The Power of Being Positive After a Breakup

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After having experienced my first romantic breakup in my twenties, I become intrigued by how people use different coping strategies after leaving a relationship, as some individuals appear to remain in good spirits while others seem to struggle in moving forward with their life.  For me, I was the latter as I would spend significant amounts of time analyzing every little detail of my past relationships in hopes of finding what went wrong so as not to repeat those same mistakes in another relationship.  In fact, my initial reaction after every single breakup was to ask my mother and sisters what was defective about me that led to these partings.  By engaging in self-blame, I believed that I was a failure entirely at fault for the breakups due to my inadequacy of good looks, intelligence, sociability and personality, making it seem doubtful that I would ever find someone that would accept me for who I was.  Thereby, evidencing a pessimistic explanatory style in that I was developing "a habitual tendency to attribute negative events (i.e. breaking up) to internal, stable, and global causes" (Franzoi, 2006, p. 162).  Being that I felt responsible for the dissolutions of my relationships, I was making internal inferences based on the stable attributions of my intelligence, looks, sociability, and personality that I thought would keep me from ever finding someone to love (Hart & Ianni, 2012).  Thus, I was becoming a pessimist in that I held negative outcome expectancies, which "tend to de-motivate people" (Hart & Ianni, 2012, p. 382). 

 

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On the evening of January 3rd, 2012, my then boyfriend, Lane*, called to inform me that he felt that we needed to give each other some time and space.  As we had just spent New Year's Eve together without any indication that things were not going well, I was completely caught off guard by the direction of the conversation.  When I asked Lane exactly what he felt was not right about us, he stated that we just did not have enough common interests.  Of course, that only added by my confusion as we both attended online universities, cared about being physically fit and eating healthy, held similar political views, enjoyed the same types of movies and music along with being in agreement on how to raise children.  However, none of that seemed to matter and so Lane and I parted ways.  Feeling crushed and utterly perplexed, I began crying and questioning everything about our relationship that may have caused it to end so abruptly.  After much contemplation, I convinced myself that our breakup was the result of some character flaw of mine and if I were only more outgoing, prettier, and more intellectually interesting than Lane would not have wanted to breakup.  After four days of feeling gloomy, to my surprise, Lane called to ask how I was doing.  I did not want him to know the truth, so I told him I was just fine and asked how he was feeling.  He admitted that he missed me and wanted to get back together and the reasoning behind the breakup was that he felt we did not spend enough time together, as we only saw each other twice a week for a few hours. 

 

Joyously, I agreed that we should start dating again and we began training for a marathon, doing our homework together once a week, and attending one social event each weekend.  It seemed like it was going well and we were actually getting to know each other much better the second time around.  Of course, I began to notice things about our relationship that I had not seen before such as how Lane would hardly ever come over to my place, always decided what trails we would run for the day, and whenever our schedules conflicted I would have to change mine to accommodate his or be understanding of his last minute cancellations.  I figured these were just the normal type of sacrifices people make when they are in a relationship.  Although, when Lane did not do as well as he had hoped on his mid-term project he seemed extremely distant and texted me that he would call later that evening, March 3rd, 2012, to talk about it.  Based on his tone, something felt amiss and I became suspicious that he wanted to break up again, as the last time we broke up was right after his finals in which he received a lower grade than he was expecting.  So, that evening when Lane called he said that he felt things were just not going well and that he could not see himself ever marrying me so there really was no point to continue dating.  However, he said that he would also like to remain friends if that was something I was able to do.  I told him that being friends would be fine, although I would need some time to pass before I saw him again.  As with all my previous breakups, I began to question myself and then went to talk things over with my mom. 

 

Fortunately instead of just listening to me belittle myself, my mother interjected by "disputing [my] pessimistic causal attributions (i.e. maladaptive attributions) and [helping me] replac[e] them with optimistic attributions (i.e. adaptive attributions)...commonly referred to as attribution retraining interventions" (Hart & Ianni, 2012, p. 389).  Rather than identifying the breakup as stemming from some self-related cause (i.e. looks, intelligence), I looked for external reasons that may have lead to our separation.  After taking some time to honestly assess my relationship with Lane, I had do admit that we were not a good fit for one another.  For instance, I felt that when people get married it is a joining of two families, Lane felt that it was only a relationship between the couple and that family was not important.  In addition, Lane was obsessed with working out everyday and would always question whether I had adhered to the 1200 calorie diet he thought was appropriate for me along with having done at least an hour's worth of cardio.  While I enjoyed being fit and eating a healthy diet (i.e. all things I did before we met), I felt that he was taking things to the extreme, especially with how he constantly monitored my diet and exercise schedule.  Furthermore, I used the unstable attribution that Lane was overwhelmed by his graduate studies and did not have the time necessary to devote to building a solid relationship.  Likewise, I specifically attributed this breakup to a temporary hurdle in my pursuit of finding love, but nothing that would permanently impede or hamper any future prospects.  If nothing else, it was an opportunity in which I was able to learn from, as the second breakup was actually a relief in that I did not have to keep struggling to meet Lane's expectations of what he thought I should be.


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Due to experiencing firsthand how significant a difference being optimistic had in putting my mind at ease and refocusing my energies after my second breakup, I made a conscious decision to only use an optimistic explanatory style whenever evaluating any of my breakups be it past, present or future.  So while my breakups with Lane were not pleasant experiences, they taught me how to change my attributions from being maladaptive to adaptive (i.e. diagram of explanatory styles dealing with a break up**).  In that it not only helped improve my daily functioning, but it also clearly demonstrated the power of positive thinking when coping with a romantic breakup.  In the end, I learned that by using attribution retraining to develop "a habitual tendency to attribute negative events to external, unstable, and specific causes" (i.e. optimistic explanatory style), it actually reduced my feelings of pessimism and increased my positivity making life appear more cheerful and bright (Franzoi, 2006, p. 162).   

 

 

References:

 

Franzoi, S. L. (2006). Social Psychology. (4th ed.). New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.

Hart, K.E., & Ianni, P.A. (2012). Applying social psychology to positive well-being: Focus on optimism.  In F. W. Schneider, J.  A. Gruman, & L. M. Coutts (Eds.), Applied  Social Psychology: Understanding and addressing social and practical problems (pp. 379-393). LosAngeles, CA: Sage.

 

Image Source: A man and woman on a pier. Retrieved from http://www.newrichstrategies.com/2011/10/top-reasons-why-couples-break-up/

 

Image Source: Broken puzzle heart. Retrieved from http://www.howaboutwe.com/date-report/959-the-top-ten-reasons-couples-break-up/


Image Source: Happy woman.  Retrieved from http://www.123rf.com/photo_14734595_portrait-of-beautiful-smiling-girl-in-wheat-field.html

 

Myers, D. G. (2009). Psychology (9th ed.). Retrieved from http://books.google.com/books?id=L32U6DACHT0C&lpg=PA619&ots=_IpUsS4Zi_&dq=DOES%20AN%20OPTIMISTIC%20EXPLANATORY%20STYLE%20MAKE%20A%20DIFFERENCE%20COPING%20WITH%20RELATIONSHIP%20BREAKUPS&pg=PA619#v=onepage&q=DOES%20AN%20OPTIMISTIC%20EXPLANATORY%20STYLE%20MAKE%20A%20DIFFERENCE%20COPING%20WITH%20RELATIONSHIP%20BREAKUPS&f=true

 

* = Name has been changed

** = May need to copy and paste the link found in the references section under Myers to see the diagram that is linked in the final paragraph. 


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1 Comment

I think it is really interesting that you made a conscious effort to change your explanatory style in order to cope with your breakup (and subsequent breakups). This probably put you on track towards becoming an optimist; that would be amazingly beneficial for coping with all areas of life that may be difficult at some time or another.

Similar to the link you posted on people’s differences in explanatory styles during a break up, some people develop an optimistic explanatory style and others a pessimistic explanatory style (Myers, 2009). A person using a positive explanatory style would make external, unstable, and specific attributions to address why a relationship didn’t work out. A person using a negative explanatory style would use internal, stable, and global attributions to address why a relationship didn’t work out. I like how the link you posted had a flow chart depicting this. I also think that for many people it would be easy to fall into a negative explanatory style after a separation from their partner. Those days and months directly after a break up seem to stretch out indefinitely (As the flow chart stated, “I will NEVER get over this”). To be able to tell yourself that even though it hurts at the moment, it will certainly get better over time is a great step towards a more positive outlook. Same with self blame or making internal attributions: instead of blaming yourself for the demise of a relationship, trying to look objectively at reasons would guide you in a more positive direction (Schneider, Gruman & Coutts, 2012).

Best of all, I think that gaining the ability to change an explanatory style to a more optimistic one during a break up would help with dealing with other bad things that inevitably happen in life.


References

Myers, D. G. (2009). Psychology (9th ed.). Retrieved from http://books.google.com/books?id=L32U6DACHT0C&lpg=PA619&ots=_IpUsS4Zi_&dq=DOES%20AN%20OPTIMISTIC%20EXPLANATORY%20STYLE%20MAKE%20A%20DIFFERENCE%20COPING%20WITH%20RELATIONSHIP%20BREAKUPS&pg=PA619#v=onepage&q=DOES%20AN%20OPTIMISTIC%20EXPLANATORY%20STYLE%20MAKE%20A%20DIFFERENCE%20COPING%20WITH%20RELATIONSHIP%20BREAKUPS&f=true

Schneider, F.W., Gruman, J.A. & Coutts, L.M. (2012). Applied Social Psychology: understanding and addressing social and practical problems. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.

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