It’s no secret that losing a relationship is hard, but one aspect of breakups that’s often left unconsidered is how they affect our sense of control, both internal and external. In a new study published in the journal PLOS ONE, researchers wanted to know how losing a partner affects that sense of control—and they actually found some interesting, hopeful results.
How breakups affect our sense of control.
A person’s sense of control refers to the extent to which they feel convinced of their ability “to influence their environment and their future by their own behavior,” the researchers write in the paper. That’s as opposed to the belief “that things that happen to them largely result from external factors such as powerful others, luck, chance, or fate,” which indicates a lower perceived sense of control.
Going into this study, the team wanted to build upon existing research on perceived sense of control over one’s life, relationships, and relationship loss. Having a greater perceived sense of control has long been associated with greater overall well-being, including better relationship satisfaction, they note.
So, what happens to that sense of control following a breakup, or even death of a spouse? To find out, the researchers conducted a data analysis on a long-term study of over 2,000 people who had experienced a separation from their partner (1,235 of them had separated from their partner, 423 were divorced, and 437 of them had partners who passed away).
The study included three yearly questionnaires that asked questions relating to perceived control, in order to gauge how they were affected by the relationship loss in the short and long term.
Based on the findings, those who separated from their partner showed a drop in perceived control the first year after separating—but after that, their sense of control slowly started to creep back up. The researchers attribute this to a form of “stress-related growth.”
“Our findings suggest that people sometimes grow from stressful experiences,” the researchers explain in a news release. “In the years after losing a romantic partner, participants in our study became increasingly convinced in their ability to influence their life and future by their own behavior. Their experience enabled them to deal with adversity and manage their life independently, which allowed them to grow.”
This is hopeful news for anyone who’s going through a breakup. After all, it makes sense that losing a relationship could make one feel like their life is out of their control—not only do you lose the person in question, but you lose a part of yourself as well. But over time, as you learn to live without that person, you regain the sense of autonomy you seemingly lost.
In addition to those findings, the study also showed women were more likely than men to experience a drop in sense of control immediately following separation, and young people actually had an increased sense of control after separation from their partner in comparison to older participants.
And as you might imagine, the type of relationship loss someone is dealing with will greatly influence how that loss affects them: People actually experience an immediate post-loss increase in sense of control following the death of a partner, as grief is often a catalyst for growth. Though interestingly, there was no clear link between divorce (specifically) and perceived sense of control in these findings.
“Research on stress-related growth suggests that humans might grow from adverse experiences and gain inner strength and maturity after relationship losses,” the authors write in the paper. “According to this idea, perceived control might not merely bounce back but even grow beyond its pre-loss levels in the long run.”
The bottom line is, losing any relationship is never easy. But these findings point to a light at the end of the tunnel: While it may take some time, people have a resounding ability to heal from loss, regain a sense of control, and grow stronger because of it.