There are many different ways to try to get over a tough breakup, from finding a random hookup on Tindr to quarantining yourself until the pain lets up. But according to a new study, the most effective way to process the pain and move forward in a healthy direction is to talk about it.
Researchers recruited 210 people fresh off of breakups. Half of them came into the lab regularly to discuss their past relationship, what went wrong, how they felt about it, and how they were coping. The other half just filled out a quick survey at the beginning and the end of the nine-week trial. By the study's end, those who came in to talk about the breakup were in a much better mental place by the study's end, feeling less lonely, less anguished, and more confident about themselves.
"People who completed the repeated assessments demonstrated an improved sense of self, separate from their ex-partner," says study author David Sbarra, a psychology professor at the University of Arizona. "These changes, in turn, decreased their feelings of loneliness and breakup-related emotional distress."
Even though these results came from people who unloaded their anguish in a therapy-type setting, Sbarra says you can achieve similar benefits post-breakup without seeing a psychologist. "We believe the key is in self-monitoring and reflecting on your breakup experience," he says. "That means simply talking about it with others, thinking about how you're doing, and looking at your experience objectively for what it is. You do not want to avoid the subject entirely, especially if it's painful."
However, this doesn't mean you should spend all of your time wallowing. Sbarra says it's entirely possible to think and talk about your breakup too much, to the point that it becomes detrimental and hinders you from moving on. He says this is especially common among people who tend to get very down on themselves or "up in their head" over negative experiences. You want to avoid "getting sucked deeply into the pain of the breakup," Sbarra explains. "Try to take the stance somewhere right in the middle, where you're able to look at your own experiences as a detached observer might. This is key for a good recovery."
In fact, a certain degree of avoidance can be healthy, Sbarra says. For instance, when a breakup is still new, go ahead and catch a game with your buddies instead of sitting alone in the apartment that you and your ex used to share. However, if you find yourself logging long hours on barstools or bedding a new woman every night, you're probably treading on unhealthy turf. "It's okay to sweep painful things under the rug — as long as they don't come oozing out the other side," Sbarra says. "It's a big problem when unhealthy behaviors are used to mask the pain. Things like drinking, drugs, promiscuity, and even too much exercise."
To find that middle ground between unhealthy detachment and prolonged self-imposed misery, keep busy enough that you're staying active and exposed to different people and places, but not so busy that you don't have time to reflect. Really focus on figuring out who you are as a single guy and what you want next out of life. Also surround yourself with friends—"the guys you hung out with before the breakup," says Sbarra — and talk to them about what's on your mind. If their worth their salt, they'll let you know if they think you're dwelling too much. They can also help keep you from making some alcohol-fueled, anguish-driven decisions you'd later regret.