There’s a closeness to close relationships that goes beyond love or even intimacy. Sharing your life with a partner, whether in marriage or cohabitation, involves having that person become a part of even the smallest decisions you make on a daily basis. What do you eat for dinner? When do you run household errands and where do you go to get them done? How do you spend your free time? What do you wear around the house? All of these questions occur beyond your level of conscious awareness as the answers become forged over the months or years that you and your partner make them together. When the relationship goes on “pause” through separation, you become painfully aware of just how much the two of you shared these answers, and how strange it feels to be making such decisions on your own.
Part of the intimacy that couples develop in long-term relationships is a sharing of their own sense of self, or identity. Little by little, you start to define yourself in terms of this relationship, and in terms of yourself in relation to your partner. We can think of the truly intimate relationship as one in which two circles partially intersect; the closer the overlap, the closer your bonds with your partner. Preferably, there’s room outside of the intersection for each of you to express your own separate identity. However, inevitably, your sense of self will develop over time in a way that reflects this closest of bonds.
Researchers who try to understand the ending of an intimate relationship typically study either college undergraduates or couples who have already decided to divorce. There’s very little scientific evidence on that emotional limbo in which separated couples find themselves. One recent study conducted by psychologists David Sbarra and Jessica Borelli (2012) stands out. The research team explored the question of which partners are able to reorganize their sense of self throughout the separation and which are not. The 89 adults in their study (two-thirds female) were separated about 3 months from their partners. Their marriages had lasted, on average 14 years, and they averaged about 40 years old in age. About half had initiated the separation. Another key feature of the study was that participants were tested more than once. Several months after completing the initial study, they returned to the lab so that the researchers could evaluate how they were adapting over time to their separations.
The question the research team wanted to address was whether there are particular qualities that bolster a person’s emotional resources that can prove helpful in surviving the separation. Whose identity would remain intact, and whose would still be in shambles without the partner there to bolster it?
The researchers sought to answer the question using the logic of attachment theory. According to this view, our adult relationships are based in our earliest attachment to our parents (or caregivers). We carry around inside of us a model of how relationships go based on whether we were well-looked after (securely attached) or instead were either neglected or inconsistently cared for in early childhood (insecurely attached). Attachment theory takes several forms, but the approach that Sbarra and Borelli chose to pursue views attachment as two dimensional. The avoidance dimension refers to the extent to which you feel comfortable in close relationships. The anxious dimension taps how much you worry about your close relationships and the extent to which you need your partner’s approval in order to feel good about yourself.
The participants in this study completed a questionnaire that tapped these dimensions of avoidance and anxious attachment. To assess the impact of the separation on identity, participants answered questions about how much they felt that had “become reacquainted with aspects of the self” and have “regained my identity.” The lower their scores, the more disturbed their self-concept was following the separation.
The Sbarra and Borelli study went beyond the typical relationship investigation not only in the unusual nature of the sample, but in its use of measures that weren’t restricted to paper-and-pencil techniques. Believing that there’s a physiological component to our feelings of attachment in close relationships, they used a measure to tap heart rate variability (HRV), used as an index of emotional self-regulation. Putting it simply, the higher your HRV, the greater your ability to control your emotions. Each person’s HRV is different, and so the way that the researchers examined this question of emotional self-control was to compare HRV during a mundane task (imagining themselves doing the laundry) vs. thinking about their partner and what it was like to go through the separation (e.g. “What do you remember about the separation?” “What’s been the worst part of the separation for you?”). By having these measures of emotional control, the researchers could discover whether attachment style, emotional control, or the combination of the two played a greater role in helping participants through the recovery process.
The three-month follow-up showed that attachment style and emotional self-control did, in fact, combine to influence self-concept outcomes. The partners whose sense of self remained in disarray were the ones who were high in attachment avoidance (i.e. who preferred to remain distance) and who also had difficulty regulating their emotions while completing the lab task measuring their distress when talking about their partner. In contrast, the avoidantly attached who could control their emotional responsiveness were able to reorganize their sense of identity more successfully over time. Attachment anxiety, somewhat surprisingly, did not play a significant role in determining the adjustment to separation.
You might wonder why, if a person is high on avoidance, he or she should suffer any ill effects at all of a separation. Wouldn’t the person who prefers to remain cold and distant do just fine after the relationship ends? This is where emotional control comes into play. If you can keep your closest relationship from penetrating your sense of self, you can survive the breakup, but only if you can also keep thoughts about your partner, and the relationship, out of your awareness. Otherwise, they’ll haunt you, threaten your sense of self, and prolong your sense of distress. The only way that a highly dismissive person can survive a breakup is if that person can also “deactivate” or turn off all thoughts of the partner.
The benefits of being avoidantly attached and in charge of your emotional reactions are only relative. The upshot of this study is not that the best way to survive a breakup is to turn off your emotions or to be dismissive of relationships in the first place. In general, people high in attachment avoidance do not make great marital partners. They can be cold and distant, especially- as we’ve just learned- if they can also switch their emotions to the off position when things become stressful. Once the breakup occurs, however, this research shows that it’s important to find a way to put the pieces of your identity back together. If you can’t find a way to incorporate the breakup into your sense of who you are as a person, moving on will become even more challenging than it might otherwise be. As distressing as your thoughts may be, by allowing them to filter back into your consciousness, perhaps ever so slowly, you will be able to move on and emerge with a new – and stronger- sense of self.