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The breakup of romantic relationships: situational predictors of perception of recovery.

People usually experience a great deal of emotional pain when a romantic relationship ends. It is not uncommon for people to refer to 'scars' when discussing a breakup, as if the experience was so painful, and the healing process so difficult, that it left a lasting mark just as a physical injury does. Of course, some breakups are more painful than others. Occasionally, breakup from a romantic relationship causes no lasting heartache, and recovery is reported to be relatively painless and easy. Many factors likely influence the extent to which people suffer after a breakup, and researchers have uncovered a number of them.

Much of the research on recovering from a breakup has focused on recovery after a divorce. Wang and Amato (2000), for example, found that adjusting to divorce was associated with being the person who initiated the divorce, having a favorable attitude toward divorce beforehand, having a higher income, and dating a new person steadily or remarrying. Interestingly, stress (as measured by income decline, loss of friends, moving, etc.) did not make adjusting to divorce more difficult, except among people who were unemployed.

Kitson (1982) found that lingering feelings of emotional attachment to the ex-spouse is another powerful cause of distress during and after divorce, with gender differences apparent at different stages. Women experience more distress during the initial separation, but men experience more distress from the divorce itself (Riessman & Gerstel, 1985). Women and men also have different coping styles when it comes to recovering. Women are more likely to discuss problems and emotions with close friends, while men tend to avoid such discussions and instead focus on beginning another relationship (Sorenson, Russell, Harkness, & Harvey, 1993).

Other research has examined emotional recovery from romantic relationship breakups between people who were not married. A great deal of this research has focused on attachment style as a moderator of the impact of a breakup (e.g., Davis, Shaver, & Vernon, 2003; Feeney, & Noller, 1992; Pistole, 1995). Davis et al. (2003), for example, found that people with an anxious attachment style have the most difficulty dealing with a breakup, and people with a secure attachment style are more likely to seek social support to cope with loss.

Sbarra (2006) examined factors that predicted how quickly people recovered from their sadness and anger after a breakup. Emotional recovery was defined as a point in time when the individual felt as good (for three successive days without relapse) as a comparison group of participants in an intact relationship. Results of the study revealed that sadness recovery was hindered by a preoccupied attachment style, difficulty in accepting that the relationship was over, a high level of love for the partner, and a high level of anger toward the partner. Anger recovery was hindered by a non-secure attachment style and feelings of sadness.

Given the broad range of situational factors that could influence how rapidly a person recovers from a breakup, it is useful to begin to further identify which factors are most influential and whether they account for unique variance when multiple factors are considered simultaneously. Our focus was basic situational or behavioral factors that concerned the romantic relationship itself, rather than personality variables or general attitudes about relationships. As our interest is primarily in a person's self reported perception of recovery, we examined variables that may be related to positive or negative cognitions or behaviors concerning a breakup. Our choice of predictors was guided both by prior research that has provided evidence that a given variable is related to recovery from a breakup (including those related to recovery from divorce) or situational factors that co-occur with a breakup that have not yet been fully investigated but could reasonably be expected to have some influence. These variables are as follows.

Initiator status. Initiating a breakup probably leaves one more vulnerable to feelings of guilt, but it may lead to less self doubt than does being the target of a breakup. It is thus feasible that initiators recover from breakups more quickly than non-initiators. Wang and Amato (2000) found that those who initiate divorce adjust better than those who do not; however, Pettit and Bloom (1984) found that this difference was trivial 6 months after the divorce. Sbarra (2006) did not replicate Wang and Amato's (2000) finding with dating relationships (rather than marriages), although Hill, Rubin, and Peplau (1976) did find that initiators were less distressed than those whose dating partners initiated the breakup. Helgeson (1994) found that men adjusted better to a breakup if they were the initiators, but initiator status was unrelated to women's adjustment. Based on these mixed findings, the role of initiator status in recovering from a breakup remains unclear. Hill et al. (1976) found that former couples do not even always agree on who broke up with whom. We would expect that, if initiator status plays a role at all, it may predict recovery for men, but not for women.

Social support. In a number of studies, receiving social support from friends and loved ones after an important relationship has ended has been found to aid in emotional recovery from the loss (e.g., Sansom & Farnill, 1997). Indeed, one of the reasons offered for women's tendency to suffer less than men after the breakup of a dating relationship (Choo, Levine, & Hatfield, 1996; Helgeson, 1994; Hill et al., 1976) or divorce (Bloom & Caldwell, 1981) is that women tend to have more extensive social support networks than men, who instead rely heavily on romantic partners for their social support (Tschann, 1988; Veroff, 1981). Interestingly, Moller, Fouladi, McCarthy, and Hatch (2003) found that after controlling for attachment style, perceptions of social support from family and friends did not account for additional variance in the adjustment to a dating relationship breakup. However, social connectedness, defined as "the degree of interpersonal closeness that an individual experiences in his or her social world," (Moller et al., 2003, p. 358) did add additional benefits. Finally, social support may serve as a buffer to rumination after a loss. Nolen-Hoeksema and Davis (1999) found that people who tend to ruminate about their negative emotions after the death of a loved one are not only more likely to seek social support after the loss but also benefit more from that social support.

Contact with ex-partner after the breakup. The logic behind inclusion of this variable might be summarized by the saying, "Out of sight, out of mind." If people have contact with an ex-partner, either out of choice or because they work with or have deeply connected social networks with their ex-partner, they may have more difficulty extinguishing negative feelings about their ex-partner and thus have more trouble recovering from the breakup.

Number of previous relationships. While there is no prior research examining this variable, we reasoned that the number of relationships people had prior to the breakup in question may signal how easily participants might expect to find another romantic partner. People who have had many previous relationships might reason that they will have little trouble meeting someone new, while people who have had few relationships might anticipate difficulty in finding a new partner. For some individuals, belief that they can begin a new relationship more easily may be related to better adjustment to a breakup (e.g., Spielmann, MacDonald, & Wilson, 2009).

How long the relationship lasted. The length of time a relationship lasted has been little-studied as a predictor of ease of recovery, but is potentially a powerful predictor. The longer people are in a romantic relationship the more it seems likely that they would rely on their partner to fulfill their day-to-day emotional needs as well as their more concrete goals and activity needs. The degree of disruption of such goals and needs has been found to lead to more severe negative reactions after a breakup (Berscheid, 1983; Berscheid, Snyder, & Omoto, 1989). Related to this, the longer people are in a relationship, the more their thoughts will include their partner. For people who have only been dating a few weeks, many aspects of their lives may not involve their dating partner. After a breakup, it may be much more difficult to avoid negative thoughts about an ex-partner if many of a person's memories and daily routines are entwined with that ex-partner.

Contact with partner during the relationship. Some people who are romantically involved may only date a few times a week, while others live together, work together, and spend all of their leisure time together. In an analysis of predictors of breakup, Felmlee, Sprecher, and Bassin (1990) found that the amount of time spent together was negatively correlated with the breakup of romantically involved partners. Therefore, it is feasible that the more time people spend with their partner on a daily basis, the more difficult it will be to recover from a breakup, as many of their daily activities will be linked to their partner.

How much in love. The research on love in romantic relationships suggests that love may be a better predictor of recovery from breakup for men than for women. When it comes to love, men fall faster (Baumeister & Tice, 2001; Peplau & Gordon, 1985), tend to be more romantic (Sprecher & Metts, 1989), and tend to be less practical (Frazier & Esterly, 1990; Hendrick & Hendrick, 1995; Sprecher & Toro-Morn, 2002) than women, although these differences in beliefs about love may be waning (Sprecher & Toro-Morn, 2002). Sprecher and Metts (1989) assessed romantic beliefs and found that men scored higher than women in the belief that love conquers all, the existence of a soul mate, one's partner is ideal, and love at first sight. Sprecher and Toro-Morn (2002) found that American men scored higher in the idealization of love but did not differ in their other romantic beliefs (e.g., belief in soul mate).

How soon after the breakup the person began dating again. Wang and Amato (2000) found that being in a new relationship or being remarried was associated with emotional recovery from divorce, and Saffrey and Ehrenberg (2007) found that beginning a new relationship was weakly associated with better adjustment to a past breakup. Although romantic relationships were not specifically examined, research by Millar, Tesser, and Millar (1988) also provides some indication of the relationship between finding a new relationship and recovery. Millar et al. (1988) assessed the extent to which incoming university students thought about people they had left behind upon coming to college and found that people who had found substitutes for the people they had left made the adjustment more easily. Spielmann et al. (2009) examined emotional attachment to a prior partner as a function of attachment style (anxious vs. secure). A notable finding was that, for individuals that were still single, individuals with anxious attachment style had greater emotional attachment to a prior partner than individuals with secure attachment. There was no difference, however, as a function of attachment style for those individuals that were in new relationships. Conventional wisdom concerning the nature of loss suggests the need to "work through" a loss before moving on (e.g., Wortman & Silver, 1989), but arguments akin to "getting back in the saddle" and "there are many fish in the sea" are also prevalent. The studies noted above suggest there may be some benefit to new relationships following a breakup and we therefore further examined this within the context of the situational factors that could influence breakup recovery.

The available literature suggests that a number of the variables discussed above might be expected to be related to the length of time it takes to recover from a romantic breakup. In addition, we examined situational variables that have yet to be fully explored in the literature, but could be expected to co-occur or be related to feelings concerning a breakup (e.g., number of prior partners, length of the relationship). No research, however, has investigated all of these variables within the same study to determine the extent to which each variable's predictive influence is redundant with others. The goals of the present study are threefold: (a) first, to examine the extent that variables shown to be related to recovery from divorce generalize to other romantic relationships; (b) second, to investigate the extent to which perceived situational factors are unique predictors of recovery from a breakup; (c) and third, given that prior literature has shown gender differences in terms of the relationship of certain variables to recovery (Riessman & Gerstel, 1985; Sorenson et al., 1993), to assess these predictors as a function of gender.



A total of 267 undergraduate students from a southeastern university participated in this study and received course credit or extra credit in their Introduction to Psychology and Physiological Psychology courses. Participants that had never experienced a romantic relationship were instructed to simply answer the questions on the basis of the ending of a close friendship. Their data were discarded (n = 30). Of the 237 that indicated that they had experienced a breakup from a romantic relationship, 89 indicated that they had not yet recovered from the breakup of the romantic relationship in question. As we were interested in predictors of recovery, those who indicated that they had not yet recovered were excluded from analysis. Thirty-two additional participants with missing data on the relevant criterion and predictor variables were not included in the analysis. Therefore, regression analysis was based on 116 participants with complete data on the predictor variables and the criterion. There were 59 males, 55 females and 2 that did not indicate gender (1). Ages ranged from 18 to 40 years (M = 20.19, SD = 2.84). The sample consisted of 80 Caucasians, 27 African Americans, 1 biracial student, 5 that indicated "Other" and two that did not indicate ethnicity. The majority of our sample reported heterosexual orientation (n = 112); 1 student reported bisexuality as his/her sexual orientation, 1 student reported homosexuality as his/her sexual orientation, and 2 did not report sexual orientation.

Materials and Procedure

Participants were asked to "Think of the most significant romantic relationship that you've had that broke up." Survey items assessed situational characteristics, behaviors and attitudes associated with the relationship. First, students reported how long the relationship had lasted in months. They also reported who broke up with whom or whether the breakup was a mutual decision. Next, participants reported how in love they had been, from 1 (Not at all) to 6 (Madly in love). Students then reported how many people they spoke with about the breakup within 24 hours of the breakup. Participants reported how often they saw their ex-boyfriend/ girlfriend in the months before and after the breakup, with each item rated as either Everyday, A few times a week, A few times a month, or Rarely. Students were also asked how soon after the breakup they began dating someone new and how long it took them to recover completely (to feel as good as you felt before the relationship began) from the breakup in months. Finally, students reported how many other relationships they had had in the year before dating the person with whom the significant breakup occurred.


The data were analyzed using multiple regression analysis. The "number of previous relationships," "how long were you in the relationship," "how often did you see your boyfriend/girlfriend," "how soon you began dating again," "how many people did you talk to," "how often did you see your boyfriend/girlfriend after," "how in love were you," and "who broke up with whom," were entered as predictors into the model simultaneously. Who broke up with whom was dummy coded and entered as a categorical predictor (Dummy variable 1 = initiator of breakup coded 1, and Dummy Variable 2 = He/She broke up = 1). "Time to recover from the relationship" was entered as the criterion variable. Results revealed that the overall regression model was significant, F(9, 106) = 8.53, p < .001. Examination of the slopes for the individual predictors revealed that the amount of time spent in the relationship ([beta] = .49, p < .001) and how quickly the individual began dating again ([beta] = .39 p < .001) significantly predicted time to recover from the breakup. No other predictors contributed significantly to the model (see Table 1 for regression coefficients). Forty-two percent of the variance in the data was accounted for by the model, with a standard error of the estimate of 6.52.

To examine predictors as a function of gender, predictors were entered simultaneously in separate models with "time to recover from the relationship" as the criterion variable. For females, the overall regression model was significant, F(9, 45) = 9.92, p < .001. Examination of individual slopes revealed that the amount of time spent in the relationship ([beta] = .64, p < .001), how often one saw her partner during the relationship ([beta] = -.26, p < .01), and how quickly the individual began dating again ([beta] = .31, p < .01), were significant predictors in the model. No other predictors contributed significantly to the model (see Table 2). Sixty-seven percent of the variance in the data was accounted for by the model, with a standard error of the estimate of 6.80.

For males, the overall regression model was also significant, F(9, 49) = 6.15, p < .001. Examination of the slopes revealed that how in love an individual was ([beta]= .29, p < .05), how soon one began dating again ([beta]= .43, p < .001), and how often one saw his partner during the relationship ([beta]= .23, p < .05) were significant predictors in the model (See Table 3). Fifty-three percent of the variance in the data was accounted for by the model, with a standard error of the estimate of 3.56.


The current study illustrated a number of interesting patterns. Time to begin dating someone new significantly predicted recovery from the breakup of a romantic relationship for the sample as a whole. Relationship length was also related to recovery time, although the examination of gender revealed that this variable was a significant predictor for women, but not for men. Interestingly, how often one saw their boyfriend/girlfriend in the months before the breakup was significant for both women and men, but in opposite directions. For women, this was negatively associated with time to recover, while for men it was positively associated.

The finding that the longer one is in a relationship the longer the recovery, is not surprising given the greater chances of associating the relationship and partner with various settings, activities, goals, thoughts, and feelings. After a relationship has ended, despite one's attempt to avoid the ex, thoughts of the ex may be primed by the environment, or intrude spontaneously.

Another interesting finding from this study is that how quickly a person begins dating someone new is a robust predictor of recovery from a breakup. This variable was a reliable predictor for the entire sample, as well as across genders. The often-offered advice that one should take time to process a loss before venturing back into the dating world may be misguided, at least in terms of how people view their own recovery. There are a number of factors that may account for this result. A new partner may limit the extent to which an individual may focus on negative thoughts concerning a new relationship or contribute to positive behaviors such as increased social interaction. For example, in the area of clinical psychology, a technique known as Behavioral Activation can be used within the context of treatment of depression (e.g., Hopko, Lejuez, Ruggiero, & Eifert, 2003).

Hopko et al. (2003) stated that:
   Behavioral activation may be defined as a therapeutic process that
   emphasizes structured attempts at engendering increases in overt
   behaviors that are likely to bring the patient into contact with
   reinforcing environmental contingencies and produce corresponding
   improvements in thoughts, mood, and overall quality of life (p.

In the present context, a breakup is likely to engender negative feelings, moods, self-perceptions, etc. However, by entering a new relationship, individuals are exposing themselves to an intimate (presumably positive) relationship with another individual and increasing the likelihood of social contact or activity. Thus, similar to the definition of behavioral activation discussed above, by entering the new relationship the individual is, via their behavior, enhancing exposure to reinforcers in their environment. Of course, it is always possible that the causal direction of this result runs in reverse: those who are less traumatized by a breakup begin dating sooner, so caution in interpreting this result is warranted.

Perhaps most interesting was the finding that, for females, how often they saw their partner before the breakup was negatively related to recovery, whereas the opposite was observed for males (i.e., how often he saw his partner before breakup was associated with longer recovery). Prior research has suggested that greater time spent with a partner is associated with a lower likelihood of breakup, possibly because time spent in a relationship is perceived as an investment in the relationship (Felmlee, et al., 1990). Consequently, it would seem that the greater time spent together would be related to slower recovery, but that pattern was observed only for males. It is possible that the seemingly counterintuitive finding for the females may be related to differences in how the genders approach relationships. As noted above, females take a more pragmatic approach whereas males still tend to be somewhat more romantic in their beliefs about love (Sprecher and Toro-Morn, 2002). Consequently, if a breakup occurs, it is possible that females may be more adept at objectively assessing the positives and negatives of the relationship and are better able to do so with greater information (i.e., more time actually spent together). Therefore, if the relationship ends, females may better cope as a function of a more balanced viewpoint of the relationship, whereas males may be clinging to their romanticized view of their partner. This may also be reflected in the finding that how much in love was a significant predictor for males, but not females.

Other situational variables, however, were not significantly related to breakup recovery when the variables were considered as a group, including some that have previously been found to predict breakup recovery. In particular, the lack of any relationship between social support and recovery is especially surprising. Lack of social support is often cited as a central reason why men have more trouble adjusting to divorce, yet having friends and family to talk to after a breakup seemed to have little bearing on how long it took participants to recover from their breakups in the present study.

With respect to the limitations of this research, it should be noted again that these data were retrospective. Sbarra (2006) followed participants as their breakups were happening, using an experience sampling method, which allowed on-line judgments of emotional recovery that were not subject to the judgmental biases and distortions of retrospection. However, using a retrospective judgment did provide an advantage: participants in the present study were asked to consider their most significant breakup, rather than their last. This allowed us to examine recovery from a breakup that was especially traumatic for participants.

In regard to the finding that dating was related to shorter recovery period, these results do not speak to the long-term outcome of such an approach (e.g., whether dating more quickly would be related to better quality relationships or long-term satisfaction in relationships). Second, the participants in the present study were relatively young and it could be argued that the results here might not generalize to an older sample. While there may be a number of differences between perceptions of younger versus older adults with regard to relationship experiences, note, however, that this finding does appear to converge with prior research regarding the benefits of beginning a new relationship (Spielmann et al., 2009; Wang & Amato, 2000).

In summary, our aim was to identify the concrete, situational variables that are related to recovery from a romantic breakup and both cognitive and behavioral mechanisms have been proposed to account for the findings. Subsequent research is needed to test these links empirically. Furthermore, the practical application of the current findings should be explored. For example, if the cognitive and/or behavioral benefits of beginning a new relationship subsequent to a break-up can be sufficiently elucidated, these findings could have a broad range of applications (e.g., therapeutic). Research should also be aimed at examining whether these variables relate not only to perception of a breakup, but how they might be related to long-term outcomes such as relationship stability or satisfaction. Further research could also be aimed at assessing whether such findings generalize to other forms of personal loss.


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(1) In addition to the analysis for a group as a whole (N = 116), analyses were conducted separately for males and females. The analyses for males and females were based on the participants that indicated gender (n = 114).

Lawrence Locker, Jr., William D. McIntosh, Amy A. Hackney, Janie H. Wilson, and Katherine E. Wiegand Georgia Southern University

Author info: Correspondence should be sent to: Lawrence Locker, Jr., Georgia Southern University, Department of Psychology, PO Box 8041, Statesboro, GA 30460,
TABLE 1 Model Coefficients & Standard Errors for the Overall Sample

Model                      B     Std. Error     Beta

Constant                  .85       3.27

How long were you         .29        .05       .49 *
in the relationship?
How much in love          .04        .54        .01
were you?
How many people          -.05        .11        -.04
did you talk to?
How often did you        -.47        .58        -.06
see your bf/gf?
How soon did you          .55        .11       .39 *
begin dating?
How often did you        -.47        .72        -.05
see him/her after?
# of previous            -.42        .47        -.07
relationships in year
before dating bf/gf
Initiator of Breakup     -.96       1.54        -.06
He/She was initiator     1.29       1.70        .07
of the breakup

[R.sup.2] = .42, * p < .001

TABLE 2 Model Coefficients & Standard Errors for Females

Model                        B      Std. Error     Beta

Constant                   10.52       5.25

How long were you           .47         .07       .64 **
  in the relationship?
How much in love            -.67        .83        -.08
  were you?
How many people             -.24        .21        -.11
  did you talk to?
How often did you          -2.88        .99       -.26 *
  see your bf/gf?
How soon did you            .58         .17        .31 *
  begin dating?
How often did you          -1.66       1.10        -.14
  see him/her after?
# of previous               .47         .69         .06
  relationships in year
  before dating bf/gf
Initiator of Breakup       -1.72       2.49        -.08
He/She was initiator        3.18       2.94         .12
  of the breakup

[R.sup.2] = .67, * p < .01, ** p < .001

TABLE 3 Model Coefficients & Standard Errors for Males

         Model               B      Std. Error     Beta

Constant                   -3.63       2.44

How long were you           .06         .04         .18
  in the relationship?
How much in love            1.09        .44        .29 *
  were you?
How many people             .13         .07         .19
  did you talk to?
How often did you           .89         .43        .23 *
  see your bf/gf?
How soon did you            .35         .08       .43 **
  begin dating?
How often did you           -.04        .56        -.01
  see him/her after?
# of previous               -.74        .40        -.20
  relationships in year
  before dating bf/gf
Initiator of Breakup       -2.09       1.21        -.21
He/She was initiator       -2.01       1.25        -.21
  of the breakup

[R.sup.2] = .53, * p < .05, ** p < .001
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Author:Locker, Lawrence, Jr.; McIntosh, William D.; Hackney, Amy A.; Wilson, Janie H.; Wiegand, Katherine E
Publication:North American Journal of Psychology
Article Type:Report
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Dec 1, 2010
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