The Surprising Psychological Reason A Breakup Hurts Just As Much As Divorce

by JR Thorpe
A still from Noah Baumbach's film 'Marriage Story'. Divorces and breakups in serious relationships c...
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The breakup of any relationship is difficult. Whether you cope with it with ice cream, screaming sessions with your girlfriends, or a good, long cry, you'll likely remember the pain for years after the immediate ache has ebbed. Some conscious uncouplings, though, will be harder than others: a divorce can be more challenging than a breakup, psychologically, but experts say this is caused by many factors, including cost and stress. This is why the coping methods that might have worked when you were heartbroken in your 20s might not be as effective if you get divorced in your 30s.

Marriage doesn't automatically change a relationship — and a divorce isn't inherently more difficult than any breakup, experts tell Bustle. "Breaking up from a relationship when the couple is not married is not inherently less psychologically devastating than getting divorced," Dr. Josh Klapow Ph.D., a clinical psychologist, tells Bustle. "The big difference is the degree to which the casual relationship looks like and emulates a marriage."

Millennial marriages are different from previous generations; research published in Socius in 2018 found that millennials are both marrying and getting divorced at lower rates than baby boomers. For this generation, marriage is becoming rarer and more lasting than it's been in the past. More millennials are simply staying together long-term without marrying — and if those relationships end, Klapow says, the psychological impact can be just as significant as a divorce.

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"A couple who has been together for a long period of time, even if not married, often go through the same grief, anger, stress, and sadness that we see in a divorce," Klapow says. The psychological effects of breakups in long-term, serious relationships can be significant, including a phenomenon known as "loss of self," where people feel out of touch with their personalities. However, these effects don't last forever. Marriage separations tend to increase the risk of poor health because of stress, but most people tend to have increased life satisfaction years afterwards, research published in Current Directions in Psychological Science in 2015 noted.

The length of a relationship isn't the sole guide to how bad a split might feel. A study published in Journal of Social & Personal Relationships in 2017 looked at people who'd gotten divorced, and found that the length of time they'd been married didn't actually affect how they coped with the aftermath. The longer it had been since the marriage broke down — and the quicker they'd found a new partner — the better they coped, whether the marriage had lasted seven years or 25. Certain personality traits and financial security after divorce helped people recover, too.

Some people may also be better at coping with rejection or heartbreak than others; the researcher Carol Dweck has found that people with a "growth mindset," who are focused on learning from setbacks, recover more quickly from breakups than those who have a "fixed mindset" and don't believe they can change easily. A growth mindset, Dweck notes in her research, means you're less likely to take a split personally or let it impact your sense of self.

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There are a few other factors that can determine how bad a breakup or divorce might feel, Dr. Klapow tells Bustle. The more committed the relationship and the more the partners share — including property, pets, or kids — the more difficult the separation will be. The nature of the relationship itself will also affect how it ends, he says. If there was a large amount of animosity, anger, frustration or resentment between the partners, the breakup or divorce might be harder, psychologically.

Dr. Klapow tells Bustle that one significant factor that might make divorce worse than a more casual breakup is logistics. "Divorce can have a more significant and devastating impact because the legal implications turn a marriage split into a far more logistically challenging process," he tells Bustle. Between filing paperwork, dividing up assets, organizing child custody and paying for lawyers, the stress of a divorce can add to its negative psychological impact, as anybody who's seen Marriage Story can attest.

Divorce doesn't automatically feel different from a split with a serious non-marital partner, from a psychological perspective. However, getting divorced can certainly drag out for a lot longer — and, depending on your financial situation, can be much more expensive. If a divorce feels very different to any breakup you've ever had before, those factors may explain why.

Studies cited:

Cohen, P. N. (2019). The Coming Divorce Decline. Socius.

Howe, L. C., & Dweck, C. S. (2016). Changes in Self-Definition Impede Recovery From Rejection. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 42(1), 54–71.

Leopold, T. Gender Differences in the Consequences of Divorce: A Study of Multiple Outcomes. Demography 55, 769–797 (2018) doi:10.1007/s13524-018-0667-6

Manvelian, A., Bourassa, K. J., Lawrence, E., Mehl, M. R., & Sbarra, D. A. (2018). With or Without You? Loss of Self Following Marital Separation. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 37(4), 297–324. doi: 10.1521/jscp.2018.37.4.297

Perrig-Chiello, P., Hutchison, S., & Morselli, D. (2015). Patterns of psychological adaptation to divorce after a long-term marriage. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 32(3), 386–405.

Sbarra, D. A., Hasselmo, K., & Bourassa, K. J. (2015). Divorce and health: Beyond individual differences. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 24(2), 109–113


Dr. Josh Klapow Ph.D., clinical psychologist