How Dwelling on a Breakup Might Help You Get Over It

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After a breakup, your friends might tell you to find distractions — start a new workout regime, go on dates, or basically do anything to keep an ex out of your mind.

That might be good advice. But a new study suggests that taking some time to dwell on the breakup might lead to a speedier emotional recovery.

The study of newly single people showed that participating in a study that forced them to reflect on their breakup improved their wellbeing.

The study was designed to measure only the psychological fallout of a breakup. The researchers didn't promise their participants any emotional improvement. In fact, they warned their subjects of potential downsides and distress that might come from participating in such a study. However, it turned out that people who repeatedly reflected on their failed relationship in questionnaires and interviews actually gained some clarity. [6 Scientific Tips for a Successful Marriage]

Psychologists who study emotions have good reason to worry that their research methods could inadvertently affect participants' responses. Past research has shown that this can happen.

In a 2012 study in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science, participants were asked to report their level of happiness up to six times a day by responding to a text. People who were more depressed or neurotic to begin with reported lower levels of happiness the more they were asked questions such as "RIGHT NOW: How happy do U feel?" But the opposite was true for people who weren't very depressed or neurotic from the start.

For the new study, led by Grace Larson of Northwestern University, the researchers wanted to look at how different techniques of studying breakups might change the outcomes of their research.

The researchers recruited more than 200 young adults who had experienced a romantic breakup (not a divorce) in the last six months. One group was put into an intensive condition, in which they were asked to talk about their breakup in interviews and written questionnaires for a total of 3.5 hours across four sessions.

"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," Larson said in a statement.

But the opposite turned out to be true. Those participants showed more signs of emotional recovery than another group of people in the study who only participated in two sessions (for a total of 45 minutes) and only filled out written questionnaires, the researchers found.

The study focused on a key aspect of emotional recovery called "self-concept reorganization." Breakups can cloud the sense of self, but through the process of self-concept reorganization, you can redefine yourself as a single person, separate from your ex. The researchers think the improved self-concept that came with all that reflection also led to less loneliness and breakup-related emotional distress.

"The process of becoming psychologically intertwined with the partner is painful to have to undo," Larson said in a statement. "Our study provides additional evidence that self-concept repair actually causes improvements in well-being."

The study was published online Tuesday (Jan. 6) in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science.

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Megan Gannon
Live Science Contributor
Megan has been writing for Live Science and since 2012. Her interests range from archaeology to space exploration, and she has a bachelor's degree in English and art history from New York University. Megan spent two years as a reporter on the national desk at NewsCore. She has watched dinosaur auctions, witnessed rocket launches, licked ancient pottery sherds in Cyprus and flown in zero gravity. Follow her on Twitter and Google+.