The ending of a romantic relationship can have serious health consequences, according to a study published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General. These include insomnia, reduced immune function, broken heart syndrome, depression and even suicide.
“For many people, a breakup can be a serious loss,” says Lindsay Kramer, a marriage and family therapist with Sharp Mesa Vista Hospital. “Feelings of grief and despair can arise and be all-encompassing.”
The response to a breakup can depend on a variety of factors. These include the duration of the relationship as well as the specific personality traits of those involved.
“If a person’s identity was tightly connected to the relationship, losing an active connection to their significant other might be catastrophic,” Kramer says. “However, it is quite different for those that have maintained a sense of self-identity and purpose, both in and out of the relationship. They can find their way more easily and regain a sense of self-control once the relationship has ended.”
The study looked at three methods to recover from a breakup:
- Negative appraisal of an ex-partner
- Radical acceptance of loving someone you’re no longer with
- Distracting yourself by thinking of and doing things that make you feel good
Negative appraisal of an ex-partner — focusing on the bad habits of the person and remembering the difficulties in the relationship — was the most effective method tested. While negative appraisal led to an initial increase in unpleasant emotions, it resulted in an overall decrease in feelings of love toward the former partner. This helped the hurting party to feel less in love with their ex and more positive about the breakup.
“It is important to focus on what you don’t miss, instead of what you miss about the person or how much you love them,” Kramer says. “The study reiterated a directive that I give my patients on a frequent basis: actions first and feelings will follow. Connect with the why of the relationship’s ending and you’ll move toward feeling better about the how of healing from it.”
If you are feeling heartbroken and unable to get past the ending of a relationship, Kramer suggests you consider the following:
- What is keeping you stuck?
- Are you avoiding the unpleasant emotions resulting from the breakup?
- What is your ultimate goal: to feel better in the moment or to decrease your overall feelings of love toward that person?
If the goal is to feel better in the moment, then negative appraisal may not be in your best interest. However, if the ultimate goal is to heal from the breakup, then enduring the wave of unpleasant emotions might provide more clarity and ease you through it.
Above all, Kramer recommends that you use a breakup as an opportunity for growth and to reconnect with oneself.
“Focus on another very important relationship, which is with the self,” she says. “Return to what gives you meaning as an individual and identify what else brings you joy.”
If you are struggling to heal from a breakup, you may find support through connecting with a licensed mental health professional for direct treatment; increasing your involvement in outdoor activities, church or other community services; or contacting a Warmline — a peer-run listening line — to talk to someone and seek connection (in San Diego, call 619-295-1055).