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There, There, Texans: Breakin' Up May Not Be So Hard to Do, After All

Oct 12, 2007
I distinctly remember my first real breakup, experienced during that adventurous, turbulent, and notorious freshman year of college. I had just moved away from my tiny, Midwestern hometown to seek my degree at a large university out of state. My partner and I had pledged our undying commitment to each other before I left and vowed to marry under the moonlit prairie: Shakespeare himself would have been proud. Soon, he said, he would move to live with me, and everything would be as it should.

Oh yes, those melancholy, wonderfully weeping weeks right before it ended were some of my finest theatrical hours. It lasted, oh, maybe a month. Nothing, in fact, up until that point in my short life, compared to the period of deliberation -- the sleepless nights, the endless emotional debate over what to do. But I felt a whitewashing of relief after the words were finally out: "I don't think we should be together anymore." After a few days by myself, in fact, I actually felt pretty good.

Thousands of young adult students across Texas are preparing for similarly woeful adventures. Bring them on, I say! They're rights of passage, after all. Armed with textbooks, fancy pens, class schedules, and vaccine documentation, they are descending upon our proud universities in Dallas, Austin, Houston, and across the Plains, bracing for their new adult lives to begin. But, contrary to what some may believe in the throes of young passion, few will have to cash in on their health insurance plans' mental health benefits -- at least not due to a breakup. In fact, according to a recent study published in the August edition of The Journal of Experimental Psychology, most of us -- at any age will be just fine after a separation.

"We're not saying that breaking up is a good time, or that people enjoy it -- a breakup is a distressing experience for most people. But what we're talking about is how upset people are going to be. And it turns out that it's not nearly as catastrophic as people predict," said Paul W. Eastwick, lead author of the study.

Eastwick, doctoral candidate in Northwestern University's psychology program, teamed up with Northwestern University psychology professor Eli Finkel, and other researchers at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, to follow sixty-nine undergraduate freshmen relationships at Northwestern over a period of nine months. The study revealed that individuals are much less distressed by a breakup than they predicted they would be even two weeks before it happened.

Study participants were between the ages of seventeen and nineteen and had been in a relationship for at least two months at the study's inception. Subjects completed bi-weekly, online questionnaires for thirty-eight weeks. Those in relationships as the weeks progressed were asked (a) to characterize the extent of their current love and to predict how they would feel two, four, eight, and twelve weeks after a hypothetical separation, and (b) how soon they would begin another relationship after a breakup. Those who separated from their partners during the course of the study (both the "dumped" and the "dumpees") were asked to describe over the subsequent ten weeks how upset they actually were about the split and how happy they felt in general.

Thirty-eight percent of the participants ended their relationships within the first six months of the study, and had an average relationship span of fourteen months. Eastwick and colleagues chose to focus solely on this group and found that, while both real and imagined stress decreased with time, the participants' predictions two weeks prior to the breakup far exceeded the actual heartbreak experienced over the ensuing three months.

Those who had claimed to be more in love before the separation were, understandably, more distressed, but they were also the most likely to overestimate that level of heartbreak. Those who reported they were not in love before the breakup were "quite accurate" in their earlier predictions as to how they were going to feel afterwards. As researchers phrase it, perhaps this latter group was more prepared for the event, better able to accent the positive, and more rational about the situation in general.

Finkel, however, gives hope to the older crowd. "It would be surprising if this effect didn't appear among older people as well. It looks to be a general effect of our psyche that we're not that good about predicting our own happiness. So, even though divorce is likely to be more distressing than a collegiate breakup, it should still be the case that married people making predictions will forecast extreme devastation about their impending divorce, and, on average, that divorce will be less devastating than anticipated."

Considering that half of all American marriages end in divorce, this is at least a small consolation. "What people predict affects their behavior, and making decisions about whether to stay or break up a relationship is enormously important in peoples' lives. So, if you are more afraid than you should be, then you're going to stay in a relationship that you shouldn't [be in]," said Arthur Aron, professor of psychology at the State University of New York at Stony Brook.

In other words, more of ending-relationship distress is a matter of mentality than you may believe. You, in the end, decide how badly you're going to feel. So, pull out that tub of Ben & Jerry's, my heartbroken friends, and settle in for a good, long cry. Then get over it. Life is waiting.
About the Author
Pat Carpenter writes for Precedent Insurance Company. Precedent puts a new spin on health insurance. Learn more at Precedent.com
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