RELATIONSHIPS: Breakups and your self-concept

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There’s no doubt about it.  A bad break up can feel incredibly painful and can make you question everything about yourself.  It seems that a number of research studies have focused on how the dissolution of a relationship changes the way you view your identity.[1] It was interesting for example to find a study that showed that women only a year or so after their divorce described themselves as “not a part of life”.[2] Reading that study made me realise how much of a detrimental impact a breakup can have on the way we view ourselves. Before the person you were with, you were living. You had friends. You had hobbies. You had a career. Why is it that we can feel that we are ‘not a part of life’ after a breakup?  How can a bond with another person have such intense consequences on self-concept?


What is it about a break up that makes us question who we are as people? And how can we avoid not relying on someone else to make up our identity? My belief is that when you fall in love or choose to let yourself fall in love, you succumb to vulnerability. You allow yourself to trust the other person and take a leap of faith that they will be there for you in the hard moments of your life and there to listen to you when you tell them about the amazing things you’ve achieved that day.  You share time, insecurities, success stories, new experiences, and space with that person.  It seems inevitable that they would start having an effect on your self-expansion.


By including them in your life, and involving them in your happiest and lowest moments, how can it not slightly alter how you see yourself? If you were not vulnerable and didn’t truly let them in, would you really be in love?


There are different areas of your life that can shape how you see yourself.  They say work can be a big factor in terms of identity. It gives you a sense of purpose, a role in the community, a group to associate to. Friends can also influence your self-concept. By spending time with those people, you associate with them as a network. Their views, opinions and customs can shape how you see yourself in some ways.  The activities you choose to do every day or every week in your spare time also build your self-worth and self-expansion. If you volunteer at the hospital on Saturday mornings, play touch rugby on Fridays or learn piano on Monday evenings, these activities are another factor that shape who you are as a person.


If all of these things have an impact on your self-perception, how could a long-term romantic relationship not slightly alter how you view yourself as well? It would be hard to completely disassociate yourself from a person that you spend 2 nights or more a week together.  If you live with them, you wake up to that person every day. You come home to them after a day at work or an evening out with friends. You may spend birthdays, holidays and more with them.  It seems there is no way you could really remove them completely from your identity if this is the case.

What would ensure that your self-concept results from what you do rather than your link or bond with this person?  Could it be about setting independent goals in your career? What about re-evaluating what you believe in and what your values are? Spending time with people who have known you before this person and people who will challenge you is a way to do this as well. My friends and family for example are a pillar in my life as they keep me grounded and stable, which is why I consciously make time for them. I don’t wait to see if I will have time for them. I make the time. Maintaining friendships and constantly focusing on your own independent growth would hopefully mean that if your relationship does dissolve, your self-identity would not be based on how the relationship expanded your horizons and made you a better person, but how you developed over time, what you took the time to learn, and how you chose to continue developing on your own.


[1] Weigart, A. J., & Hastings, R. (1977). Identity loss, family, and social change. American Journal of Sociology, 82, 1171–1185.

[2] Kohen, J. A. (1981). From wife to family head: Transitions in self-identity. Psychiatry, 44, 230–240.



  1. I appreciate this article very much. I feel like people blame themselves and fall into a bad place after a break-up, and this hurts them in future relationships as well. This article hits on key points that I believe many people do not touch on during a hard time such as friendships, the ones you love and who love you, and the independence and respect you should always keep for yourself.  Thank you for taking the time to write this, it may be just enough to help someone out in a very positive way!

  2. I really connected with this article because I have experienced this before. I really like how it gets to the core of break-ups and discusses how crucially they can affect your life. Most articles about break-ups suggest ways for people to get over there heart break, but this article asked many questions. If someone who is going through a break up were to read this, they would be able to reflect on these   questions and apply to them to their own situation. The article is very personable and honest about heart break and describes positive ways to enhance your life after a break up.  

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