Photo by Ariana Bacle / North by Northwestern.
When a friend seems devastated at the end of a relationship, it’s not always just melodrama. A study recently released by the Northwestern Psychology Department proves that break-ups alter individuals’ self-concepts, leaving them unsure of who they are after a relationship ends.
“We know that the relationships we’re in influence how we think about ourselves,” says Erica B. Slotter, the Northwestern graduate student who authored the study. “We hypothesized that when those relationships end, that should change how we see ourselves.”
Slotter worked with co-authors Wendi L. Gardner and Eli J. Finkel, both Northwestern professors, to prove that hypothesis. As part of the experiment, they studied 69 freshmen during their first month at Northwestern, all of whom were in relationships. By the end of the study, 26 had experienced a break-up.
Slotter then studied subjects’ self-concept clarity — in other words, the degree to which a person knows him or herself. She found that people in relationships had higher self-concept clarity, while newly single people saw their self-concept clarity plummet. The study found that this decrease is sometimes responsible for the depression, anxiety and neurosis that typically accompany a break-up.
“When people experience a break-up, they change their social circle, appearance and goals, which leads to a low self-concept clarity,” Slotter says. “When a relationship ends, we change, and then we’re confused about who we are, which contributes to unhappiness.”
The study brings mathematical validity to a universal experience. Uncertainty about one’s sense of self post-break-up is a commonly reported side effect of loss.
Communication freshman Max Saines says that when he broke up with his long-term girlfriend during winter break, he let go of a large part of his identity that developed while he was in a relationship.
“I would do all sorts of things I hated when I was with her — shopping, going to the beach, traveling,” Saines says. “I went to California with her even though I hated traveling and it was the best time I ever had. We were accommodating to each other to the point where I didn’t even realize I was doing something I hated.”
This might be because our identities are especially vulnerable now. Erica Berg, a clinical psychologist in Evanston, says that break-ups can be particularly challenging during college.
“On top of losing a relationship there’s also this added piece of trying to figure out who you are as a college student,” she says. It can be difficult for students to go from knowing exactly who they are — so-and-so’s girlfriend or boyfriend — to being an anonymous face in a crowd of undergraduates.
And it makes sense — Gardner says that in their research, they also found that the emotional effects of breaking up with a long-term partner in college are similar to the effects of a divorce.
“The longer and more committed the relationship, the more your sense of self is going to be wrapped up with this other person,” Gardner says.
McCormick freshman Susan* (name changed) says that after she broke up with her long-term high school boyfriend, she remembers feeling confused about her identity.
“Initially it didn’t sink in, but then there were periods where I would suddenly realize, ‘Who have I become? What’s happening?’” Susan says. “We’d stopped talking, we’d broken up and I didn’t even know who to confide in because I didn’t have him anymore. It hit me all at once.”
In another part of their study, the researchers analyzed online blogs written by people going through break-ups, career changes or just everyday life. The study found that people who had recently experienced break-ups used “fewer non-redundant terms to describe themselves” in their blogs’ “About Me” sections, according to the researchers’ report. The authors took this as an illustration of a decrease in self-concept clarity.
Slotter, Gardner and Finkel will next look at how to help people rediscover who they are.
“We’re looking next at how to recover from the loss of an important relationships and how to restructure yourself, especially in bereavement cases,” Gardner says. “We’re hoping this can help us combat the depression that often accompanies loss.”
Saines says that after he broke up with his girlfriend, he took the time to reevaluate his friendships.
“When you’re in a relationship in college everyone seems else seems to come second,” Saines says. “But you have to realize at some point that this is your new life. I definitely wouldn’t have figured that out if we were still together.”
Berg suggests seeking social support and taking care of oneself after a break-up.
“Any time there’s a period of loss, keep a sense of routine, take physical care of yourself and try to get enough sleep,” Berg says. “And counseling can be helpful.”
If someone experiencing a break-up begins to exhibit troubling signs such as loss of appetite, fatigue or irritability, Berg suggests seeking professional help.
Slotter also says that research from other studies suggests that writing in a journal can help to remind someone who’s recently been through a break-up to get in touch with what’s important. Writing can help define goals, ideas about the self and opinions, Slotter says.
“Focus on things you enjoy,” Slotter says. “Ask yourself, ‘Who am I? What do I want to do today?”