Thursday, April 7, 2011

Breakup of romantic relationships in youth

Breakups in non-marital relationships are a source of stress in youth. Breakups are a major reason for self-referral at the Clinic. Stress arises from conflict in daily interaction between the couple and peaks at the time of breakup. The individual’s reaction to breakup of the relationship depends on his or her attachment style.

attachment styles
Reactions to breakup depend on individual attachment style

There are four attachment styles displayed in relationships. These attachment styles are delineated based on the individuals capacity for intimacy (interest in and comfort with closeness and interdependence) and independence (less dependence on partner’s approval, and reduced anxiety about abandonment) (Bartholomew and Horowitz, 1991).

How do individuals react during a breakup?

Intense reactions occur in those individuals whose partners terminated the relationship, those who were more emotionally involved in the relationship, and those high in attachment anxiety.

Emotionally secure individuals react to romantic breakup with open, empathic communication with their partner. They try social coping strategies and use friends and family as sources of comfort. They are better able to understand their partner’s point of view regarding the breakup, and are less likely to respond in a histrionic or angry fashion. Secure individuals come in for therapy when they are disturbed by their partner’s reaction to the breakup.

Avoidance prone and dismissing individuals rarely display distress or acting out behaviours. They try to avoid all contact with and reminders of the partner. They also successfully use self-reliant coping strategies. Dismissing individuals use self-medication to suppress attachment-related thoughts and feelings, and this is often the reason for which they come seek help at the Clinic.

Anxious insecure individuals coming to us display three primary dysfunctional reactions (Davis and colleagues, 2003).
  • Extreme distress and preoccupation with the lost partner. They neglect work and themselves, waiting all day at the computer desperately hoping to chat with the partner who is trying to terminate the relationship.
  • Acting out - strenuous and exaggerated attempts to reestablish the relationship. This is often combined with angry, hostile, vengeful or violent behavior. These reactions include stalking and defaming the former lover by passing on contact numbers and photographs.
  • Dysfunctional coping and lack of resolution of the loss including self-destructive strategies such as use of drugs or alcohol. .

What happens after the breakup?

Resolution. Breakup leads to changes in the individual’s perception of himself or herself – the self-concept (Sloter and colleagues, 2010). Relationship anxiety is strongly associated with a lost self-concept without the former partner. The partners renegotiate their sense of self outside the boundaries of relationship. Reduced clarity in the self-concept is associated with post-breakup emotional distress. With time most breakups end in resolution of the associated distress. The individual’s idea of the self and the lost attachment figure are reorganised to allow a changed emotional bond and adjustment to changed circumstances.

Integration. Anxious and avoidant persons may to some extent integrate the ex-partner into their lives in an altered form of attachment, such as friendship or working relationships.

Chronic mourning. Those who are higher in anxiety (more emotionally involved) and those who are more attached to the lost partner (did not initiate the breakup) have greater desire for the lost partner.

Replacement. Insecure individuals high in attachment anxiety are more likely to search immediately for a replacement partner. They feel uncomfortable when not in a romantic relationship. Re-bound relationships formed under these desperate conditions are unusually troubled later on.
High attachment anxiety increases the breakup rate

  1. Bartholomew K, Horowitz L M. Attachment styles among young adults: A test of a four-category model. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 1991: 61, 226-244.
  2. Davis D, Shaver PR, Vernon ML. Physical, emotional, and behavioral reactions to breaking up: the roles of gender, age, emotional involvement, and attachment style. Pers Soc Psychol Bull. 2003 Jul;29(7):871-84.
  3. Slotter EB, Gardner WL, Finkel EJ. Who am I without you? The influence of romantic breakup on the self-concept. Pers Soc Psychol Bull. 2010 Feb;36(2):147-60. Epub 2009 Dec 15.