Reflecting upon the breakup incident can actually speed up the emotional recovery process, according to Grace Larson of Northwestern University and David Sbarra of the University of Arizona.
Researchers studied divorce and breakups for years using longitudinal, multi-method designs. At the same time they wanted to study whether these research techniques on their own were affecting the study participants. Individuals who had experienced a non-marital breakup within the previous 6 months were part of the study. During the study, researchers split participants into two conditions- with one group, using a suite of methods for observing coping and emotions (such as questionnaires, psychophysiological measurements like heart rate monitoring, an an interview-like task); and with the second group, only asking them to complete initial and final questionnaires.
Larson said, "One concern they had was that the studies could be harming participants. At first glance, it might seem like repeatedly reminding participants that they had just broken up and asking them to describe the breakup over and over might delay recovery." Therefore, the researchers discussed with the participants about the possible downsides of participating in the study, such as emotional distress, rather than benefits. However, they were surprised to find the opposite effect.
Researchers do not yet know exactly which aspects of the study caused these changes but they suspect it relates to participants thinking about their breakups from a distanced perspective. Larson said, "It might be simply the effect of repeatedly reflecting on one's experience and crafting a narrative - especially a narrative that includes the part of the story where one recovers. Another factor is that in the measurement-intensive condition, participants privately spoke about their breakups (into a voice recorder) four times. While the speaking task was not structured like a typical expressive writing exercise, having the ability to be emotionally expressive may have given the participants the well-documented benefits of expressive writing."
Larson added, "I would encourage a person who recently experienced a breakup to consider who he or she is, apart from the relationship. If that person can reflect on the aspects of him- or herself that he or she may have neglected during the relationship but can now nurture once again, this might be particularly helpful."
The study was published in Social Psychological and Personality Science.