Breakin' up is hard to do -- but for some of us, it'is really hard.
So why do some people spend years agonizing over a failed romance, while others can simply sail onto the next relationship? Psychologists may now have an answer.
As it turns out, the way we reflect on the breakup and the stories we tell about it may determine to a large extent how well we're able to recover from it.
A new Stanford University study, published in this month's issue of the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, finds that reflecting on the relationship can not only help us to make sense of what's happened, but it can also make it more difficult for some people to move on.
"It can be very healthy for people to reflect on what they have learned from past relationships and what they want to improve on in the future," Dr. Lauren Howe, a psychologist at the university and one of the study's authors, told The Huffington Post in an email. "But a healthy behavior can become unhealthy when people take it too far and begin to question their own basic worth as a person - feeling like they are flawed or defective, and that this prompted the rejection."
“A healthy behavior can become unhealthy when people take it too far and begin to question their own basic worth as a person."”
For the study, the researchers analyzed personal stories of rejection from 194 men and women, who were 30 years old on average. First, the researchers asked the participants to reflect on a time when they were rejected by a romantic partner, and then the participants were asked to answer the question, "What did you take away from the rejection?"
Separately, the participants were asked to answer questions about how much they believed people were capable of change -- agreeing or disagreeing with statements like “Everyone, no matter who they are, can significantly change their basic characteristics” and “The kind of person you are is something very basic about you and it can’t be changed much.”
The researchers found that in cases where a rejection caused the participant to question their self-worth and negatively alter their self-image, they reported taking longer to recover from the breakup.
On the other hand, those who did not link the rejection to their own self-image fared better emotionally. These types of participants thought of the breakup instead as a more unpredictable event, an indication of incompatibility, or something inevitable ("It happens to everyone at some point or another").
So, the rejection was more difficult for the participants who blamed the breakup, in retrospect, on some personal failing or character flaw of their own, which was evident in how they answered questions about how much they believed people were capable of change.
"When people see a breakup as revealing a flaw that they have, they feel more upset when reflecting on the rejection," Howe explained. "Because they believe that the rejection is linked to a negative characteristic of the self, it makes them feel more ashamed and embarrassed, and they tend to be more bothered when thinking about the person who rejected them. In addition, they worry that this negative characteristic will surface in other relationships and damage their romantic prospects in the future."
Taking rejection personally can also get in the way of having healthy relationships. The researchers found that those whose self-image was deeply affected by the rejection were more likely to fear future rejection and to put up walls with future partners in order to guard themselves against it.
Who's at the greatest risk for doubting themselves because of a rejection? Research from study co-author Carol Dweck has shown that people who have a "fixed mindset" about their personality, or who believe that their character is unchanging, are more likely to believe that the rejection exposes some deep deficiency in their personality. However, Howe says, we can learn from people who believe in their own ability to grow and change, and tend to be better at bouncing back after a rejection.
"In the wake of a rejection, we might benefit from asking ourselves, 'Am I linking this rejection to something about me?'" Howe said. "And if so, 'Is there a different story that I could tell myself about the rejection that does not cast the self in this negative light?'"
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