Background: The way people tell stories about their relationships says a lot about them and their relationships. For example, the pronouns that people use when telling their stories can reveal their relationship’s stability: People who are more committed tend to talk about “us,” whereas people who are less committed tend to talk about “me” (see here for more).1 People who write about important events in their relationships and end the story positively (e.g., “We went through a rough patch, but now we’re stronger than ever!”) have better mental health, less depression, greater relationship satisfaction, feel closer to their partners, and are less likely to experience a breakup within 1 year than people who end their story negatively (e.g., “We went through a rough patch and things are still a bit shaky”).2
The issue: How people talk about their current romantic relationship is revealing, but how about when they talk about a previous romantic relationship? Given that breakups are distressing,3 can discussion of a previous romantic relationship shed light on the storyteller’s mental health?
How they did it: Researchers asked 146 newly single people to write a story about the most significant event in their previous relationship, answer some questions about this event (e.g., “Was it the worst thing that happened in your relationship?”), and complete a depression measure.4
How did the researchers know that the people recently became single? One year prior, these same people had indicated that they were in a relationship and also answered questions about themselves (how depressed they were) and the relationship (e.g., how long they had been in a relationship with their partner). On this earlier survey, participants reported that they were in a relationship with their partner for about 4 years. About 40% had been living with their partner and 17% were married or in a registered domestic relationship. So many of the relationships that ended had been pretty serious commitments.
Because the researchers were interested in the breakup experience, they noted whether people’s story cited their breakup as the most significant event in their previous relationship. They also rated the positivity of the story’s ending, the level of intimacy (or lack thereof) in the relationship, and the story’s trajectory. For the trajectory, the researchers noted whether they were reading a redemptive story (i.e., the story starts out negative and ends positive) or a contamination story (i.e., the story starts out positive and ends negative). The researchers expected that people who wrote stories that ended positively would be less depressed after the breakup than people who wrote stories that ended negatively.
What they found: Most participants (65%) wrote that their breakup was the most significant event in their previous relationship. The breakup was both the best and worst thing to happen in some people’s relationship (60% thought it was the best, 80% thought it was the worst). If you’re keeping track, that means a good number of people viewed it as the best AND worst thing; thus, some people can be quite conflicted about breakups. The researchers also found that people whose stories weren’t focused on the breakup had more positive story endings. In addition, they found that people who wrote about intimacy being present in the relationship and had a redemptive trajectory had a more positive story ending. People who wrote about a lack of intimacy had a more negative story ending. As expected, people who wrote stories that ended positively were less depressed after the breakup than people who wrote stories that ended negatively, even when taking into account how depressed people were before the breakup happened.
Take away: This research shows us that many people think that the most significant event in their previous relationship is the breakup; it can be the best, worst, or both best and worst event to happen. Furthermore, how people write about their breakup, specifically how they end their story, reveals a bit about how they are doing mentally. The more negative the ending, the more depressed the person may be. Breakups aren’t easy. If you are depressed, know that you are not alone: depressionhurts.ca
TL;DR: How people write about their breakup, specifically how they end their story, can give you a clue into how they are doing.
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1Agnew, C. R., Van Lange, P. A. M., Rusbult, C. E., & Langston, C. A. (1998). Cognitive interdependence: Commitment and the mental representation of close relationships. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 74, 939-954.
2 Frost, D. M. (2013). The narrative construction of intimacy and affect in relationship stories: Implications for relationship quality, stability, and mental health. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 30, 247–269. DOI: 10.1177/0265407512454463
3Rhoades, G. K., Kamp Dush, C., Atkins, D. C., & Markman, H. J. (2011). Breaking up is hard to do: The impact of unmarried relationship dissolution on mental health and life satisfaction. Journal of Family Psychology, 25, 366-374. DOI: 10.1037/a002362
4Frost, D. M., Rubin, J. D., & Darcangelo, N. (2016). Making meaning of significant events in past relationships: Implications for depression among newly single individuals. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 33, 938–960. DOI: 10.1177/0265407515612241
Dr. Lisa Hoplock - Science of Relationships articles | Website/CV
Lisa's research examines how personality traits like self-esteem and attachment influence interpersonal processes in ambiguous social situations -- situations affording both rewards and costs -- such as social support contexts, relationship initiation, and marriage proposals.