Breakups can often be quite traumatizing to those involved, especially if they were messy. They can shake your self-confidence, completely disrupt your life and leave you scrambling to figure out what went wrong and why you weren’t good enough. And, unfortunately, many of us go through at least one breakup so painful that it still hurts to think about, years later.
However, breakups can also inspire great positive change in other areas of your life. You may realize that you’ve been neglecting your friendships and family or discover opportunities you never would have gunned for or do something you couldn’t before; losing an unhealthy relationship forces you to reflect upon your values and can motivate you to better yourself.
After reflecting on my own experiences, I wondered whether there was a scientific way to maximize personal growth, post-breakup. As a fiend for self-improvement, I thought that surely there must be a legitimate, proven method to come out of a relationship better than you were before.
Aside from the millions of blogs I browsed though, I found one relevant, scholarly article: “I’ll never be in a relationship like that again: Personal growth following romantic relationship breakups.” Written by Dr. Patricia Frazer and Dr. Ty Tashiro in 2003, the article in the American Psychological Association journal summarizes their work in determining the relevant factors that contribute to a person’s ability to make positive change after a breakup.
What did they find? Well, it’s not just about starting a workout regimen and getting that revenge body, or blocking your ex on social media. While these can be healthy coping mechanisms that will get your mind off the breakup and enable more productivity, Frazer and Tashiro emphasize that your understanding of why the relationship ended is the key to whether you’ll actively better yourself and your life, or just wallow in sadness, without learning anything meaningful.
For instance, if a person were to attribute their relationship’s demise entirely to their ex-partner, how much growth can they really achieve, beyond “I’ll be more cautious with who I choose to date”? That’s not to say that a breakup can’t be one partner’s fault, but most tend to be somewhat mutual.
If you truly believe that your ex is the only one in the wrong, then you’re likely assuming that there’s nothing about yourself you need to change for a better relationship, and that it’s only your ex who needs to change. But because you don’t have the power to make them change, fixating upon it will only end in dissatisfaction and disappointment on your part. If you can identify mitigating factors, like your own dysfunctions or a potentially toxic environment, you’ve already found spots to improve upon.
In their study of college students, who had experienced a breakup relatively recently, Frazer and Tashiro define four categories of commonly-cited causal conditions for a breakup: personal, other, relational and environmental. As evident from their titles, personal conditions refer to your own faults, other to the partner’s faults, relational to your collective dysfunctionality and environmental to external issues, like disapproving friends or a stressful work schedule.
Frazer and Tashiro found that, although they were fewer in number, participants who emphasized “other” attributions consistently experienced more distress after their breakups. As mentioned above, these increased negative emotions stemmed from participants’ inability to change their exes’ behavior.
In contrast, those highlighting relational factors felt less distressed because they had more control over the problems. For example, many participants cited better communication skills for future and existing relationships as a positive outcome of their breakup.
As Frazer and Tashiro remark, many of the positive changes reported by participants were less broad than “communication skills,” and encompassed more specific behaviors and attitudes, such as spending more time with friends and family, taking the next relationship more cautiously and enjoying your hobbies more often.
Now, I know you may be thinking: what do I even do with this information? And here’s the scary truth: you need to do some self-reflection. Gross, right? But hear me out: really getting to know yourself is the necessary first step toward any type of growth. How can you improve something that you’re not even aware of? If you’re serious about wanting a more fulfilling life, it’s going to take some (possibly uncomfortable) work.
While it isn’t healthy to endlessly mull over the same things, having some self-awareness is vital to fixing reoccurring problems in your life. Take some time out of your day and set it aside to reflect on why your breakup happened; perhaps try journaling, and just let your thoughts flow. Let yourself bask in your emotions about each memory, even if they make you feel something you don’t want to feel. Accept the happy memories for what they were, and don’t retroactively downplay the relationship.
Forgive yourself for things you did in the past, but recognize them for being detrimental. Don’t demonize your ex; people are always more complex than black-and-white good or bad, and at one point you loved them for some reason. But don’t spend your time obsessing over their intentions or idolizing them. This is about you.
Maybe go through the four categories Frazer and Tashiro devised: personal, other, relational and environmental. Identify behaviors that made the relationship deteriorate, and learn how to eliminate or improve them. How could your ex have communicated better? How could you have communicated better? Which of your values were inconsistent with theirs? Was there an outside stressor putting one of you on edge?
After you think long and hard about the relationship, and feel satisfied with your conclusions about what went wrong, put it out of your mind. You’ve identified the problem areas to work on, if you so choose, and you have a plan, so there’s no need to dwell in the past.
Don’t beat yourself up for slipping into sadness, but pull yourself out when they happen, or enlist a loved one’s help. It’s going to take time and effort, but how do you think everyone else manages it?