There's an old theory that it takes a person half the time that they were in a relationship to get over it — and that may be true for some people. But others are able to go from heartbroken and wallowing to over it and downloading dating apps real quick, regardless of how long their relationship was. So, why is that? Are some people just better at bouncing back after breakups?
When we talk about a person's ability to "bounce back" from some type of trauma or stressful event like a breakup, we're usually referring to resilience, which is the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, according to the American Psychological Association (APA). Luckily, resilience isn't a trait that people either have or don't have, explains Meg Jay, PhD, a clinical psychologist and author of the forthcoming book Supernormal: The Untold Story of Adversity and Resilience. Everyone has resilience, which means that everyone has the potential to handle a bad breakup well. But it's not always easy.
So, how does resilience apply to breakups? "We say that resilient people 'bounce back,' but being resilient after a breakup is not about being elastic," Dr. Jay says. "[Resiliency] is about fighting your way through the pain or sadness or rejection and coming out of the experience even stronger and better prepared for your next relationship." In other words, accepting your feelings — as terrible as they may be — and acknowledging all the things that you've done to survive past breakups is better than just brushing off the fact that you're bummed.
Most people misjudge how long they will be unhappy after a breakup.
Meg Jay, PhD
Of course this is easier said than done, and if you are feeling extra sad after a breakup, that's normal, too. Don't beat yourself up if you don't think you're very resilient in general, because your past experiences can certainly influence how resilient you are.
For example, if you've been through a bunch of breakups in the past, then you might have a "this too shall pass" mentality, Dr. Jay says. But for other people, "breakups in particular can press on our bruises from the past," she says. If you grew up in an unhappy family environment, then a breakup might make you doubt whether you'll ever have a happy, healthy family of your own. Or if you grew up feeling isolated, then a breakup might make you feel like you'll always be alone. "Breakups only seem to confirm these worries when, really, maybe they are a step toward a better choice or a better outcome down the line," Dr. Jay says.
The good news is that there are ways to become more resilient in the face of a breakup. "There is a lot of data out there that shows that any time you gain experience doing something hard — exercising when you don't feel like it, making that phone call that makes you anxious, giving that big presentation at work, finding a new job after you have been fired — you become stronger," Dr. Jay says. While you can't necessarily go out and find a partner just to practice breaking up, regularly putting yourself out there (on a dating app or IRL) is one way to get used to the feeling of a relationship ending.
One step everyone can take to become more resilient on the cusp of heartbreak is to really take a look at what you learned from every relationship you've been in. As you reflect on those relationships, think about how you got past the pain, and give yourself extra time to do the same in this situation. "Most people misjudge how long they will be unhappy after a breakup," Dr. Jay says. "They cannot imagine that they will get past it, but of course most people do — and sooner than they expect."