In the midst of all the romantic meals and saccharine Instagram posts on Valentine’s Day this year, Kelsea Ballerini did something unexpected. The country-pop singer chose the day of love to release “Rolling Up the Welcome Mat,” a surprise EP and accompanying short film about her 2022 divorce from fellow musician Morgan Evans.
The six-song record takes listeners through the stages of grief at the end of a marriage. Intimate and emotional, its lyrics touch on themes of loneliness, betrayal, vulnerability and healing.
So it is perhaps unsurprising that “Rolling Up the Welcome Mat” has risen up the Billboard charts, while the short film quickly surpassed 1 million views on YouTube. After all, music fans have long turned to emotional songs and lyrics to cope with the pain of their own broken relationships and feel less alone.
But the fans of Ballerini’s new EP and other heartbreak hits aren’t all going through breakups themselves. Instead, many listeners have expressed their amusement that they enjoy and connect to the songs so much despite being in healthy, happy relationships themselves.
Below, therapists explain why people in stable relationships like listening to sad breakup music and how it can be good for their mental health.
Breakup music allows us to access deep emotions.
“Music can be a powerful tool in allowing us to access our emotions,” said marriage and family therapist Christene Lozano. “We may want to listen to sad music in order to feel our emotions more deeply.”
Sometimes we just need to have a good cry. Breakup songs can help us take a pause from our hectic lives, arrive at that emotionally intense place and get a much-needed release, all in a safe space.
“Humans enjoy feeling their emotions, especially when it’s through a creative format,” said psychotherapist and “The Truth Doctor Show” host Courtney Tracy. “With songs, they can sing along, the instruments provide background music to their own thoughts, and it allows you to immerse into the feeling of the moment.”
She emphasized that no human being feels only one emotion in an hour, day, month or year. Therefore, it’s unhealthy to try to suppress any of our feelings.
“Many of us live with some type of heartbreak, even when we’re in happy, stable relationships. Connecting with that feeling can be meaningful, especially when it feels like someone else knows our pain,” Tracy added.
Music permits us to acknowledge and feel our emotions, and the sad breakup variety offers a healthy way to tune into sadness.
“Whether it’s toxic positivity or growing up in a family that didn’t encourage expressing emotions, many people have barriers to experiencing and expressing their own sadness,” said psychotherapist Ben Behnen. “Listening to music like this is a wonderful way to break through all those barriers and allow yourself to acknowledge what you may have been feeling for some time.”
It’s not necessarily a reflection of our relationships.
“Listening to breakup music even when you’re in a good relationship is not a bad thing,” Tracy noted. “Breakup songs are not always about relationships breaking up. Instead, they are about issues with parents, with friends, with bad decisions. Breakup songs are about the depths of change, pain, and turmoil. We can all relate to that, whether we’ve been through a divorce or not.”
Connecting with sad breakup content doesn’t necessarily reflect how we feel about our current romantic relationships. But, even if we don’t have the same story as the artist or narrative of the song, music can help us find ourselves in other ways.
“I would say it’s normal to listen to breakup music even if you’re in a good relationship,” Behnen said. “A lot of music transcends our own present experiences. Whether it’s healthy or not is a little more subjective. Relationally, something is typically only a problem if it becomes a problem, meaning that you would know listening to this kind of music is becoming a problem if your partner has a problem with it.”
Pay attention if these songs negatively affect your mood and interactions with your partner. And if they have a problem with your love for breakup music, take the time to talk about it and explore why they feel this way.
“Maybe they are concerned that you are thinking of a past relationship and comparing that person to them,” Behnen said. “Maybe they’re afraid that you want to break up with them. Whatever it might be, it’s a doorway to further conversation to bring clarity to your relationship.”
It helps us process and make sense of past experiences.
“There are various reasons why people may enjoy listening to sad breakup music, regardless of the state of their own romantic relationship,” Lozano said. “Sometimes, we gravitate to sad music because we have had previous experiences that relate to the songs.”
The words and expressions of others offer a new lens through which to examine and process events in our lives.
“Many people still hold on to elements of the past,” said Dr. Sue Varma, a clinical assistant professor of psychiatry at New York University Langone Health. “Even if they aren’t pining about the ‘one that got away,’ they may grapple with a sense of rejection, disappointment or unresolved heartbreak.”
This is the case not only for romantic partners but friendships that ended or family members we’ve become estranged from.
“Music lets us make sense, make meaning,” Varma said. “The lyrics provide insight into these feelings, and it’s like we have an a-ha moment. When listening to a breakup song, the lyrics and the build-up may speak to our experience almost perfectly. We feel seen.”
We feel more connected with others.
“People love listening to breakup songs even when they are happy because it can trigger empathy for the person going through it and help us feel connected,” said Kati Morton, a marriage and family therapist and author of “Are U Ok? A Guide to Caring for Your Mental Health.”
She added: “It can also remind us of a time when we were going through that same thing, and again, remind us that we are not alone and that we share in this experience.”
Since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, many of us have struggled with feelings of loneliness and isolation. This is true even for those who were locked down with their partners.
Humans crave connection and company from more than just one person. So the bond that emotional music can make us feel with others is something people are seeking, perhaps now more than ever.
“I think it’s a way for us to get some emotional needs met that we might not realize we are lacking,” Morton said. “We all need to feel connected, and sharing in powerful emotions like loss and sadness can help with that.”