It’s a question that often plagues people after a painful break-up: What went wrong? As they work to figure out the answer, people typically create new relationship stories, analyzing the events leading up to the breakup and using them to build a cohesive narrative. In some cases, this type of storytelling can be positive, helping people to make sense of—and come to terms with—painful things that happen to them. Other times, though, the storytelling process can be a negative one, compounding pain rather than easing it.
My colleague Carol Dweck and I research why some people are haunted by the ghosts of their romantic past, while others seem to move on from failed relationships with minimal difficulty. Over the course of our research, I’ve read hundreds of personal stories about the end of relationships, and these stories offer some clues as to what pushes a person into one group or the other.
In one study, Dweck and I asked people to reflect on a time when they were rejected in a romantic context, and then write about the question: What did you take away from this rejection? For some people, their answers made it clear that the rejection had come to define them—they assumed that their former partners had discovered something truly undesirable about them. For example, one person wrote: “Things were going well when all of a sudden he stopped talking to me. I have no idea why, but I think he saw that I was too clingy and this scared him away.” Another said: “I learned that I am too sensitive and that I push people away to avoid them pushing me away first. This characteristic is negative and makes people crazy and drives them away.”
In these types of stories, rejection uncovered a hidden flaw, one that led people to question or change their own views of themselves—and, often, they portrayed their personalities as toxic, with negative qualities likely to contaminate other relationships. One study participant wrote: “I learned that I have a part of my personality that sabotages my happiness.” Another confessed: “I just feel hurt and rejected. I try to tell myself that it wasn’t my fault and that it was that person’s loss but I can’t help but feel inadequate.”
Many of these stories were similar to the ones I’d heard from friends after their own breakups. The refrains were familiar: “Why wasn’t I good enough?” or “Is there something wrong with me?” When people see ex-partners in new relationships, they often ask themselves: “What does she or he have that I don’t?”
After a breakup, it can be healthy for people to reflect on what they’ve learned from the past relationship and what they want to improve in the next one. A healthy behavior can become an unhealthy one, though, when people take it too far and begin to question their own basic worth.
But the loss of a partner can make it easy to fall into the self-deprecation trap. Research by the psychologist Arthur Aron and his colleagues shows that when people are in close relationships, their self becomes intertwined with their partner’s self. In other words, we begin to think of a romantic partner as a part of ourselves—confusing our traits with their traits, our memories with their memories, and our identity with their identity. In a measure designed to capture the closeness of a relationship, Aron’s team ask people to consider themselves as one circle, their partner as another, and indicate the extent to which the two overlap.
To an extent, this overlap of the two selves can be a very positive part of relationships. As people get to know a new romantic partner, they often go through a rapid period where they immerse themselves in the interests and identities of their partner, adopting new perspectives and expanding their worldview. One of the greatest pleasures of being in a relationship is that it can broaden a person’s sense of self by exposing them to things outside of their usual routines.
But this also means that when a relationship ends, the loss of a romantic partner can, to some extent, cause the loss of the self. In one study, after reflecting on a breakup, people used fewer unique words to describe themselves when writing a short self-description. And the more people felt themselves grow during a relationship, the more likely they were to experience a blow to their self-image after the breakup.
In our research, people reported the most prolonged distress after a romantic rejection when it caused their self-image to change for the worse. People who agreed that the rejection made them question who they really were also reported more often that they were still upset when they thought about the person who had rejected them. Pain lingered from rejections that had occurred even years before. Writing about what they took away from the rejection, one study participant said: “Lots of emotional pain. Sometimes it keeps me awake at night … It’s been 10 years and the pain hasn’t gone away.” If rejection seems to reveal a new, negative truth about a person, it becomes a heavier, more painful burden.
When rejection is intimately linked to self-concept, people are also more likely to experience a fear of it. People reported becoming more guarded with new partners and “putting up walls.” One study participant wrote: “I feel like I constantly withhold myself in possible future relationships in fear of being rejected again.” The belief that rejection revealed a flaw prompted people to worry that this defect would resurface in other relationships. They worried that future relationships would continue to fail, voicing fears that no matter how hard they tried, they would not be able to find someone new to love them.
In some cases, rejection also seemed to fundamentally change people’s outlook on romantic partnerships, leaving them with pessimistic views about the fundamental nature of relationships. As one person wrote: “To me, this rejection was like opening Pandora’s Box, and concepts like love and trust became fantasies that never really existed.”
So what makes for a healthy breakup, one in which the person moves on with minimal emotional damage? In our study, some people drew much weaker connections between rejection and the self, describing rejection as an arbitrary and unpredictable force rather than the result of some personal flaw. One person wrote, “Sometimes girls are not interested. It’s nothing to do with yourself, it’s just that they’re not interested.” Another noted how rejection wasn’t a reflection of worth: “I learned that two people can both be quality individuals, but that doesn’t mean they belong together.” Other people saw the rejection as a universal experience: “Everyone gets rejected. It’s just part of life.”
Yet another group of people saw the breakup as an opportunity for growth, often citing specific skills they had been able to learn from rejection. Communication was a recurrent theme: People described how a rejection had helped them understand the importance of clear expectations, how to identify differences in goals, and how to express what they wanted out of a relationship. Other participants wrote that breakups had helped them to accept that they couldn’t control the thoughts and actions of others, or to learn how to forgive.
So separating rejection from the self tends to make breakups easier, and linking the two tends to make them more difficult. But what makes people more likely to do one or the other? Past research by Dweck and others shows that people tend to hold one of two views about their own personal qualities: that they are fixed over the lifespan, or that they are malleable and can be developed at any point. These beliefs impact how people respond to setbacks. For example, when people consider intelligence to be something fixed, they’re less likely to persist in the face of failure than people who believe that intelligence can be developed.
And when we asked people to reflect on their past rejections, we found a link between those who believed personality was fixed and those who believed that rejection exposed their true selves. If someone believes that their traits are unchanging, the discovery of a negative one is akin to a life sentence with that new knowledge. Believing in the potential for change, however, might meant that the discovery of a negative quality instead prompts personal growth.
The stories we tell ourselves about rejection, in other words, can shape how, and how well, we cope with it. Previous research has illustrated the importance of storytelling in other realms—for example, recovering alcoholics who told redemptive stories in which they learned something from their suffering were more likely to maintain sobriety than people who told stories without this theme. Narratives that explained pivotal decisions (including getting married or divorced, and changing jobs) as moving toward a desired future, rather than escaping an undesirable past, were associated with higher life satisfaction.
One strategy for making breakups a little easier, then, might be to consciously consider the narratives we create about the experience. A person might think: I was bad at communicating in the relationship; I guess I just can't open up to people. Another story might be: I was bad at communicating in the relationship, but that’s something that I can work on, and future relationships will be better. Maybe a healthy habit of questioning our own narratives can help us to make better ones—stories that promote resilience in the face of pain.