The Positive Effects of Dwelling on Your Ex

New research suggests that reflecting on a breakup may help heal the heart.

After a friend’s blisteringly bad breakup, my buddies and I took him out for beers and offered some comforting clichés: “Forget about her, man,” “There’s plenty of fish in the sea,” and “You’ve got to get back on that horse.” We all agreed that he needed to put down the Ben & Jerry’s and stop wallowing.

Though our advice was well-intentioned, new research suggests that it may have been misguided. A paper published this week in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science finds that people who reflect on a recent breakup have an easier time recovering than those who do not.

Grace Larson, a social psychologist and the author of the paper, spent years studying the psychological effects of divorces and breakups, and wondered if the interviews and questionnaires she gave to hundreds of participants helped or harmed their recovery. “We’re basically prying into these really personal events,” the Northwestern University psychologist said over the phone. “Is it possible that we’re having an impact on how they are coping with these events?”

To find out, she recruited 210 recently separated young adults, mostly women, and split them into two groups for a nine-week-long study. Many of the participants had been with their partners for somewhere between a year and a half and two years and had broken up within the six months before the study. On the first day, both groups took a survey that analyzed how they felt about themselves following their breakup, and then took it again nine weeks later. One group met with the researchers four times during that period, during which they were interviewed about their past relationship, and asked to record their own feelings in private. The other group only took the two surveys, at the beginning and end of the study. Larson even experienced her own breakup during the study, which she said helped her empathize with the participants. “It’s a universal experience,” she said.

After nine weeks, Larson found that the group that regularly shared their feelings with the researchers had “better overall recovery from their breakups” compared with the other group. “That process of feeling complete again, and regaining what you had to let go, is really healthy and drives recovery,” Larson said. Her survey looked at her participants' sense of “self-concept,” or their sense of being a separate entity from their ex-partner and relationship. The survey gauged the respondents' recovery by asking how much they agreed with statements such as: “I do not feel like myself anymore,” “I feel as though I am missing a part of me,” and “I have rediscovered who I am.” Previous studies have also used these survey statements to assess how comfortable a person feels about themself following a breakup.

The secondary takeaway from the findings, according to Larson, is that the research methods she’s used in previous relationship studies had real effects on her participants. “It blows my mind that these really basic message of studying people in psychology—which we tend to think is a neutral process—are actually impacting people’s lives and emotions when they walk out of the lab,” she said.

Larson isn’t sure which aspects of the study best helped participants cope with their breakups, but she believes it has to do with looking at their past objectively. She thinks that using a journal could help with reflection and recovery, although that’s not to say that one should put down the ice cream entirely.

“Take the time to not just drown your feelings in sugary food, but to think about the breakup and reflect on how you’re doing,” she said, adding that it's best to “invite a friend over too, so you’re not just stewing.”