Learn from a University of Missouri study.
Heartbreak is defined as a state of “devastating emotional loss”.
Almost all of us will be heartbroken by the loss of a romantic partner at some point in our lives. It’s as universal and fundamental as love.
That doesn’t make it any less painful.
Based on the strength of the relationship lost, heartbreak varies in severity and duration.
A study by the Journal of Positive Psychology found it takes 11 weeks, on average, to feel better after the loss of a romantic partner. This was regardless of being the dumper or dumpee. Those with secure parental attachments recovered faster.
For a marital split, the healing process can take 18 months once finalised — divorced couples are likely to have been separated long before that.
So regardless of whether it was a fling, “situationship”, long-term boyfriend or girlfriend, or a marriage: getting over someone romantically is a long, messy process. Can we heal from heartbreak faster?
A 2018 study published by the University of Missouri set out to do just that. Psychologists recruited 24 participants of both genders, who were currently upset about a break-up.
Participants tried out three post-breakup healing strategies: also known as love regulation.
They measured the effectiveness of each via i) responses to self-report questionnaires, and ii) EEG recordings of brain activity.
These regulation strategies were used in response to pictures of their exes, so there was no faking their reaction.
The good news is, each of the three strategies was found to reduce the participant’s motivation to see their ex, at a neurological level. Alongside other emotional benefits.
In other words, they found 3 effective ways to help the heartbroken “get over someone”. Let’s take a look at how.
#1 Write down the bad things about your ex
Does this one sound cruel? Don’t worry. Psychologists call this cognitive reappraisal, not a bitch fest. It’s a flip of perspective. And it works.
Post-break-up, we tend to romanticise. We get nostalgic. Suddenly, this same person who kept us up with their snoring at 2 AM was a perfect dreamboat.
We also tend to stalk — 91% of the recently single check their ex-partner’s social media. AKA Instagram photos of them looking hot. AKA Facebook posts of them having fun with their friends and families. It’s a distorted mirror to see an ex-partner through, and one that only works in their favor by showing them in an artificially positive light.
In the study, negative reappraisal was done by simply asking participants “What is an annoying habit of your ex?”. This decreased feelings of affection/interest in their ex-partner, matched by reduced brain activity in associated brain areas.
Negative reappraisal is a reality check on who your ex actually was as a person. Remember those little and big actions by your ex that just didn’t feel right?
That time they laughed at you for not knowing something; recommended a bad film; lied about what their job was; treated a waitress rudely; held a political opinion that made you roll your eyes; idolized somebody you hated; refused to clean up or tidy this spot; snapped at you for something small; criticized someone you loved; acted differently around you in public; interrupted you during the movie; stumbled in when they were drunk.
The list is unique to the relationship, but there’s always a list.
The more you hunt through your own memories for this real evidence of their imperfection, the more balanced the light you see your ex under. Warts and all.
Not a superhuman, or the Anti-Christ, or Romeo. Just another ordinary, fallible person, with their own perks and problems.
Seeing things as they truly are is key to healing.
#2 Accept, rather than deny, the grief
In a breakup, the feelings linger after the person is gone — like perfume in an empty room.
This is frustrating for us. Particularly if we view ourselves as “stronger than this” or “unemotional”, lingering feelings can take us by surprise. We start to brood and obsess over the fact that it hurts, viewing it as a shameful fact that needs to be squashed. This creates more unnecessary pain for ourselves.
Reminder: Romantic love and subsequent heartbreak are essentially universal. Feeling sad about the loss of someone is a completely natural process, shared by millions around the planet at any given second. It doesn’t discriminate based on age, gender, job, relationship history, or “toughness”.
The most emotionally strong and mature thing you can do with romantic loss is to acknowledge it. Don’t say it was “Only a — ”. Don’t play the grown-up. Don’t act the hard man. Let yourself feel bad.
It sounds counter-intuitive, but accepting and feeling emotions allows you to then let them go. People who attempt to deny their feelings of hurt end up “coping” in destructive ways: developing anger issues, drinking heavily, rebounding to an undeserving partner, or isolating themselves from the world.
In the Missouri study, participants were simply prompted to think: “It’s okay to love someone I’m no longer with.” This tiny, honest act of self-acceptance decreased the amplitude of the brainwave (at 400ms-1000ms) associated with motivated attention, in response to an ex-partners photo.
By reminding themselves that the lingering love was okay, they were less motivated to continue to dwell on their partner. It helped them let go.
Denial obsesses; acknowledgment heals.
#3 Reinvest the love into other areas of your life
The third condition was incredibly simple — distraction.
Participants were asked, “What is your favorite food?”.
As in the other two conditions, participants asked this were less motivated to pay attention to a picture of their ex-partner: on both self-report and EEG measures. They also felt happier.
Let’s dissect that. As a specific, food is great, and as instinctive a motivator as sex, sure.
Equally, participants are being asked to focus on the existence of something else that brings them joy. It reminds them that there is more to the world than their partner.
After a breakup, there is a “hollow” feeling left — because the main giver and receiver of those vast chunks of intimacy in our lives isn’t there anymore.
The loss of a relationship once again frees up these mental resources: the capacity to give attention and love. Hence rebounds. But does it have to be flings?
Your heart isn’t broken. You simply have it back and don’t know what to do with it yet. Like a weird, unexpected gift in the mail.
With it, we can remember everything else we love — friendships, hobbies, cities, dreams, causes — and reinvest our passion into that.
Meet up with that old friend for brunch. Reconnect with the relative who is greying before your eyes. Try what you always quietly wanted to do, but didn’t have time to pursue earlier — singing lessons, oil painting, learning how to forage. Wander over to that road that always looked interesting, or look hard at a world map again. Dedicate your time to others — in your community, in your friendships, in your roles in life.
You’ll remember two elemental facts.
- There is no specific, singular person you have to love. Affection can be found everywhere. Hugs, laughter, compassion, all still exist. As does sex. Other people still care for you; you still care for other people. The future is open.
- There are people all around you who need help. Your pain isn’t solitary. Your healing doesn’t have to be, either. Interpersonal relationships in general — not just romantic — are the single greatest key to our happiness.
Am I getting too mushy for you? Fine: in your less noble moods, you can just think about pizza.
A study on romantic heartbreak at the University of Missouri revealed three ways we recover from a breakup. We now know three ways to get over someone, faster.
#1 Write down the bad things about your ex. Bitch fest journal! I mean, ahem, a cognitive reappraisal. Remember annoying habits.
#2 Accept, rather than deny, the grief. The simple prompt of “It’s okay to love someone I’m no longer with.” helped to validate participants lingering feelings, enabling them to move on. Remember this is normal.
#3 Reinvest love in other areas of your life. Distractions, both small and large, work. Even thinking about food. On a larger scale, this means connecting with friends, exploring, following creative passions, and volunteering. A change in where you direct your attention can regrow your life.
Here’s to getting over someone — and getting better in the process. ❤