Going through a Bad Break-Up? Explain Away The Pain.
3 min read, Bad Behaviour, Dr Love

Going through a Bad Break-Up? Explain Away The Pain.

Dear Dr Love,

I’m in my final year at uni and my girlfriend of 2 years has just broken up with me. Not only am I devastated, but I have my finals coming up and I need to do well in them to keep my job offer. I really don’t want to screw them up because of someone who doesn’t care. But I keep thinking about it. How can I get over it and focus on my exams?


Dear Matt,

Don’t worry, you’re human. And turns out we humans are remarkably good at getting over stuff. Whether it’s a relationship or a rejection letter from a job, we get adapt to bad news much faster than we realise.

Now of course, a break-up sucks, and I’m not saying you won’t have some awful, lonely and awkward moments for a while. But just like our bodies fight disease, psychologists think our brains have ways to fight stress and negative experiences.

Harvard psychologist, Dan Gilbert says the trick to adapting, lies in what he calls the AREA model. You go through the 4 stages: Attend, React, Explain, then Adapt.

Step 1. Attend: When change happens in our lives, we tend to focus on it. Your brain is saying “wait this is new, what’s going on?”

Step 2. React: Next, your brain realises that the change is bad and you react negatively. You’re probably doing this now. Maybe you’ve put on the “Sad” playlist on Spotify, or gone on Facebook to look through her pictures or even proceeded on on a massive bender. You reacted in your own way, whatever that is.

Step 3. Explain: You’re not quite here yet, but this part is really important. Gilbert says this stage is crucial to be able to get over stuff.

Turns out, your brain is focussing on the break up because it can’t explain this new change. So you need to find a way to explain why your ex broke up with you. This can be easier to do if there was a lot of conflict in the relationship and there are clearer reasons why you should part ways. It can be less simple, if it’s an amicable separation.

You need to give yourself a concrete explanation for why your relationship ended. Maybe you had a lot of interests in common but she wasn’t emotional enough, or maybe you wanted completely different things for the future. Or maybe she told your straight. Whatever it is, explain the break up, tell yourself a story about it that is acceptable.

Step 4. Adapt: This is the point you want to get to, where your happiness levels start to pick up and eventually you’re over it and ready to start afresh.

Obviously, this process might not be as straightforward as 4 steps; you might jump back and forth from step to step. But the most important part is the Explanation. Find a good way to explain the pain and you’ll be over the break-up before you know it.  

Want to see more of Dan Gilbert? Try this.

March 14, 2017

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Dr Love

Dr Love uses insights from social science to help you solve your love problems. Do you have a love dilemma which you need help with?
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