Break-up blues: Talking makes the pain worse

February is the month of Valentine's wishes and red roses by the dozens. All across the country, Hallmark cards clog the postal system, arrows fly from Cupid's bow, and starry-eyed sweethearts of every persuasion express their mutual devotion by eating way too much chocolate.

Unfortunately, February– and every other month on the calendar– can also be the time when hearts get broken and relationships that once looked like the stuff of eternal bliss go swirling down the drain. That's where David Sbarra comes in.

A student in UVA's clinical psychology doctoral program, Sbarra specializes in putting romantic ruin under the microscope. For 28 days last spring he tracked 58 undergraduate students who had recently split with their "significant others." From 10am to 10pm the students wore pagers that would go off once a day at random moments. When the pager beckoned, the students would record their moods and emotions in a diary.

The results became fodder for his "Dissolution Study," the subject of the dissertation he will defend this month.

As expected, students in the study suffered all the usual throes of good-love-gone-bad, but the diaries showed a surprising correlation between the amount of time people spent sharing their feelings and how quickly their heartbreak mended.

"All our conventional wisdom says, 'Talk to someone, get support.' But we saw that people who were getting support were actually doing worse," Sbarra says. "The more people reported talking to someone, sharing their feelings, the worse they reported doing."

On the other hand, people who took the stoic approach fared no better. According to Sbarra, "People who said they tried to push it out of their minds– those people did equally poorly, if not worse."

Sounds like a lose-lose proposition. So what's the solution? Sbarra says you have to strike a balance between working through your sadness and stewing in it.

"Healthy and adaptive coping involves a balance between feeling your emotions and processing them versus becoming overwhelmed by them or pretending they don't exist," he says.

The lovelorn students were also asked to note in their diaries when they made contact with their former partners. The study showed that, particularly in the days right after a break-up, seeing your ex can be counterproductive.

"In the first two weeks, contact with a partner slows the change process," Sbarra says. "People who reported frequent contact with former partners also reported much more love for the partner and sadness over the break-up. Contact in those first two weeks hinders the recovery process."

Sbarra's "Dissolution Study" began, on a more upbeat note, as the "Virginia Dating Study." For two years he followed intact relationships. But as couple after couple fell prey to the age-old impasse of irreconcilable differences, the project evolved into a study of the emotional fallout of ruined relationships.

So, other than a natural curiosity about the ups and downs of romance, what drove this research? "Grief itself is an incredibly important human experience," he says, "but one that has not been studied well in psychology. So there was a need to bring a new style of research."

As an undergraduate at Cornell, Sbarra studied relationships. When he began graduate work at UVA, he started collaborating with psychology professor Robert Emery, whose research focuses on divorce.

"It was a natural combination," Sbarra says. Emery became Sbarra's adviser, and the rest is dissolution-study history.

The study didn't account for how heart-shaped holidays like St. Valentine's Day affect the broken-hearted, but no matter the season, people on the mend from a dashed romance really just want to know one thing, Sbarra says. "The central question is, 'How long will it take me to get over how crappy I feel?' Around Valentine's Day, that question becomes more present in the minds of people who recently ended a relationship."

Based on his experience in the realm of romantic wreckage, does Sbarra have any advice for someone suffering through a split-up around Valentine's Day? "People feel incredibly alone. They think, 'I'm a loser because I'm not dating anyone.' Surround yourself with friends, have fun, don't be isolated," he says. "Those painful feelings are completely normal. And it doesn't mean you're not going to feel better in a little while. Give yourself time to start feeling good."

In the dark hour of lost love, a dose of familiar advice may be the best medicine, Sbarra says. "Realize what your grandparents always told you, 'This too shall pass.'"

David Sbarra (PhD, Psychology '04) is now assistant professor of psychology at the University of Arizona. His new work focuses on what it means to be resolved about loss, looking at the experience of social disruption from a variety of perspectives. This story by Jon Bowen (MFA, Creative Writing '91) is reprinted courtesy of A&S Online.