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Think constructively and recover more quickly from a relationship-breakup

People with a general tendency to brood have more unwanted and disturbing thoughts, and they have a harder time recovering from a relationship break-up – whereas people who think constructively and reflectively about the relationship with their ex-partner recover more quickly.

Postdoc Adriana del Palacio from Aarhus University has examined 148 people’s thoughts and reactions following a romantic relationship breakup in university students and she discovered that different ways of handling and thinking about difficult situations – like a breakup – can yield positive results.

“For many years, repetitive thinking – thinking repeatedly about the same thing – has been considered a negative way of handling difficult situations. But is thinking too much about something really so bad? It can be an unproductive approach – but it doesn’t have to be. The outcome of repetitive thinking depends on how you think and what you focus on,” explains postdoc Adriana del Palacio.

A lot of research focuses on the various forms of repetitive thinking, but the unique aspect of this study is that it seeks to compare the various forms of repetitive thinking and considers how people handle a given stressful event – e.g. a relationship breakup – and how those thoughts affect that person’s psychological well-being.

Are you a brooder or a problem-solver?

-          Brooding refers to the act of thinking about difficult situations from your past in a negative and judgemental light. When you brood, you criticise and blame yourself and others for what has gone wrong in your life. It is a recurring act, depriving you of the feeling that there is any sense in what happens to you. You just return to the issue over and over again without being able to solve it. Research also shows that brooding is bad for you, because it may lead to bad temper and irritability, depression, anxiety, negative memory bias and so on. And you will recover more slowly from e.g. a divorce if you keep thinking self-reflexively in this way.

-          Reflection is also a repetitive way of thinking, but from a purely analytical perspective it may also be regarded as a relatively benign cognitive style. When you reflect, you act more like an observer, who is trying to put things back together without judging yourself and others. Reflection may also be directly aimed at problem-solving. It is a more conscious way of thinking, which may lead you to recover or experience personal growth much faster following a romantic breakup.

Speculating is natural, but...
Repetitive thinking can be considered a natural reaction to a stressful life event (e.g., breakup). Having purposeful and reflective thoughts about a stressful event may be a good thing, since it often leads to growth. In contrast, intrusive thinking (thoughts come to mind spontaneously and that are distressing) about an event may be very disruptive and affect negatively your personal well-being.

Is there anything you can do to avoid brooding or disruptive thinking and learn to think constructive thoughts?
Under certain circumstances, brooding is a normal part of the process and it may be beneficial. But in certain cases, these thoughts grow and become such an obstacle that you are unable to lead a normal life – and then you have to start focusing on concrete aspects and change your focus. You may consider: What are the advantages of not being in that specific relationship? What was life like before your ex-partner came into the picture? If you think you have made mistakes, is there any way you will be able to remedy them? Think about very specific situations about the past relationship instead of making general evaluations about it.

Brooding is sometimes seen as a way to avoid taking a closer look and analysing the situation, because when you brood you keep things vague, abstract and you think in general terms (like “nobody loves me”). Instead you should think in concrete terms (e.g., we had fun when we did road trips together vs. it was an amazing relationship), think constructively and be action-oriented. All in all, it is about changing your focus to problem-solving and self-reflection without self-accusation. This is not always an easy task, thus if you experience difficulty shifting your cognitive style, you might be interested in seeking professional help.

Adriana del Palacio’s research is based on two parallel studies with 148 young adults (ages 18 – 30) who were all single after having gone through a relationship breakup in the prior four months.

The first study sought to determine whether brooding, reflexive and conscious thinking and obtrusive thoughts had different effects on a person’s personal growth following a divorce. The first study was conducted in the form of a questionnaire. 65 students participated in an online follow-up six months later. The results showed that people who have a general tendency to brood have more unwanted and disruptive thoughts about past relationships, and the follow-up study showed that they had a harder time recovering (e.g., higher depressive symptoms, greater general distress), whereas the respondents who engaged in a more constructive and self-reflexive way of thinking had a much faster recovery after the break-up (e.g., greater personal growth).

The second study examined the frequency and valency of the person’s memories about the relationship in relation to depressive symptoms. In this study, the participants completed a series of questionnaires and one autobiographical memory test. 61 participants wrote online journal entries, reporting on their so-called intrusive or involuntary memories about their relationships. Overall, the results showed that brooding and spontaneous thoughts and memories are connected with a high degree of distress and depression, which may cause the person to have a harder time recovering from the dissolution of the relationship.

Further information

Adriana del palacio Gonzalez

Adriana del Palacio Gonzalez
Aarhus University, School of Business and Social Sciences

Tel.: +45 87165228


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