When We Break Up

Sept. 14, 2012


The hashtag, #ThingsPeopleSayAfterABreakUp, has begun trending on Twitter, and many tweets indicate that people experience a range of emotions when breaking up: frustration, anger, vindication, confusion, disbelief and, sometimes, relief.

Several UA researchers have studied romantic partnerships, and numerous specialists educate students, faculty and staff about healthy, responsible relationships. Among them are Melissa Curran, a UA associate professor of  family and consumer sciences, and Dave Swihart, employee assistance coordinator for the UA's Life & Work Connections. In response, both offered their advice:

Q: Many #ThingsPeopleSayAfterABreak responses evoke feelings of anger and frustration, often directed at the past partner. While relationships can break for a range of reasons (from incapability to violence), why are they sometimes so difficult to release?

Curran: I think this has to do with the social cognition strategy of reconstructive memory. Through this process, we are continually revising and rewriting memories as new information is obtained. When we are in a relationship and we are happy, likely our memories of past events are positive ones. With a  breakup, though, a flood of negative experiences is likely to occur (even with amicable breakups), which may explain in part how individuals’ previously happy memories are revised and rewritten as new information (e.g., experience of breakup) is processed.

Swihart: Lack of healing, forgiveness and just plain maturity.

Q: What advice would you provide to couples who are breaking up or who have broken up, whether they intend to remain friends or not?

Swihart: Make two lists: one of things your partner did that you can work on forgiving/letting go, and the other for ways you contributed to the breakup that you can learn and forgive yourself for.

Curran: I would also tell people that healing does occur after a breakup, but it takes time to heal. For example, sadness and anger are highest right after a breakup, but negative emotions become less intense after time and with new experiences without the previous relational partner.

Curran: If children are involved, here’s advice I would strongly encourage parents to follow: Parents need to be civil toward one another and create stability for their child. Children need stability in general, and especially during a major life change like a parent's separation or divorce. Further, parents should be encouraged to stay focused on the outcomes of their child and keep the child’s environment as stable as possible. Here, then, parents should be making sacrifices (e.g., driving to the child’s same school; maintaining same friendships for the child), rather than the other way around. Here, I would also add that parents need to maintain appropriate boundaries and routines in their family system. This is not the time for the parent to let go of discipline or regular routines for their child. This seems obvious, but parents will want to stay focused on being parents to their child, even if emotionally they are struggling.

Swihart: Couples should look at problems for signs of where they need to grow as individuals. Do not avoid conflict, but learn to do it so you both walk away feeling better.

Q: Will you be publishing or presented research around this topic in the coming year?

Curran: With my students and colleagues, I’ll be presenting research on sacrifices and commitment in romantic relationships, as well as understanding more about diverse family experiences. In this latter talk, former UA President Peter Likins will be one of the speakers of this symposium. The conference I’ll be attending is the National Center for Family Relations in Phoenix, Ariz. in late October to early November.