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Breaking-Up Bad: Break-Ups, Crime, Drug Use, and Drinking

Break-ups are difficult and can lead a person to engage in a variety of negative behaviors designed to help get over an ex. While coping by avoiding others, eating too much (or too little), or writing a song (we’re looking at you Taylor Swift) might be common, others may turn to more extreme, and even criminal, behaviors following the end of their relationships. 

How They Did It

To determine the impact of break-up on criminal behavior and substance use, researchers used data from a nationally representative sample of young adults aged 18 to 23 from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth.1 From an initial sample of over 7,800 individuals, researchers studied in-depth over 2,500 youths who experienced break-up in between two waves (or years) in the study. 

At each wave, participants answered questions about their relationship status (dating or not, and how much) and relationship quality (commitment, conflict, closeness). Participants also answered questions about criminal activities including: “intentional destruction of property, theft of items worth less than $50, theft of items worth more than $50, other property crimes, attacking someone with intent to seriously hurt them, and selling illegal drugs."

The researchers also measured other factors such as prior substance use, history of delinquency, and demographic characteristics such as age, ethnicity, sex, living in an urban area, and whether the respondent had children. Researchers used these variables as controls, which basically means they made sure that these factors were not responsible for any of the results. 

What They Found

Compared to those who remained dating, young adults who experienced a break-up committed more crimes and engaged in a wider variety of crimes. Those who broke-up also used more illicit drugs, drank more alcohol, binge drank more, and smoked more marijuana in the previous 30 days. 

The researchers also examined break-up patterns (i.e., did people break-up and remain single, break-up and start dating someone new, experience multiple break-ups). Those who experienced multiple break-ups or who broke up and remained single were more likely to commit crimes, whereas those who started dating again without an additional break-up saw no increase in delinquent behaviors. Similarly, those who broke up several times were more likely to use illicit drugs, and in the last 30 days drank more alcohol, binge drank more, and smoked more pot….duuuuuuude, break-up is a drag.

The researchers also looked to see if results differed for males and females. Generally speaking, break-up was worse for males than for females. Males who broke up committed more crime, did more drugs and drank more, a tendency made worse by multiple break-ups. For women, break-up did not relate to committing crime or illicit drug use, but did increase alcohol use, binge drinking and marijuana use. Interestingly among those who broke-up and started a new relationship, women drank more than men.

What These Results Mean for You

First and most obviously, you shouldn’t commit crimes or do drugs (mmkay?), even if you experience a break-up or multiple break-ups. Not only are these behaviors problematic for legal reasons, but these types of behaviors won’t help you cope effectively with the break-up and will likely make you less appealing to potential future mates. 

The study results do suggest that starting a new relationship following break-up helps decrease the chances of committing a crime, but a new relationship doesn’t seem to lessen drug and alcohol use as markedly as the effects it has on committing crimes. The results of this study also make it clear that the negative effects of break-up can extend beyond simply feeling sad or lonely, and can coincide with much more potentially serious outcomes, especially when you consider the serious consequences associated with criminal behavior, drinking, and drug use. As Taylor Swift would suggest, you "Should’ve Said No".   

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1Larson, M., & Sweeten, G. (2012). Breaking up is hard to do: Romantic dissolution,  offending, and substance use during the transition to adulthood. Criminology: An Interdisciplinary Journal, 50(3), 605-636. doi:10.1111/j.1745-9125.2012.00272.x

Dr. Gary Lewandowski - Science of Relationships articles | Website
Dr. Lewandowski's research explores the self’s role in romantic relationships focusing on attraction, relationship initiation, love, infidelity, relationship maintenance, and break-up. Recognized as one of the Princeton Review’s Top 300 Professors, he has also authored dozens of publications for both academic and non-academic audiences.

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