The devastation caused by a broken heart has been a dominant theme throughout the ages of great literature and pop culture alike.
But a new Northwestern University study shows that lovers, especially those madly in love, do much better -- almost immediately -- following a breakup than they imagined they would.
In other words, participants who forecast how badly they would feel over a breakup with a partner actually felt much less distress than they had predicted in the days prior to the relationship's demise.
Those most in love really got it wrong. Though the love-crazed participants may have felt the ecstasy and anticipated the despair immortalized in "Romeo and Juliet," their level of actual distress following their real-life breakups came nowhere close to the agony suffered by Shakespeare's tragic young lovers.
"Our research shows that a breakup is not nearly as bad as people imagine, and the more you are in love with your partner, the more wrong you are about how upset you are going to be when the dreaded loss actually occurs," said Eli Finkel, assistant professor of psychology in Northwestern's Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences and co-author of the study.
The people most in love did experience a little more distress over their breakups.
"But the overestimates of the most-in-love participants, of how badly they would feel after a breakup, were much greater than the predictions of participants less in love," said Paul Eastwick, the lead author of the study and a graduate student in psychology at Northwestern. "Their levels of distress were nowhere near their catastrophic predictions."
The study "Mispredicting Distress Following Romantic Breakup: Revealing the Time Course of the Affective Forecasting Error," will be published online today (Aug. 20) in The Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. Besides Eastwick and Finkel, the co-authors include Tamar Krishnamurti and George Loewenstein of Carnegie Mellon University.
The study adds to a growing body of literature that shows that people demonstrate remarkably poor insight when asked to predict the magnitude of their distress following emotional events.
In anticipating a breakup, for example, people might not take account of the good outcomes that follow a breakup, such as the benefits of being single.
Whether the discrepancies between people's predicted and actual distress are caused by their inability to foresee positive life events on the horizon or their inaccurate theories about how quickly they can recuperate, a romantic breakup seems to be less upsetting than the average individual believes it will be, the study concludes.
To qualify for the nine-month longitudinal study of dating behavior, each participant needed to be involved in a dating relationship of at least two months duration. Participants still involved with their partners from study entry completed a set of questionnaires every two weeks for 38 weeks, for a total of 20 online sessions, to measure predicted and actual stress. The study utilized the data of 26 people (10 female and 16 male) who broke up with their partners during the first six months of the study. The forecasted distress reported two weeks prior to the report of the breakup was compared with actual distress at four different time points covering the initial weeks and months following the breakup. The questionnaires also included a measure assessing how much participants were in love.
"People tend to be pretty resilient, often more so than they realize," Eastwick said. "No one is saying that breaking up is a good time. It's just that people bounce back sooner than they predict."