Breaking Up Is Hard to Do

Dyson Psychology Professor Paul Griffin, PhD, and Pace student Boyan Robak explore gender differences in romantic rejection and how experiencing a break-up is similar to experiencing loss through death.

“He had some interesting questions, like ‘is it harder to break up with someone than to lose someone?’” says Dyson Psychology Professor Paul Griffin, PhD, of his student research partner Boyan Robak. “He used a lot of death references for comparison, and a light went off in my head because I had done some previous work on bereavement and was in the process of co-writing a paper on grief therapy with my colleague, Anthony Mancini.”

The research, which was part of the Undergraduate Student-Faculty Research Initiative, was proposed to Griffin by Robak, who had recently been through a break-up. For Robak, the break-up inspired questions about gender differences and how people deal with romantic rejection. The pair developed a questionnaire that was re-conceptualized from one that would be used to measure grief after death. The questionnaire was given to 162 young adults who had been in a romantic relationship of at least three months that had since ended. The questionnaire used attachment theory to elucidate what attachment style respondents had (e.g., an anxious attachment style was exhibited by those individuals who were anxious or worried about their partner not loving them and avoidant styles expressed by those who were removed from and guarded about romantic relationships). The questionnaire also measured respondents’ levels of self-esteem and rejection sensitivity.

Paul Griffin, PhD

“We found that romantic break-ups were a real part of their lives, whereas death is not,” explains Griffin. “When people talk about grieving due to death, they don’t have the same experience as a loss versus a break-up. This is probably because the romantic relationship is much more personal because at this point in their lives the relationship losses they incur due to romantic break-ups are more significant than those due to death. But what I would like to make clear is that the likely reason why break-up loss is ‘more personal’ is because at this point in their lives the relationship losses they incur due to romantic break-ups are more significant than those due to death.”

As expected, attachment style did affect the way people reported they reacted to break-ups. People who were more anxious measured significantly higher in bereavement symptoms. The inverse was also true—that individuals who had avoidant attachment style were less likely to report having a hard time after a break-up. Also, true to prediction, individuals who reported high self-esteem were less likely to be “hung up” on a break-up.

Boyan Robak

“We asked who was responsible for the break-up, thinking that if the other person was responsible that the respondent would be more likely to feel rejection. We thought this would especially be the case with women,” says Griffin “but there was no significant gender difference when reacting to breaking up.”

The pair also predicted that the majority of break-ups would be initiated by men. However they found that women were just as likely to end a relationship, something that Griffin believes lends itself to changing social norms.  More investigation should be done, says Griffin, on how break-ups affect well-being. He plans on doing subsequent follow-up studies in Pace’s new Psychology Lab.

“We did a lot of work on this. It wasn’t my project—it was Boyan’s. I don’t think I would’ve gone down this road,” Griffin says, “but the great thing about working with students is that they force you to think outside the box.”

Are you interested in working with an undergraduate student to conduct research during the 2012-2013 year? Pace is committed to strengthening the undergraduate research climate through the Undergraduate Student-Faculty Research Program, designed to increase opportunities for students to undertake research and scholarship with faculty. Click here for more information.