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How to survive and thrive after a breakup

10 March 2021


Wendy L. Patrick, J.D., Ph.D :
After a breakup, people often experience personal growth that can help them in future relationships.
Categories of growth include self-improvement, better relationships with family and friends, academic success, and choosing better subsequent partners.
People who were broken up with feel more stress than those who initiated the breakup.
Focusing on the lessons learned and opportunities to grow may help people navigate the aftermath of a breakup.
Romance is delightful; breakups can be devastating. Whether physically turbulent in terms of mood swings and physiological symptoms, or emotionally traumatic, it takes time to weather the storm. True, there are factors that make couples more likely to reconcile, as I discuss in a prior column. But if the end has come and there is no turning back, the good news is that with patience and a positive mindset, there is a bright road ahead.
Ty Tashiro and Patricia Frazier examined the frequency and correlates of personal growth and distress after romantic relationship breakups in a piece entitled "I'll Never Be in a Relationship like That Again."[ii] They examined causal attributions for relational decline and dissolution, gender, personality factors, and initiator status as correlates of growth and distress in an undergraduate sample of 92 young adults aged 18-35, who had recently experienced a romantic breakup.
Despite the fact that breakups are no walk in the park for most people, Tashiro and Frazier discovered some good news. Regarding growth, participants reported their experiences with respect to different types of personal growth they believed might improve future romantic relationships. With respect to gender, women reported more growth than men, and types of factors linked to higher levels of distress included causal attributions to the ex-paramour, as well as environmental factors involved in the prior relationship.  
Does it matter who broke up with who? Apparently, the answer is yes. People experience relationship dissolution differently, depending on whether they initiated the split. Tashiro and Frazier note that research has demonstrated that non-initiation is linked with experiencing a breakup as more stressful and feeling less recovered, which they suggest is likely due to feeling a lesser amount of control over the breakup.
On the bright side, Tashiro and Frazier found self-reported growth following breakups to be common. Study participants reported positive changes they believed could improve future romantic relationships within four categories of causal attributions established by prior research: Person, Other, Relational, and Environmental.
Most frequently reported were Person types of growth, involving focusing on how to improve one's own characteristics, traits, and beliefs following a breakup. Tashiro and Frazier note that most of the reported changes were not broad, trait factors such as being more extraverted, but instead, reflected changes in specific behaviors or attitudes, such as learning to "admit when I am wrong.''
The second most common category of positive change was Environmental growth, manifested in improved relationships with family members or enhanced scholastic success. Tashiro and Frazier note that one explanation for this is the fact that people are better able to recognize Environmental factors the more distance they gain from the relationship.
Regarding types of growth-related to Other, study participants reported few changes with respect to selecting a better relational partner in the future. They were more likely to report positive movement in the category of Relational factors, such as improved communication.
Regarding growth, Tashiro and Frazier noted that individuals attributing the dissolution to Environmental factors were more likely to report growth than those attributing the breakup to Person factors. They suggest that people who view relational demise to changeable factors may be more inclined to find positive outcomes that can enhance future relational quality.
Newly single individuals are encouraged to focus on the road ahead, not the rearview mirror. Relational dissolution is the end of one chapter and the beginning of another. Rather than viewing failed romance as time wasted, new singles can instead view love lost as lessons learned, and embrace the opportunity to grow. The past is over, but a bright future is just beginning.

(Wendy L. Patrick, J.D., Ph.D., is a career trial attorney, behavioral analyst, author of Red Flags, and co-author of Reading People).

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