Researchers have compared different cognitive strategies for falling out of love

Screenshot 2018-06-18 10.00.47.pngBy 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. 

Down-regulation of love feelings after a romantic break-up: Self-report and electrophysiological data

Emma Young (@EmmaELYoung) is Staff Writer at BPS Research Digest

5 thoughts on “Researchers have compared different cognitive strategies for falling out of love”

  1. Ah… unrequited love. It was wonderful and painful, all- consuming, obsessional and super- exciting. you can’t eat or sleep or wait to see them again and then you discover that one of you doesn’t want the same thing from your relationship or you have ‘fallen out of love’ with the person you would previously have followed to the ends of the earth. Your heart feels like it will break and you find yourself crying unexpectedly for no apparent reason. Bittersweet memories of ‘what might have been’ for anyone who has been smitten by being ‘in love’ and also for those of us who went on to marry or be in long- term relationships that came to an end decades later, for no apparent reason other than the relationship was no longer what one or both of us wanted anymore.

    It’s all ‘loss’ just like bereavement loss. An event you have absolutely no control over and I think our tendency to idealise the person that has died is also present when a relationship we have invested- in comes to an end which makes it difficult to think ‘badly’ of the ‘ex’, man or woman. I agree with the researchers that men and women can feel very differently about relationships.

    I wonder also if how the relationship ended (assigning fault) and the need to keep seeing the ‘ex’ following a break- up, determines which adaptation strategy is most effective ?

    I am going to say it, but this feels like a ‘medicalisation’ or research aimed at suggesting a ‘panacea’ cure for an uncomfortable and difficult everyday life transition that we nearly all of us have to deal with at some time and which most of the population deal with in their own cultural way, quite successfully, according to lots of variables that are missing from this study.

    I make the suggestion that this is ‘normal’ behaviour when faced with feelings of depression, rejection, hurt, jealousy and loss. One which most humans navigate successfully given time and social support and is not in need of ‘treatment’ or strategy- recommendations which the individual may struggle to implement without help, which in turn would be impractical to offer and for which there is probably an existing battery of self- help books, blogs and advice to draw upon.

    I found a jam doughnut, a glass of wine and a phone call to a friend who can give an objective opinion very stabilising. My dog was also very helpful in demanding attention. Just because my life had ended, he was still very much in need of feeding and walking. It enabled me to see a future beyond the ‘failed relationship’, to see things from another perspective which in time allowed me to adjust the way I thought about it.

    How many times have we seen an ‘ex’ and say to ourselves ” I don’t know what I ever saw in you ” !!!! How many of us have to continue relationships with the father and mother of our children?

    Life does go on and time is a great healer – cliches maybe, universal truths, certainly. Like bereavement, its when you get ‘stuck’ in the extrication process that it becomes ‘abnormal’ and maladaptive.

  2. One of the most common questions I’m asked privately on Facebook is the question of how to fall out of love. Doing the opposite to what we naturally do when in Love works. We pick out the partner’s best features and ruminate on them. By thinking about those traits that are not so good, and this sometimes takes some thought, and ruminating on those instead the limerence gradually subsides, usually takes about a week.

  3. I have been in love with a guy who I have not physically met, seen or heard for almost 19 years ! I loved him a lot , but he married someone else. Fortunately , I heard from my friends that currently he is divorced. Despite this fact I never contacted him. I am still single but I don’t see the point since he has 2 human kids now. I also have 2 kids but they have 4 legs and one tail …..definitely not human ! I last saw this guy in December 1999. I think about him everyday and I guess I still love him. Sometimes I wonder if he had accepted my marriage proposal in 1999 , would we still be happily married or bitterly divorced in 2018 ?

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