What really happens to us after a breakup? Research reveals what doesn't kill you can make you stronger

Stock image of a photo of a couple torn in half post-split
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It's not uncommon for people to endure a rollercoaster of emotions following a breakup. Many of us will be familiar with feeling a crushing loss of control and a desperate urge to get it back; why else do you think so many people get into the best shape of their lives post-heartbreak? 

However, new research indicates that while most people feel less in control of their lives following a split, that feeling is usually fleeting - and over time, they not only regain that sense of control, but better it. What doesn't kill you really does make you stronger!

Previous research has shown that a greater perceived sense of personal control over one's life is associated with better well-being and improved health. Romantic relationships are closely linked to that perceived control; for instance, evidence suggests a link between a sense of control and a better, more satisfied relationship. However, less is known about how the loss of a relationship might be linked to changes in that control.

To shed some light on the issue, a team of researchers from HMU Health and Medical University in Potsdam, Germany found that people who split from their partners felt less in control of their lives in the year following the separation, but after the first year, that sense of control was recovered - and they ended up feeling even more in control than they did to begin with. The study also found that people who suffer the death of a partner typically feel more in control post-loss than the period prior to the death. 

The authors said the findings, published in the journal PLOS ONE on Wednesday, support their idea that people sometimes grow from stressful experiences such as a breakup, becoming increasingly convinced in their ability to influence their lives and futures through their own behaviour. 

To conduct their research, the team analysed people who endured different forms of loss in relationships. They found these experiences were linked with different patterns of short and long-term feelings of control following the loss. 

Eva Asselmann of HMU Health and Medical University and Jule Specht of Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin analysed data from three timepoints in a multi-decade study of households in Germany. Specifically, they used yearly questionnaire results from 1994, 1995 and 1996 to evaluate changes in perceived control for 1235 people who experienced separation from their partner, 423 who divorced, and 437 whose partners passed away.

Broken heart paper
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Statistical analysis of the questionnaire results suggests that overall, people who experienced separation from their partner experienced a drop in perceived control in the first year after separation, but that was followed by a gradual increase in later years. After separation, women were more likely than men to have a decline in their sense of control, while younger people had an increased sense of control compared to older people.

People whose partners passed away had an overall increase in perceived control during the first year post-loss, followed by a continued boost compared to the period before the death. However, compared to older people, younger people experienced more detrimental effects of partner death on their sense of control.

The analysis found no links between divorce and perceived control.

The researchers have since called for future investigations to track people who have not yet experienced relationship loss and evaluate changes in their perceived control when loss occurs. 

"Our findings suggest that people sometimes grow from stressful experiences - at least regarding specific personality characteristics," the authors said. 

"In the years after losing a romantic partner, participants in our study became increasingly convinced in their ability to influence their life and future by their own behaviour. 

"Their experience enabled them to deal with adversity and manage their life independently, which allowed them to grow."