Mending a Broken Heart: New Research on an Old Problem

After a breakup, the newly single often hear two, somewhat contradictory, pieces of advice. First, there are the friends and family members who encourage the heartbroken to “move on.” Forget ‘em. You deserve better!

But there are also more philosophical types who will encourage the lovelorn to process the relationship a bit, to grieve and examine what you’ve learned.

So which is better? Two studies conducted by Grace Larson and David Sbarra indicate that the answer is like most relationships — complicated.

In the first study, recently divorced or separated individuals were asked to write about their breakups, while a control group kept a dry log of their daily activities — ate oatmeal for breakfast, shoveled snow, etc. The researchers found that when people who were prone to ruminating about their problems wrote about their separations they were more emotionally distraught than those who recounted their daily tasks and meals.

So that’s a point for the “move on” crowd. Don’t dwell in the past. Stay in the moment — even if that moment involves filing your taxes.

But more recently, Larson and Sbarra published a paper that showed that people who spent more time reflecting on their breakup in a laboratory setting fared better than those who dedicated less time to this activity. In the study, young adults who had recently experienced a breakup discussed their relationships with researchers. Some met with researchers in four different sessions for a total of 3.5 hours. A second group had only had only two sessions totaling 45 minutes.

The participants in the first group experienced more emotional healing than those in the second group. Those who spent more time in the lab were less lonely and had made more progress in developing identities outside of the relationship.

I asked Larson and Sbarra what we could learn from these studies — should we spend a lot of time dwelling on our breakups, or not?

Sbarra explained that some people, like the high ruminators of the first study, have a tendency to get stuck in their head and endlessly rehash their problems in a way that isn’t productive. For them, a writing exercise which compelled them to focus on the facts of their life, rather than feelings and speculation, was the most helpful course.

“I think the control writing helped them get the distance they needed in order to recover well,” said Sbarra.

The second study also enabled the participants to contemplate their experience without getting too emotionally caught up in it, said Larson. She thinks that the laboratory setting itself may have provided some emotional distance. She also notes that the language of the speaking tasks and assessments was straightforward and neutral.

“It seems to be important for people to find a way to think about the breakup and their process of recovery without getting totally immersed in the negative thoughts and feelings that might result,” she said.

In other words, there is a difference between clear-headed contemplation and dwelling. If you’re prone to rumination, mentally stewing about why why why probably won’t help you feel better. But what can help is keeping tabs on your emotional progress. Did you go for a run today? Have fun with friends? Was there a 25-second period where you didn’t think about her?

If you’re going through a breakup, chances are you don’t have access to a clinical study to help you process it. But you can keep track of your progress, which will help you see that you are indeed making it.

Next: Why you’ll probably get over it sooner than you think.

its not you sara eckel

Sara Eckel is the author of It’s Not You: 27 (Wrong) Reasons You’re Single. You can get a free bonus chapter of her book You can also find her on Twitter andFacebook.

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