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The Importance of Hating Your Ex

When you break up with someone, or someone breaks up with you, it’s expected—mandatory, really—that your friends tell you what a jerk your ex is. How you’re better off without him/her. How you deserve more and they thought so all along but weren’t saying anything just to be polite. The idea is that you need to view the now-severed relationship in an unflattering light in order to “move on” and “heal” and stop being such a downer.

It’s supposed to make you feel better.

And, according to an article in Cognition and Emotion, your friends are right. Not necessarily about your ex being a jerk, but about the importance of thinking less of the person you were formerly with.

The study involved 65 undergraduates who had recently broken up with someone whom they had been dating for more than four months. Researchers asked them to fill out a questionnaire about their ex and also had them take a computer test that rated their reactions to negative words, including the name of their former boyfriend/girlfriend. The latter test was given because:

… tracking ex-partner evaluations is problematic given that individuals may report having “realised” that the lost relationship was bad all along (in an attempt to save face and maintain pride) but may not actually believe this. Hence, simply asking individuals to assess the quality of their former romantic relationship may not reliably reveal their underlying appraisal of the relationship.

What they found was that people who indicated strong negative feelings about their ex in the immediate aftermath of the breakup were less likely to be depressed. The subjects were re-tested a month later, and those whose feelings had grown more negative also generally felt better.

From the paper:

Given the importance of negative evaluations in post-break-up adjustment, future work should explore whether friends and family members might help people adjust to a recent break-up by drawing attention to the negative aspects of the former relationship.

I think this falls neatly into the category of “Things We Kind of Already Knew But It’s Nice that Science Has Confirmed Them.”

Also worth noting in the scholarly literature on breaking up is Duck’s model of relationship dissolution, which divides break-ups into four categories: pre-existing doom, mechanical failure, process loss, and sudden death. That makes breaking up sound like a plane crash which, coincidentally, is often how it feels.

(The paper is not available online. The researcher is Christopher P. Fagundes of the University of Utah. Neil Sedaka is lip-syncing.)

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