How to Make the Best of Your Bad Breakup

June 5th 2016

Breakups are like hangovers: they're nearly inevitable, and yet for all of our medical advances, science still seems to come up short with an effective cure.

But at least with breakups, there are ways to mitigate the negative effects and, potentially, turn them into something positive.

As it turns out, the road to emotional resolve could start with one of the oldest tricks in the book: journaling.

But it can't be just any type of writing.

At least in one recent study, researchers found the newly single can find a "silver lining" by using certain coping methods "involving ways of rethinking the ending and its effect on you," according to a Psychology Today blog post by Susan Krauss Whitbourne, a professor of psychology at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

Krauss Whitbourne pointed to a 2015 study out of Villanova University that examined the restorative effects of "redemptive narratives" and "cognitive reappraisal" — two methods of actively changing the way emotional stress affects the brain.

Using the latter method, study participants wrote about the endings of a recent relationship with a focus on the relationship itself (as opposed to focusing on themselves, or nothing in particular at all). Cognitive reappraisal in the breakup context, Krauss Whitbourne explains, "means that you take away its sting by seeing it as an opportunity rather than a loss."

But working breakups into a broader and encompassing personal story can transform them into "meaningful points in individuals' lives that result in positive outcomes or silver linings," according to the study.

"Specifically, we found that, [...] individuals who had recently split up with their boyfriend or girlfriend, experienced less emotional distress over the course of a 5 day study if they looked for the silver linings [...] of the dark cloud of their breakup," according to Erica Slotter, a social psychologist and assistant professor at Villanova, who co-authored the study.

The Villanova study was limited — an online collection of 19 to 64-year-olds wrote about recent breakups for about 8.5 minutes each day for four days — but its results were still promising. Deconstructing the memory of a breakup could help transform how we process the stresses related to heartbreak.

This isn't medical science's first exploration on the healing properties of narrative, either.

"Stories help us smooth out some of the decisions we have made and create something that is meaningful and sensible out of the chaos of our lives," Dan McAdams, a psychology professor at Northwestern University who focuses on storytelling, told the Monitor on Psychology, the publication of the American Psychological Association.

But some see dangers in the journaling method, including the potential to distort the truth about one's past behavior.

"For better or worse, stories are a very powerful source of self-persuasion, and they are highly internally consistent," John Holmes, a psychology professor at Waterloo University, told the Monitor on Psychology. "Evidence that doesn’t fit the story is going to be left behind."

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