Tiny encyclopedia of post-break-up recovery

Dealing with break-ups is hard, and giving advice on how to proceed after a break-up is one of the most atypical subjects on the internet. Often, when you post something online, people will have the solution to your problem right away, in their fingertips. Mostly crazy, of course, but at least everyone has a different idea or solution. However, when the topic is getting over a break-up, the story is not the same. Advice hardly ever goes beyond “Time, no contact, take care of yourself, find someone else”. But often the one who suffers wants something more. Something that can heal faster, or at least work as a pain killer. Maybe not everyone is like that, but this was me when Googling “getting over a break-up” for the 10th time.

A few days ago, I read this post from K. D. and I realized that maybe I was not the only one feeling there should be better advice on how to deal with post-break-up emotions. There were just too many questions in my mind and because I am a scientist, my usual approach to questions without answers is research.

Unfortunately, I could only keep it online for one day, until someone called my attention that I was not allowed to do research with human beings without submitting it to an ethics committee (true story!) Therefore, I put the questionnaire down. However, I still got a limited amount of data, which allowed me to draw some limited conclusions.

However, as we can see in the graphic below, most people take from 3 to 12 months to move on, without any explicit correlation with the length of the relationship. Six months seems to be the most popular length, so if you’re struggling, maybe this is a good amount of time to target yourself to. Apart from that, some people seem to take even three times the length of the relationship to move on! Someone even said, “Never”, meaning that they never got over this past relationship.

Y axis = time taken to move on (years) vs. X axis = length of the relationship (years). Most of the people surveyed concentrate in the strip between 3 and 12 months in regards to time to move on.

I imagined that if someone broke up with another person, that would mean they are already done with the relationship and wouldn’t take a long time to move on, but this is not the real case. It seems that although I had many more answers from people who were dumped, some people who were the dumpers also told me they needed a few months to feel completely over a relationship. It is like that song: “Everybody Hurts”.

Meaning the other half was not so over it. 40% declared with certainty they were not over it, while 10% were in doubt, claiming that every now and then, they still miss that person. Even more surprising was that 70% of the people surveyed still think about their exes, with feelings and thoughts in a very varied range, such as “missing, nostalgia, disappointment, and gratitude”. So, don’t feel guilty if you still think about your ex, it seems like is more common than not.

Percentage of a) (left) People who completely moved of after a break-up; b) (right) People that still think about their exes.

However, I thought, this is all very fun but not really statistically relevant, so, does real science have some saying in this field?

Well, it turns out that yes, there are a few studies on how people deal with break-ups and rejection. And I dug a bit to find them out. I had many questions, but the end goal could simply be finding the answer to this main question:

Is there a “go-to” strategy for dealing with a break-up based on science?

I am no psychologist, but what I got from the few papers I read is that the way you see yourself plays a big role in recovery. It seems like one of the major problems is the redefinition of your “self-concept” after you break-up with someone. This means: the definitions of “you” get entangled with your partner and, after the break-up, it can be hard to know “Who I am without you”. The impossibility to know or recognize yourself separated from your previous partner, even leading people to feel “smaller”, seems to be the greater source of distress.

From this study, I suppose making assessments of the relationship and of yourself could be a good strategy to decrease the post-break-up distress. For example, reflect over how you felt in that relationship and why it came to an end. Recognize your needs, goals, likes, and dislikes. Reprogram yourself for being you again, without external input. All that sort of stuff.

Another interesting subject to bring to the table is the impairments to recover fully from a rejection. A study found that people who believe their personality is unchangeable (static) suffer much more when rejected because they believe the rejection “reveals” something bad about their selves, which will not or cannot change, so the rejection is a major hit in their self-esteem. Moreover, those people tend to avoid future relationships, fearing that they will lead to more rejection, since they already know something “is not right with them”. These people cannot see rejection as an opportunity to grow. So another great tip might be accept every romantic hardship as an opportunity to grow and perfect yourself. In other words: Embrace change!

So, if the power is “in our hands”, why do half of my friends still report they are not over their past relationships? Are we so poorly equipped with strategies to deal with loss and heartbreak?

Maybe.

Feeling good and confident about oneself seems pretty easy in motivational quotes but is actually hard to do. Faulty childhoods, lack of emotional awareness, and low self-esteem are all too familiar problems in our daily-life. We’re often a bit neurotic too. Sometimes a relationship offers the oasis of reassurance we need, and shatters preconceived images of ourselves, making it hard to envision a life post-break-up. Summing up to this grief from the loss and a natural predisposition to avoid change, it is very easy to believe most of us don’t have alone the tools needed to move on easily, even if we could have.

However, since we could have those tools, there is still hope. Dealing with a break-up is, to a great extent, dealing with ourselves, our faults, fears, and expectations. So, stuff like therapy or meditation can help. New activities, too. Emotional support from friends and family definitely helps. Not self-shaming for not being over is possibly a good thing too. Rebound relationships may be help (I never tried and science doesn’t have a final saying on that, but if any, probably the influence is positive, science says). And, my favorite: Knowing yourself helps a lot!

After all, there is a bunch of stuff to try. And if you have any suggestions I did not cover here, please comment below so we can enlarge the tiny encyclopedia of post-break-up recovery.

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