Breakups aren't all bad: Coping strategies to promote positive outcomes

Writing about the positive aspects of a relationship's end can build empowerment and fend off negative emotions

Findings

Almost everyone will experience the break-up of a romantic relationship at some point in their lives (and unfortunately, most will likely experience break-ups several times). Break-up or divorce can initially result in negative outcomes such as depression (Monroe, Rohde, & Seeley, 1999). In fact, when asked about how a recent break-up has influenced them, list numerous negative outcomes such as loneliness, distress, and a loss of self or sense of who they are as a person (Lewandowski, Aron, Bassis, & Kunak, 2006). Thus, an ideal coping strategy should encourage those who have experienced a romantic relationship's end to purposefully focus on the positive aspects of their experience while simultaneously minimizing negative emotions. Exploring positive outcomes in the context of otherwise negative events follows from a growing body of literature based in positive psychology that examines the positive elements of experience that promote growth and personal prosperity (Seligman & Csikszentmihalyi, 2000).

In fact, research has established that positive emotions can occur following break-up, particularly when the previous relationship did not expand the self, and when personal growth occurred after the break-up (Lewandowski & Bizzoco, 2007 ). Expressive writing or journaling is an intervention that is well-suited to coping with break-up due to its focus on cognitive-processing, simple format, and successful track record (Pennebaker, 1997). A meta-analysis suggests that writing in other contexts leads to a decrease in negative outcomes (Smyth, 1998) as well as increased subjective well-being (Frattaroli, 2006).

Consistent with this approach, researchers have also examined whether a writing-based intervention facilitated coping with a romantic break-up in nearly a hundred single participants who experienced break-up in the past three months. Those in the experimental group wrote about the positive aspects of their break-up. A separate group wrote about the negative aspects, while a third group wrote about a superficial topic not related to the break-up. All groups wrote at home for 15 to 30 minutes a day for three consecutive days without receiving any feedback from the experimenter.

They found that those who focused their writing on the positive aspects of their break-up (factors leading up to the break-up, the actual break-up, and the time right after the break-up) reported experiencing more positive emotions regarding their relationship's end and did not experience an increase in negative emotions. The increased positive emotions included feelings of such as: comfort, confidence, empowerment, energy, happiness, optimismism, relief, satisfaction, thankfulness, and wisdom.

Writing about positive writing aspects of a break-up was most effective, particularly if the break-up was mutual, while those in the negative and neutral writing conditions only increased in positive emotions if the break-up was initiated by the participant. Writing was equally effective for males and females.

Significance

This research demonstrates how a simple intervention like writing can have a beneficial effect on those coping with the end of a romantic relationship. More importantly, the present findings indicate that writing about positive aspects of the break-up can increase positive emotions and can do so without a corresponding increase in negative emotions. Further, the ability of the positive writing to produce improvements in positive emotions in the short term is important due to the potential for romantic break-up to lead to more serious problems (Monroe et al., 1999). This is especially true since many people may not automatically focus on the potential positive aspects of romantic break-up.

The fact that writing did not increase negative emotions contrasts some previous work (e.g., Pennebaker, 1997; Smyth, 1998). This may be because a break-up is less negative and less absolute compared to other traumas. As a result, participants may be more comfortable discussing the event, and may have done so with members of their social network. The ability for positively -focused writing to facilitate coping with a typically negative experience such as a break-up without increasing negative feelings is promising for the future application and efficacy of this intervention, (and perhaps other everyday problems such as job loss).

Practical application

Although break-ups are stressful events, they have the potential to produce positive outcomes (Tashiro & Frazier, 2003; Tashiro, Frazier, & Berman, 2006). These findings coincide with previous findings that a break-up can lead to positive outcomes such as personal growth, particularly when the former relationship did not provide sufficient opportunities for self-improvement (Lewandowski & Bizzoco, 2007). This research also suggests that positive outcomes of break-up were less likely when people coped by venting, but were more likely when people coped through positive reinterpretation of the break-up experience. Positively focused writing can help those who have recently experienced break-up purposefully take a new perspective and reinterpret the break-up in beneficial ways. The resulting positive outcomes can lead to greater resiliency and promote additional positive outcomes (Fredrickson & Joiner, 2002).

Cited research

Frattaroli, J. (2006). Experimental disclosure and its moderators: A meta-analysis. Psychological Bulletin, 132(6), 823-865.

Fredrickson, B., & Joiner, T. (2002). Positive emotions trigger upward spirals toward emotional well-being. Psychological Science, 13(2), 172-175.

Lewandowski, G., Aron, A., Bassis, S., & Kunak, J. (2006). Losing a self-expanding relationship: Implications for the self-concept. Personal Relationships, 13(3), 317-331.

Lewandowski, G., & Bizzoco, N.* (2007). Addition through subtraction: Growth following the dissolution of a low quality relationship. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 2(1), 40-54.

Monroe, S., Rohde, P., Seeley, J., & Lewinsohn, P. (1999). Life events and depression in adolescence: Relationship loss as a prospective risk factor for first onset of major depressive disorder. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 108(4), 606-614.

Pennebaker, J.W. (1997). Opening up: The healing power of expressing emotion. New York: Guilford Press.

Seligman, M., & Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2000). Positive psychology: An introduction. American Psychologist, 55(1), 5-14.

Smyth, J. (1998). Written emotional expression: Effect sizes, outcome types, and moderating variables. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 66(1), 174-184.

Tashiro, T., Frazier, P., & Berman, M. (2006). Stress-related growth following divorce and relationship dissolution. In M. A. Fine, & J. H. Harvey (Eds.), Handbook of Divorce and Relationship Dissolution (pp. 361-384). Mahwah, NJ, US: Lawrence Erlbaum and Associates.

Tashiro, T., & Frazier, P. (2003). 'I'll never be in a relationship like that again: Personal growth following romantic relationship breakups. Personal Relationships, 10(1), 113-128.

Original publication information

Lewandowski, G. (2009). Promoting positive emotions following relationship dissolution through writing. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 4(1), 21-31.

Contact information

Gary W. Lewandowski Jr.
Department of Psychology
Monmouth University
West Long Branch, NJ 07764
Phone: (732) 263-5476
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