Breaking Up Is Not So Hard to Do

TUESDAY Aug. 28, 2007 -- Getting kicked to the curb by the love of your life is actually far less emotionally devastating than most would predict.

That's the word from new research that found men and women who claim to be deeply in love are the worst at making accurate predictions about a possible break-up and vastly overestimate their potential despair.

"We're not saying, by any stretch of the imagination, that breaking up is a good time, or that people enjoy it -- a breakup is a distressing experience for most people, " explained the study's lead author, Paul W. Eastwick, a doctoral candidate in Northwestern University's department of psychology. "But what we're talking about is how upset people are going to be. And it turns out that it's not nearly as catastrophic as people predict."

The finding is published in the August issue of The Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.

To gauge the accuracy of pre-break-up forecasting, Eastwick teamed with Northwestern psychology department professor Eli Finkel, alongside researchers from Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. Together, they followed the relationship experiences of 69 Northwestern University undergraduate freshmen over a nine-month period.

At the start of the study, all the participants were between the ages of 17 and 19, and all had been dating for at least two months. They then completed online questionnaires biweekly over a 38-week period to track their relationship status.

Every successive survey asked those still coupled up to characterize the depth of their current love and to predict their emotional state of mind two, four, eight, and 12 weeks after a theoretical split. All were also asked how soon they might enter into a new relationship following any break-up.

Freshmen who broke with a partner or were dropped by a partner were asked to describe - -several times over the following 10 weeks -- how happy they felt post-relationship, and how upset they were that it had ended.

Thirty-eight percent of the participants --16 men and 10 women-- ended their relationship within the first six months of the study. On average, those relationships had lasted 14 months.

Focusing solely on this group, the researchers found that, on average, the participants' predictions of emotional cataclysm offered just two weeks before a split far exceeded the actual distress they underwent for three months after the split.

And, although both real and imagined distress diminished as time went on, the spread between actual and predicted anguish stayed constant throughout -- with predicted distress far exceeding actual distress even months after a relationship had ended.

In addition, those who said they were more in love before a split did experience slightly more distress after a break, but they were also much more likely to overestimate the ardor of breaking up. By contrast, those who said they were not in love before a split or indicated they would get into a new relationship within two weeks of a split were found to be "quite accurate" at visualizing a true post-break experience.

Eastwick and his colleagues suggested that those who were less in love might have better predicted the post-break experiences because they were more prepared for the possibility, better able to accent the positive, and more rational in their outlook.

Although the research highlighted the experience of college students, Finkel said the findings could probably apply to people of all ages.

"It would be surprising if this effect didn't appear among older people as well," he said. "The sort of misprediction we found is very robust. It looks to be a very general effect of our psyche that we're not that good about predicting our own happiness. So, even though divorce is likely to be more distressing than a collegiate breakup, it should still be the case that married people making predictions will forecast extreme devastation about their impending divorce, and, on average, that divorce will be less devastating than anticipated."

Arthur Aron, a professor of psychology at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, said that the finding was valuable, if not surprising.

"What people predict affects their behavior, and making decisions about whether to stay or break up a relationship is enormously important in peoples' lives," he said. "So, if you are more afraid than you should be, then you're going to stay in a relationship that you shouldn't [be in]."

"So, it's good if it helps keep you in a good relationship, but it's bad if it helps keep you in a bad relationship," Aron added. "It's a kind of irrationality. But it's important to know about it."

More information

For additional information on breakups and emotional health, visit the Helpguide.org

Posted: August 2007


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