By Grace Larson, who is a PhD candidate at Northwestern University
Few things knock your emotional world off its axis like a breakup. When my first long-term relationship ended, I woke up for several days in a row not quite remembering that my ex and I had split. This lapse would only last one or two seconds, but each time the reality hit, I switched from my usual cozy contentment to cold, sickening shock all over again.
And I was far from alone in how I reacted to my split. Breakups aren’t just unpleasant; for young adults, they are one of the most common risk factors for clinical depression. My understanding of this topic doesn’t come only from my own experience: I’m a relationship psychologist, now in my fifth year of doctoral study at Northwestern University. In addition to investigating how people bounce back from breakups, I study how people begin and maintain high-quality relationships.
At the time of that first split, I was supervising an ambitious project at the University of Arizona that followed young adults as they moved on from painful breakups. This study used a smorgasbord of tools to gauge recovery: surveys and interviews, heart rate monitors and sensors that could show us if participants’ hands got even the tiniest bit sweaty when they thought about their breakup. B≥y the time the study had wrapped up, I’d heard more than 200 college students and community members tell the stories of their splits.
Since then, I’ve been involved in studies looking at whether our bodies provide hidden signals showing when we’ve moved on from a split, how social loss could affect something as basic as how our DNA expresses itself, and why writing about a divorce could actually keep us stuck.