Recovering from a divorce: Write, talk, leave it alone, repeat

Divorce is highly stressful for most spouses – but recent studies provide some clues about what helps foster resilience and recovery from a bad breakup.  Research conducted by David Sbarra and Grace Larson and published in the journal Social Psychology and Personality Science suggests that repeatedly reflecting upon a breakup can speed recovery.  But a word of caution: reflecting too much, particularly by those prone to ruminate, can make matters worse.

In their study, the authors divided a group of 210 young people who had recently split from their partners into two groups.  One group filled out a questionnaire about how they were feeling and then spoke for four minutes into a recording device, freely associating to questions such as, “When did you first realize you were headed towards a breakup?”   This group repeated the speaking exercise three, six and nine weeks later, then completed the questionnaire again.

The second group filled out the questionnaire at the beginning and end of the nine-week study period but did not do the speaking exercise.

Sbarra and Larson found that the participants in the first group experienced greater improvement in “self-concept clarity” than those in the second group.  By self-concept clarity, the researchers meant the degree to which a participant reorganized a coherent (and compassionate) understanding of himself or herself as a person apart from their former partner – a quality of wisdom associated with psychological health.   The result: members of the first group reported feeling less lonely at follow up and less bothered by intrusive feelings and associations about the breakup.

Much of our understanding of ourselves is tied to our relationships.  I am an uncle, a son, a husband, a father, a brother – my relationships help me describe and know who I am.  But after a break up, it can be hard at first to answer questions such as “Who am I?” or “How should I spend my time alone?”  or “Who and what am I responsible for?”   The authors concluded that the speaking exercise helped the participants reaffirm their sense of self apart from their former partners.  The authors speculated that two processes were at work.  First, the speaking exercise (like expressive writing), repeated four times, helped the participants increasingly experience their feelings as familiar, and thus less surprising and disturbing: “Oh yeah, that again.”  The exercise may also have prompted the participants to craft a new identity, using words to freely sculpt a new organization of self.

But in another study, Sbarra found that divorced people asked to complete an expressive writing exercise about their divorce-associated feelings, showed no greater improvement in well-being than divorced persons asked to write unemotionally about what they did that day. In fact, participants who tended to ruminate about their divorce did better when they were assigned to the emotion-free writing group.  Sbarra concluded that for some people, repeatedly revisiting their feelings about the divorce could make things worse.

The key, apparently, is to find a balance between attending to the feelings associated with the breakup while avoiding unproductive, obsessive rumination about those feelings: Write a little, speak a little, leave it alone, repeat.