.
But as truly gut-wrenching as these separations can feel, research suggests that most of the lovelorn will recover sooner than they think.
In a study led by Dr. Paul Eastwick, college students who had been in a relationship for at least two months completed questionnaires. In them, the participants indicated how in love they were with their partners, and how upset they would be if they broke up.
The participants received new questionnaires every other week, and each time they were asked if they were still with their partner. Those who had broken up completed an assessment designed to measure their distress. For example, they were asked how much they agreed with statements such as “In general, I’m pretty happy these days” and “I am extremely upset that my relationship ended.”
The researchers discovered that those who said that they were in love with their partners at the beginning of the experiment did a poor job of predicting how upset they would be after the breakup. It turned out to be much easier than they thought it would be.
Most of us think breakups are easier on the people who initiate the split, but Eastwick’s research found that the participants who made the decision to end things felt just as bad as those who did not. The difference was, the people who broke things off accurately predicted their recovery time, while the jilted thought they’d feel worse than they actually did.
“Recovery takes less time than people originally anticipate, and the present data suggest that these unexpected gains are realized remarkably soon after the distressing event,” writes Eastwick in the Journal of Experiment Psychology.
All of the participants did understand one thing: They predicted that the pain would reduce gradually in time, and they were right.