Why Breakups are Lopsided

“Doubt is not a pleasant condition, but certainty is absurd.”

– Voltaire


In the early 1960s, the psychologists Stanley Schachter and Jerry Singer conducted an experiment where they gave a group of subjects epinephrine. They told some of the subjects what symptoms to expect – heart palpitations, hand tremors, sweaty palms, and the like. The rest were misled about the effects of the drug. What Schachter and Singer discovered was the people who knew what epinephrine would do to their bodies were, predictably, able to make sense of things when their hands started shaking. The second group, though, lacked that ready explanation. When their palms started sweating and their hearts were beating uncontrollably, they convinced themselves that they were either uncontrollably angry or deliriously happy. A stimulus demanded an explanation, and rather than let it go unexplained, they created one out of thin air.

This latter group  engaged in a behavior called “self-justification.” Self-justification, in the vernacular of psychology, refers to the process by which we convince ourselves that our behavior makes sense. When we tout the gas mileage of a new vehicle, for example, or point to our apartment’s proximity to grocery stores, we are engaging in self-justifying behavior. In itself, this is neither inherently good or bad. But it demonstrates an interesting reality. We like to believe that we act rationally: we consider our options, weigh the variables, and then make an appropriate decision. But psychological research suggests we do the opposite. We make a decision, and then we convince ourselves that it was the correct one.


An important component of self-justification is called cognitive dissonance. Cognitive dissonance, as defined by the social psychologist Elliot Aronson, is the “state of tension that occurs whenever an individual simultaneously holds two cognitions (ideas, attitudes, beliefs, opinions) that are psychologically incompatible.” When this occurs, we change one or  both cognitions to make them more compatible (or “consonant”). Let me give a practical example. Most Christians believe it is a duty to give to the poor. At the same time, when asked to give to a homeless person, many will decline. The two cognitions “I have a duty to give to the poor” and “I don’t want to give this person my money” are incompatible. To reduce dissonance, such a person might tell themselves, “It’s better to give to a shelter,” or, “They would spend the money on alcohol; it’s not my duty to subsidize their abuse.” As a result, we cmodify our opinions in order to reduce that psychological tension.

Cognitive dissonance can have a profound effect on our attitudes. In one of my favorite social psychology studies, subjects were given either $.25 or $20 to describe a man as good looking. Those in the latter group rated the man’s attractiveness as the same before and after the experiment: they could justify telling a white lie in exchange for $20. But those given  a quarter came to believe their lie. The cognitions “I am an honest person” and “This man is good looking” are perfectly compatible if you can convince yourself you believe the second. Consequently, the quarter group rated the man’s attractiveness as significantly higher than the $20 group. Cognitive dissonance has been used to explain attitude shifts in marijuana use, workplace theft, smoking, as well as countless other phenomena. Now I want to look at how it impacts how we deal with break ups.



The whole point of this discussion is to shed some light on a particular type of breakup. I’m thinking of a couple that had no clear, major dysfunction (i.e., neither party cheated on the other). Things have gone well, or reasonably well for some time, but one of the two (for sake of simplicity, let’s say it’s the woman*) starts to feel some doubts about the relationship. Their uncertainty grows and they feel conflicted. Sooner or later, she decides to end things. Self-justification predicts that a week after the breakup, she will feel much more confident in that decision than the week before. (Have you ever noticed that all the idioms we use to mean “to go through with a decision” employ violent imagery? Bite the bullet. Take the plunge. Pull the trigger. Our language seems to intuitively recognize the truth that the moments surrounding a decision are tumultuous.) Rather than incrementally working our way from doubt to certainty and then acting accordingly, it is in the act of deciding that we shrug off our doubts.

But the one getting dumped does not get the benefit of having made a decision: the decision was made for him. Psychologically speaking, everything is stacked in the favor of the one who initiates the breakup. Whereas the very act of breaking up makes her more certain of her decision, he is left to sort through the maelstrom of negative emotions. This, to me, is where things get particularly interesting. Cognitive dissonance predicts that the more difficult the breakup is on the one being dumped, the more easy it will be for the dumper to get over it.

The cognitions, “I care about this person,” is dissonant with “My decision is causing him pain.” But there is greater dissonance between the cognitions, “I care about this person” and “My decision is causing him an enormous amount of pain.” There are many ways the mind can reduce the tension between the two, but the one that seems most common is to add the cognition, “I would not want to cause them this much pain if it wasn’t the right decision. Therefore I made the right decision.”

This isn’t just an exercise in psychological speculation. I have seen many friends stunned by the apparent coldness of someone they love, unable to process how quickly they have fallen from their relational bliss. Continuing with my example, it’s not the woman’s insensitivity to his pain that is causing her to move on. In fact, it’s quite the opposite: her acuteness to his struggle is the very thing that’s convincing her she made the right decision. On the flip side of that coin, it’s easy for the dumper to get annoyed with the lingering struggle of the dumpee. But it’s important to remember that doing the dumping gives you a 90 meter head start in a 100 meter dash.

*I want to be clear: this is not gender-specific. These psychological pressures are exerted on both sexes equally.


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