Some people seem to find it much easier to weather the breaking up of a romantic relationship than others. Sure they may feel sad, they may worry about what it means that their relationship ended, but relatively soon they’re able to move on. Others get mired in doubt and find it hard to reenter the dating world.
A study from Stanford University suggests that one psychological trait can help explain how people react to something like a breakup.
It turns out that having a relatively strong belief that personality traits are unchanging is associated with greater difficulty moving on after a relationship has ended. People with this belief about an unchanging personality tend to conclude that the breakup of a relationship reflects some inherent flaw in their personality, one that they will find themselves confronting over and over as they move into new relationships.
The research, published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, examines the link between rejection and a person’s sense of self.Carol Dweck, a professor of psychology, co-authored the paper along with psychology doctoral student Lauren Howe, who was the lead author.
As reported in Stanford News, Lauren Howe explains the study this way…
“Few things in life are more traumatic than being rejected by someone who knows you well and then, with this insight, decides that she or he no longer cares for you or wants to be with you,” Dweck said, adding that romantic rejection, in particular, poses a tremendous threat to the self.
Howe added, “The experience of being left by someone who thought that they loved you, then learned more and changed their mind, can be a particularly potent threat to the self and can drive people to question who they truly are.”
How people view human personality was especially significant to the study. For example, participants were queried about whether they believe that people can significantly change their personality (a growth-oriented view), or that “the kind of person you are” is static and thus can’t be changed much (a fixed view).
The study found that people differ in whether and how they connect romantic rejections to their self. It turned out that people with a fixed mindset about their personality – those who believe that their personality is simply fixed and unchangeable – allow romantic rejections to linger longer in their lives.
Dweck noted, “To them, a rejection reveals that it is fixed at a deficient level. On the other hand, people who believe in their ability to grow and develop, while of course hurt by rejections, can more readily bounce back and envision a brighter future.”
Howe said, “Those who see rejections as revealing a core truth about themselves as a person, something about who they really are, may be more likely to struggle with recovery and carry rejection with them into the future.”
The research also found that people who believe that a rejection revealed a new, permanent defect worry that this defect will surface in future romantic relationships.
“This concern haunts them and can make them guarded and defensive in future relationships – something we know is likely to impair these future relationships,” Dweck said.
In short, this group sees rejections as changing both their view of themselves and their relationship prospects in the future, according to the study.
Indeed, these people reported still being negatively influenced by rejections that had occurred more than five years ago, Dweck and Howe wrote.
This research points to the negative effects of having a view of personality that is relatively rigid and constrained. In fact, the whole field of psychological research tends to demonstrate that how we act, our personality, is very much a product of circumstance. Until recently it was hard to really specify character traits that weren’t significantly affected by the environment and therefore subject to change as we move into different environments.
It also points to the value of seeking alternative explanations for negative events in relationships.
In that regard, it connects to a lot of data that shows that a tendency to ascribe personal meaning to negative events is a major risk factor for depression, research that led to the development of the Cognitive Behavioral Analysis System of Psychotherapy by psychologist James McCullough.
For more on this topic…
Howe LC, Dweck CS. Changes in Self-Definition Impede Recovery From Rejection. Pers Soc Psychol Bull. 2016 Jan;42(1):54-71. doi: 10.1177/0146167215612743. Epub 2015 Oct 23. PubMed PMID: 26498977.