By Emma Young
From You’ve Lost that Lovin’ Feeling to Nothing Compares 2 U, there’s no shortage of songs about heartbreak. None, I suspect, contains the line, “Now it’s time to give negative reappraisal a go.” But whether you’ve just been dumped or you’ve done the dumping, if you’re still in love with your ex, this could be your best strategy for falling out of love and moving on, according to a new paper published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology.
“Romantic break-ups can have serious consequences including insomnia, reduced immune function, broken heart syndrome, depression and suicide,” note the authors, Sandra Langeslag and Michelle Sanchez at the University of Missouri, St Louis. Strategies that help people to fall out of love could relieve the agony of unrequited love or make it easier to get out of a dysfunctional relationship.
Langeslag and Sanchez recruited 20 women and four men for their study. (As it was hard to get male volunteers, they decided to sacrifice gender balance in favour of having enough participants for the statistical analysis). All these people had experienced a romantic break-up, were still upset about it, and could supply 28 digital pictures of their ex. These pictures had to include a range of facial expressions, and show the ex-partner in different situations (all non-intimate), to mimic the kinds of real-world reminders the participants might endure – seeing their ex on the street, or on social media, for example.
In the lab, the researchers showed the participants their full collection of pictures four times over. In between seeing each shot, they were prompted to engage in one of three potential strategies to down-regulate love, and then report on a sliding scale how “in love” and how generally positive or negative they felt. One strategy was “love reappraisal” (they were presented with statements such as “It’s okay to love someone I’m no longer with”, for example.) Another involved simple distractions (between photos, they were asked to think about their favourite food, for example). There was also a control, in which they were asked to think about nothing in particular. And finally, there was “negative reappraisal” which involved reminding themselves of the negative qualities of their ex partners (prompts included ‘What is an annoying habit of your ex?’ for instance).
While neither love reappraisal or distraction changed how in love the participants reported feeling, negative reappraisal of the ex did. Negative reappraisal also made the participants feel more negative in the moment – but such short-term discomfort may be worth enduring if this strategy helps people to get over a break-up, the researchers write.
That is an “if”, however. As Langeslag and Sanchez concede, this study only looked at feelings of love immediately after each photo was presented. The practicalities of the strategy also remain unclear. If you know you’re going to bump into your ex at work, say, should you be focusing on their negative qualities during every commute in – or would an occasional bout of negative reappraisal have the same effect? And what exactly would using the negative reappraisal strategy mean in terms of how long it takes you to get over the relationship?
“To evaluate which regulation strategies would best help people cope with a break-up, it would be essential to consider both the short-term and long-term effects,” the researchers write. It will also be important to study more men.