Dr. Val Farmer
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Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

Breaking Up: Who Gets Hurt And Why

January 12, 2004

With the delay of marriage to mid or late 20s, there are opportunities for many dating experiences that end in painful breakups. Living together before marriage has added a dating strategy short of marriage. Forty percent of these relationships breakup prior to marriage.

What are the emotional ramifications of breakups. Who gets hurt and why? I have summarized some of the research on breakups by using a question and answer format.

Q: Who gets hurt when a couple breaks up?

A: The unwilling partner experiences the most pain, anger, depression, unhappiness and heartache. The initiator experiences some guilt and discomfort but also experiences relief.

Men and women don't differ in the amount of pain they feel when they are the rejectee. Males are more likely to have a mixture of emotions that include angry and aggressive feelings. Females are more likely to react with depression, physical symptoms and eating problems. Females also have a more anxious anticipation of a loss prior to the actual breakup.

Q: What determines how badly you feel when a breakup occurs?

A: The amount of pain and unhappiness is greater with longer and more intimate relationships. How close a couple has been is the chief factor in how much pain is experienced.

Individuals who respond positively to breakups have higher self-esteem, feel more in charge of their lives, see themselves as having support from others, or feel they had some control over the breakup.

The amount of social support a person has doesn't ease the initial pain but it is a factor in how quickly he or she recovers from the loss. Distress from a breakup is greater when the dropped partner feels he or she doesn't have alternatives to the relationship being lost. Individuals who are dependent and who have histories of feeling abandoned or insecure in relationships take breakups especially hard.

Q: How often is a breakup a matter of mutual choice? Does this change how people feel?

A: One study showed 27 percent of breakups occur by mutual discussion. When a breakup is mutual, the partners have a more positive adjustment.

Discussing a breakup is definitely stressful. It is easier for one party to unilaterally surprise their partner and end the relationship on their own than to bring up their dissatisfaction and work it through with their partner.

Going through a mutual breakup eases pain and adjustments more for females than it does males. Males still react to the dissolution of the relationship more negatively - even after mutual agreement - than do females.

Q: Which end more abruptly - long relationships or short ones?

A: Relationships of five months or less are more likely to end abruptly than relationships of over 12 months duration. When relationships are longer than 12 months, there is general awareness of problems even though one partner may ignore or tolerate problem areas.

Q: Why would someone choose to ignore problems?

A: First of all, their partner probably isn't being that clear about the status of the relationship. He or she is still assessing the rewards and benefits of the relationship, along with the costs.

In a long-term relationship, the initiator drops hints that the relationship may be in trouble. Some of these early attempts to communicate dissatisfaction take the form of complaints to change the other person or to alter the relationship to better suit their needs.

When the partner doesn't react, the initiator backs off, broods and contemplates their situation. Their communication remains indirect because the initiator may not want to hurt his or her partner and wants avoid arguments and possible retaliation. By the time the initiator gets around to being direct, he or she may have already withdrawn emotionally and is unwilling to work at solutions.

The dating partner who is being left may sense the fragility of the relationship but chooses to deny or not respond to the signals to keep the relationship going.

Q: Does explaining the breakup help in the adjustment process?

A: While both sexes want to know why they are being discarded, females expect more discussion and explanation. Females generally feel their relationships end more abruptly than males.

Abrupt breakups also bother females more. When females are in the initiator role, they see the breakup as happening gradually.

Q: How likely is it that the former couple can be friends after the breakup?

A: Of the three roles of initiator, mutual consent and rejected, the initiator is more likely to want to be friends while those rejected want the most distance from the relationship. Friendships are more likely when the breakup is mutual.

Those that are rejected cannot handle pain and anger and still be friends. Males especially can't handle a friendship with their former lover. Rejected females tend to see the friendship role as a way of staying in the relationship. When they give up the idea of being friends, their post/breakup adjustment goes a lot faster.