Moving on

It will probably happen to all of us at some point. Or it probably already has. Working through the agony of romantic rejection with some dignity and degree of reason is part of the experience of being a human. Luckily, the science of the psychology suggests to us a number of tips that might help.

Firstly, there’s no need to minimise what has happened. Let’s not be brave. Rejection is painful. Understand and acknowledge the fact that we're going to experience a wide range of emotions. It’s totally okay to be sad. Being ‘brave’ is not required here. Allow our sadness as much room and time and melancholic love songs and warm baths and chocolate that it needs. Until we eventually bore ourself back into having an appetite for life again. Let’s treat our emotional wounds like we would a physical one and heal.

Secondly, connect to those who appreciate and love us. Getting rejected can really destabilise our evolutionary ‘need to belong,’ which is why we often feel so unsettled and restless after a romantic or social rejection. Our need to ‘belong’ dates back to our days of living in small nomadic tribes, when being away from our tribe was always dangerous and sitting among them was a source of comfort.

One way to settle ourselves after a rejection is to reach out to our core group, our real tribe —be they friends, colleagues, or family members—to get emotional support from them and remind ourselves we’re valued, loved, and wanted.

If you’re the one who has been rejected, remember that in general humans are not excellent at breaking up with people. It might be because we’re too nice.

It’s probably for the best if you really try and believe them when they said that it was over. Try not to imagine that their past sweetness and kind words provided any covert indications of future commitment. Remove morality from it: they were not being ‘bad’ for not loving, nor were you ‘good’ for wanting them. You were both on the search for pleasure that took you down different and conflicting routes. Try not to turn this into a morality tale. They acted weird around the break up not because they were bad or – indeed – unsure. They just felt terribly guilty; because they are nice. Which doesn’t, though, mean that they want you. Think back to when you rejected people: you didn’t hate them or regret them, the chief emotions were embarrassment and pity.

Next, carefully consider the relationship narrative you tell yourself.

After a breakup, it can be healthy for us to reflect on what we’ve learned from the past relationship and what they want to improve in the next one. This is much easier said than done though.

The loss of a partner can make it very easy for us to fall into the self-deprecation trap. Psychologist Arthur Aron and his colleagues has shown 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.

One of the greatest pleasures of being in a relationship is that it can broaden our sense of self by exposing us 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.

Research has shown that 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.

However, some people are able to draw weaker connections between rejection and the self, describing rejection as an arbitrary and unpredictable force rather than the result of some personal flaw. They may perceive the two individuals to be unmatched or see rejection as a universal experience. Others may see the breakup as an opportunity for growth, often citing specific skills there were to learn from a break up. Other participants in this same research acknowledged that breakups had helped them to accept that they couldn’t control the thoughts and actions of others, or to learn how to forgive.

In other words, the stories we tell ourselves about rejection, can shape how, and how well we cope with it. 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.

Another strategy – write about it. Turns out getting out the journal and pen can bring out all the positive emotions that can occur following a break-up. And there are positive emotions.

Expressive writing or journalling is an intervention well-suited to coping with break-up due to its focus on cognitive-processing, simple format, and successful track record. Researchers examined whether a writing-based intervention facilitated coping with a romantic break-up in nearly a hundred single participants who experienced break-up in the past three months. Those in the experimental group wrote about the positive aspects of their break-up. A separate group wrote about the negative aspects, while a third group wrote about a superficial topic not related to the break-up. All groups wrote at home for 15 to 30 minutes a day for three consecutive days without receiving any feedback from the experimenter.

They found that those who focused their writing on the positive aspects of their break-up (factors leading up to the break-up, the actual break-up, and the time right after the break-up) reported experiencing more positive emotions regarding their relationship's end and did not experience an increase in negative emotions. The increased positive emotions included feelings of such as: comfort, confidence, empowerment, energy, happiness, optimism, relief, satisfaction, thankfulness, and wisdom.

Writing about positive writing aspects of a break-up was most effective, particularly if the break-up was mutual, while those in the negative and neutral writing conditions only increased in positive emotions if the break-up was initiated by the participant. Writing was equally effective for males and females.

I engaged in a lot of expressive writing at the time of a relationship break down on the advice of my psychiatrist a few years ago. And it did produce some positive outcomes. Whilst I was quite certain emotionally that my world was categorically over and there was very little point in moving on, focused writing helped to maintain an objective perspective about the whole thing.

And remember this. All the feelings eventually pass. Some of them might take a while. But they will pass.


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