How a Breakup Distorts Your Sense of Self

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In honor of Valentine’s Day, Science of Us is spending this week talking about love — specifically, what happens when it goes wrong. If you ever wondered about the psychology of breakups, we’ve got you covered.

In the most recent season of the cheerfully bonkers show Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, our protagonist, Rebecca Bunch, is dumped almost simultaneously by both loves of her life. In response, she hallucinates an energetic tap-dance duet performed by her exes, and then accidentally sets her home on fire, two decent examples of the way the show often plays with a heightened sense of reality.

But she also says this: “I don’t know who I am without them.” And with that, Rebecca’s predicament instantly becomes more grounded; so many of us have experienced the disorienting way a breakup can shake our sense of identity. This is especially true for people who incorporate their relationships into their self-concepts, and define themselves as part of a pair. Without your “other half” — who are you supposed to be now?

Some researchers who study romantic relationships would say this question hinges on something called the self-expansion theory, the idea that personal growth is more than a shallow interest of people who read too many self-help books. Feeling like you’re growing — like your sense of self is expanding — is nonnegotiable if you want to lead a satisfying, meaningful life.

There are, of course, many things that promote that feeling of growth. As you get older, you encounter countless identities that you could bundle into your own: You could become a runner, a painter, a writer, a vegetarian, a spouse, a parent. But, according the psychological literature, one of the most reliable ways to achieve self-expansion is by beginning a new romantic relationship (or investing energy into a long-term one, so that it feels like new).

It makes a certain amount of sense: When you first start dating someone, one of the most exciting parts of all the newness is the way they expand your world, simply by being themselves. Suddenly, you’re exposed to an unfamiliar culture or language, or you find you now know and care a lot more than you used to about fine wine, or tasting menus, or — to draw from personal experience — Major League Soccer. (An aside: Go Sounders.)

This isn’t about minimizing your own tastes and hobbies, and it certainly is not an argument in favor of taking on your partner’s identity and casting aside your own. (It is probably still a good idea to, for example, know what kind of eggs you like.) Rather, it’s about that notion of self-expansion, of introducing new perspectives and experiences into your life. It makes life meaningful, yes. But it can also make life more fun.

And if self-expansion is understood to be one of the paths to a happy life, then it follows that a relationship that aids in self-expansion will be a happy one. Research in psychology has suggested that people who believe their relationships helped widen their worldviews also tend to be happier with their significant others. This also happens to be the reasoning behind that clichéd relationship advice found in lifestyle magazines: To liven up a good-but-boring long-term relationship, it really does help to take a class, or start a new hobby, together. It helps you feel like you’re growing together, and in doing so recaptures some of that newly-falling-in-love magic.

All of this is lovely when you’re with someone who helps you feel like your world and your very sense of self are getting bigger and better. And all of this makes a breakup that much more painful.

If the beginning of a relationship is a reliable way to help your self-identity expand, then a relationship’s end threatens to do the opposite. Research has found that people report feeling their self-concepts shrink when they’re in the throes of a breakup, as Gary Lewandowski, a researcher who studies relationships and co-edits the site Science of Relationships, has written. They tend to feel uncertain about who they are now, and they tend to come up with fewer answers when asked to consider the question, “Who am I?”

It helps explain why unexpected breakups can be so unsettling. I read a memoir a few years ago by a chef, Molly Birnbaum, who lost her sense of smell and taste in a car accident; the impact of the crash fractured her skull, which severed the connection between her olfactory neurons and her brain. She writes that the loss shook her self-confidence, and her self-identity. Athletes who are separated due to injury from the sport they love often report a similar perceived loss of identity. It can feel silly and teenagerish to wallow in heartbreak after a relationship ends, but it shouldn’t. You’re mourning a relationship, and, in a very real way, a lost piece of yourself.

Happily, this feeling also helps point to a way out of the gloom: Focus on restoring your self-concept, either by doing the things you loved and lost sight of during your relationship, or by trying out brand-new hobbies. This is common-sense breakup advice, but typically it’s a tactic meant to distract yourself from your heartbreak. And it will probably do that, and that can help. But when you drag your brokenhearted self to the guitar lessons (or whatever) that you’ve secretly always wanted to take, you’re also rebuilding the you you just lost.

How a Breakup Distorts Your Sense of Self