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Who Am I Without You? The Influence of Romantic Breakup on the Self-Concept

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Romantic relationships alter the selves of the individuals within them. Partners develop shared friends and activities and even overlapping self-concepts. This intertwining of selves may leave individuals' self-concepts vulnerable to change if the relationship ends. The current research examines several different types of self-concept change that could occur after a breakup and their relation to emotional distress. Across three studies, using varied methodologies, the authors examined change in both the content (Study 1a and 1b) and the structure of the self-concept, specifically, reduced self-concept clarity (Studies 1 through 3). As predicted, individuals experienced self-concept content change and reduced self-concept clarity post-breakup. Additionally, reduced clarity uniquely predicted post-breakup emotional distress.
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Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin
DOI: 10.1177/0146167209352250
2010; 36; 147 originally published online Dec 15, 2009; Pers Soc Psychol Bull
Erica B. Slotter, Wendi L. Gardner and Eli J. Finkel Who Am I Without You? The Influence of Romantic Breakup on the Self-Concept
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Who Am I Without You? The Influence
of Romantic Breakup on the Self-Concept
Erica B. Slotter,1 Wendi L. Gardner,1 and Eli J. Finkel1
Abstract
Romantic relationships alter the selves of the individuals within them. Partners develop shared friends and activities and
even overlapping self-concepts. This intertwining of selves may leave individuals’ self-concepts vulnerable to change if the
relationship ends. The current research examines several different types of self-concept change that could occur after a
breakup and their relation to emotional distress. Across three studies, using varied methodologies, the authors examined
change in both the content (Study 1a and 1b) and the structure of the self-concept, specifically, reduced self-concept clarity
(Studies 1 through 3). As predicted, individuals experienced self-concept content change and reduced self-concept clarity
post-breakup. Additionally, reduced clarity uniquely predicted post-breakup emotional distress.
Keywords
self/identity, romantic relationships, breakup, self-concept clarity, emotional distress
Received December 1, 2008; revision accepted July 15, 2009
When Jerry Maguire (in the movie of the same name) won
back his estranged wife with the phrase “you complete me,”
it was the summary of the ways he needed her because
she had forever altered who he was. Luckily for Jerry, he “had
her at ‘hello,’” and presumably kept her forevermore, thus
sidestepping the central question of the current research:
What happens to the self when a romantic relationship ends?
Previous research has documented that, as in Jerry’s case,
romantic partners strongly impact each others’ selves (e.g.,
Agnew, 2000; Aron, Aron, Tudor, & Nelson, 1991). How-
ever, in the imperfect off-screen world, romantic relationships
often end. In such circumstances, what happens to the now
“incomplete” self?
Understanding the impact of romantic breakup on the self is
important, as romantic relationships comprise a crucial part
of most adults’ lives (Berscheid & Reis, 1998) and can pro-
duce intense emotional distress when they end. Although
extensive research documents the detrimental impact of
breakup on individuals’ well-being (e.g., Davis, Shaver, &
Vernon, 2003; Monroe, Rohde, Seeley, & Lewinsohn, 1999;
Sbarra, 2006), little empirical work investigates the specific
effects of breakup on individuals’ selves and how these effects
might contribute to their emotional suffering after a relation-
ship ends. The current research investigates the impact of
breakup on the self and, in turn, how this impact predicts indi-
viduals’ emotional well-being post-breakup.
Given the interdependence that characterizes romantic
relationships (e.g., Agnew, 2000), we propose that breakup
evokes change in the content of individuals’ self-concepts as
individuals are forced to redefine who they are in the absence
of their former partner. Additionally, we propose that breakup
predicts change in the structure of individuals’ self-concepts:
We predict post-breakup subjective confusion of the self, a
reduction in the clarity of the self-concept. We further propose
that these self-concept changes predict the emotional distress
that individuals experience after a relationship ends. Thus, the
current studies explore the self-relevant consequences that result
when romantic partners no longer “complete” each other.
Romantic Relationships and the Self
Research defines the self-concept as a person’s sense of “me.”
It is comprised of the physical appearance, material belong-
ings, set of roles, prototypes, scripts, attitudes, beliefs, and
attributes that individuals think or feel are characteristic of
who they are (e.g., James, 1890). The self-concept is also
fundamentally social. It has been conceived as a dynamic
reflection of both the social world in which individuals are
situated (e.g., Baumeister, 1998) and the relationships indi-
viduals have with others in that world (e.g., Aron & Aron,
1997; Markus & Wurf, 1987).
Romantic partners, as perhaps the closest of adult relation-
ships, strongly impact the self-concept in a number of ways.
1Northwestern University, Evanston, IL, USA
Corresponding Author:
Erica B. Slotter, Department of Psychology, Northwestern University, Swift
Hall Room 412, 2029 N. Sheridan Road, Evanston, IL 60208, USA
Email: ericaslotter2011@u.northwestern.edu
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148 Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 36(2)
Specifically, the selves of romantic partners often become
intertwined, and the lines between the individuals’ self-concepts
become blurred. Highly committed romantic partners are more
likely to spontaneously use first-person-plural pronouns in
relationship-specific contexts (i.e., we, us, our, ours), report
greater centrality of the relationship to their life, and indicate
greater overlap between their own self-concept and their part-
ner’s self-concept (Agnew, Van Lange, Rusbult, & Langston,
1998). The subjective experience of falling in love with a
romantic partner increases the number of aspects that individ-
uals descriptively include as part of their self (Aron, Paris, &
Aron, 1995). Perhaps most dramatically, Aron and colleagues
(1991) demonstrated that married individuals experienced
confusion when attempting to distinguish between the self
and the other, showing difficulty in rejecting traits that were
uncharacteristic of themselves if they were characteristic
of their spouse. Indeed, even individuals’ motivation to draw
close to a potential romantic partner temporarily alters their
self-concept to include aspects of the desired other (Slotter &
Gardner, 2009).
Romantic Breakup and the Self
Given the influence that romantic partners exert on each
other, it is unsurprising that the loss of a romantic relationship
is one of the most distressing events adults can experience
(Monroe et al., 1999; Sbarra, 2006). Romantic breakups in
young adulthood increase the risk for a variety of negative
mental health outcomes, including the first onset of Major
Depressive Disorder (Davis et al., 2003). Although the
impact of romantic breakup on individuals’ emotional
well-being has been well documented, researchers typically
examine the consequences of breakup through the lens of
relational factors, such as the rejection felt by individuals at
the hands of their partner after a breakup or the longing for
lost closeness and companionship (Agnew, 2000). There is
almost no research examining how changes in the self may
contribute to individuals’ breakup-related distress (see
Lewandowski, Aron, Bassis, & Kunak, 2006, for a notable
exception).
In the current research, we propose that one reason that the
end of a romantic relationship is distressing to individuals is
the impact that the breakup has on their self-concept. When
a relationship ends, and the associated interdependence is dis-
rupted, individuals must discard some or all of the self-views
that they shared with their now ex-partner (e.g., stopping
engaging in shared recreational activities) and may even dis-
card unshared self-views that are linked to the now-defunct
relationship (e.g., changing one’s appearance after a
breakup). Figure 1 outlines our hypotheses.
We propose that one consequence of romantic breakup is
the alteration of the content of individuals’ self-concept,
which we refer to as self-concept content change. Past
theoretical work suggests that aspects of the self that were
formerly defined through a romantic partner may subse-
quently be changed or lost when the relationship ends (Haber,
1990). Individuals may alter their appearance, social circles,
activities, goals, or even their values or beliefs—all things
that fundamentally comprise individuals’ selves (e.g.,
Baumeister, 1998; James, 1890). This occurs as individuals
reconstruct their sense of self without their ex-partner.
In addition to alterations in the content of the self-concept,
the structure of the self-concept may change after the end of
a romantic relationship. We propose that in the wake of a
romantic breakup, self-concept clarity will be reduced. Self-
concept clarity, defined as the extent to which self-aspects
are held with certainty and perceived to be both internally
consistent and temporally stable, is an important structural
component of the self (Campbell et al., 1996). After breakup,
ex-partners must renegotiate their sense of self without the
facets defined by the relationship, leaving their self-concepts
Figure 1. The hypothesized relationship between romantic
breakup, self-concept change, and post-breakup emotional distress
Romantic Breakup
Self-Concept Change
Emotional Distress
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Slotter et al. 149
less clearly defined (at least temporarily). This proposed
reduction in self-concept clarity could impact well-being;
individual differences in self-concept clarity predict a vari-
ety of positive outcomes in North American samples,
including high self-esteem and low levels of neuroticism
(Campbell et al., 1996). Individuals with high, versus low,
self-concept clarity also score more favorably on multiple
measures of psychological adjustment (Bigler, Neimeyer, &
Brown, 2001).
Although most often studied as an individual difference,
self-concept clarity can be altered situationally. For example,
self-concept clarity can temporarily be increased after a self-
reflection task, during which individuals write about why
certain characteristics are important to them and how these
characteristics relate to other aspects of their self (Csank &
Conway, 2004). Importantly, life events also impact individ-
uals’ momentary experiences of self-concept clarity (Nezlek
& Plesko, 2001). No research has directly addressed the impact
of breakup on self-concept clarity; however, the end of a
romantic relationship certainly marks a significant life event
that impacts individuals’ self-concepts (e.g., Lewandowski
et al., 2006; Monroe et al., 1999; Sbarra, 2006). Therefore,
it is plausible that romantic breakup also predicts a reduc-
tion in individuals’ self-concept clarity, leaving them confused
about who they are.
Given that low levels of self-concept clarity predict
negative well-being outcomes in other contexts (e.g.,
Campbell, Assanand, & Paula, 2003), reductions of self-
concept clarity due to a romantic breakup should function
similarly. As previously discussed, research in the close
relationships field traditionally studies the emotional dis-
tress that occurs after the end of a romantic relationship as
stemming from partner- and relationship-specific factors.
With the current research, we explore a novel pathway to
emotional distress after a breakup and whether the reduc-
tion in self-concept clarity that is hypothesized to coincide
with romantic breakup predicts the emotional distress indi-
viduals experience.
Finally, we also explore an additional type of change to
the structure of the self-concept, the reduction of the size
of the self-concept, which we refer to as self-concept
constriction. Lewandowski and colleagues (2006) recently
demonstrated that after remembering the loss of a past
relationship, or imagining the end of a current romantic
relationship, individuals felt their self-concepts were
subjectively smaller and used fewer self-aspects when
describing themselves. Therefore, in addition to our pri-
mary constructs of interest—self-concept content change
and reduced self-concept clarity—we also explore the idea
that individuals’ subjective sense of the size of their self-
concepts is reduced after a romantic breakup, as they are
losing some or all of the self-aspects related to their
ex-partner.
Overview of the Current Research
The current research sought to examine self-concept content
change and loss of self-concept clarity in the wake of roman-
tic breakup and the link between these changes and emotional
distress.
Study 1 examined breakup-induced self-concept change
and self-concept clarity. Participants either reflected on a
prior romantic breakup (Study 1a) or imagined their current
romantic relationships ending (Study 1b) before reporting
on remembered or forecasted self-concept change across life
domains central to self-definition (e.g., Baumeister, 1998;
James, 1890). As outlined in Figure 1, we hypothesized that
when remembering a recent romantic breakup, individuals
would report self-concept content change and reduced self-
concept clarity after the breakup (Study 1a). Additionally, we
hypothesized that relationship commitment, given its impact
on merged self-concepts between romantic partners (e.g.,
Agnew et al., 1998), would predict greater forecasted self-
concept content change (Study 1b). This would provide initial
support for the idea that relationship factors can moderate the
effect of breakup on self-relevant processes.
Study 2 expanded on Study 1 by utilizing text analysis
of real-world writing samples (Pennebaker, Francis, & Booth,
2001) to observe reduced self-concept clarity in the wake
of a romantic breakup, compared to in the wake of other life
events. Specifically, Study 2 examined the naturalistic Web
diary entries and self-descriptions of individuals writing
about a recent romantic breakup, a recent career change,
or their general activities and preferences without any indica-
tion of a life change. As outlined in Figure 1, we hypothesized
that recently undergoing a romantic breakup would lead to
decreased self-concept clarity, as coded in the text analysis
of these individuals’ Web blogs and self-descriptions. In this
study we also explored whether we could replicate existing
findings showing that romantic breakup predicts constriction
in the size of individuals’ self-concepts (Lewandowski et al.,
2006) in naturalistic writing samples.
Study 3 examined breakup’s relation to self-concept
clarity via a 6-month longitudinal study of college freshmen
in ongoing relationships. As outlined in Figure 1, we hypoth-
esized that individuals whose romantic relationships ended
would show reduced self-concept clarity over time relative
to individuals whose relationships remained intact. Finally,
in Studies 2 and 3, we examined whether the association
of romantic breakup with emotional distress was mediated
via low levels of self-concept clarity. Neither self-concept
content change nor self-concept constriction has been
previously linked to emotional well-being; therefore, we
make no specific predictions regarding the interplay between
these constructs and emotional distress after a romantic
breakup, although we do investigate the possibility of these
associations.
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150 Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 36(2)
Study 1
We propose that when a romantic relationship ends, the
content of individuals’ selves changes as they renegotiate
some or all of the self-aspects that they shared with their ex-
partner. There are many aspects of the self that may change
when a relationship ends, ranging from a post-breakup haircut,
to alterations in social activities, to modifications in personal
values. Any combination of these changes could contribute
to the overall self-confusion that we propose individuals
experience when a relationship ends. Thus, our Study 1 goals
were threefold. First, in Study 1a, we explored romanti-
cally single individuals’ recollections of content change across
five self-concept domains after their most recent romantic
relationship ended and the association of this recollected con-
tent change with current levels of self-concept clarity. The
five domains encompassed changes that individuals might
experience after a breakup in the content of the self-concept:
changes in appearance, activities, social circle/activities, future
plans, and values/attitudes (e.g., James, 1890). We hypothe-
sized that higher levels of post-breakup self-concept change
across the five domains would predict reduced self-concept
clarity (Campbell et al., 1996). Second, we explored in Study 1a
whether individuals’ self-concept clarity would be associated
with negative affective consequences.
In Study 1b, we explored romantically involved indi-
viduals’ forecasts, if their current relationship were to end,
of potential changes across the same five self-concept con-
tent domains. Our third aim in Study 1 was to examine
whether relationship commitment would influence the
extent of self-concept content change that individuals fore-
casted would occur after a breakup. Given that individuals
in highly committed relationships show greater cognitive
interdependence with romantic partners—reporting greater
centrality of the relationship to their lives as well as greater
overlap between their self and their partner’s self (Agnew
et al., 1998)—imagining losing their relationship should be
more disruptive to the content of the selves of more highly
committed individuals.
Study 1a
Method
Participants and procedure. In this study, 72 Northwestern
University undergraduates (40 women) participated. None of
these participants were currently involved in a romantic rela-
tionship, but all had been involved in a dating relationship
that ended recently (M = 12 weeks, SD = 9.60 weeks, mode
= 6 weeks, range = 3 days to 6 months prior to the study).
Measures. To assess our central constructs of interest, par-
ticipants completed a series of questionnaires, which were
embedded within a larger general survey of attitudes and per-
sonality. We asked participants to recall the end of their last
significant romantic relationship when answering the five
domains of self-change items. The domains of self-concept
content change measure consisted of five items, each tapping
a different domain of the self that romantic breakup could
influence: appearance, activities, social circle/activities, future
plans, and values. It included items such as “After my last
relationship ended, I changed my appearance” and “After my
last relationship ended, my values and beliefs changed” (1 =
not at all, 7 = extremely; α = .90).
We assessed self-concept clarity using the 12-item
scale developed by Campbell et al. (1996), which measures
the degree to which individuals feel that they have a strong
sense of themselves and that all parts of their self-concept
fit together into a cohesive self-unit. Items include “In gen-
eral, I have a clear sense of who I am and what I am” and
“Sometimes I think I know other people better than I know
Table 1. Regression Results From Study 1
Regression
number Study Dependent variable Independent variable(s) df B SE t
1 1a Self-concept clarity Recalled self-concept 71 -0.23 0.09 -2.42*
content change
2 1a Emotional distress Recalled self-concept 71 0.42 0.61 2.05a
content change
3 1a Emotional distress Self-concept clarity 71 -0.45 0.58 -2.85**
4 1a Emotional distress Self-concept clarity 70 -0.51 0.69 -2.69**
Recalled self-concept 70 0.22 0.66 0.95
content change
5 1b Forecasted self-concept Commitment 47 0.48 0.18 2.11*
content change
ap = .05.
*p < .05. **p < .01.
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Slotter et al. 151
myself” (reversed; 1 = strongly disagree, 7 = strongly agree;
α = .90).
Participants also completed the Beck Depression Inventory
(BDI; Beck, Steer, Ball, & Ranieri, 1996), a 20-item measure
of the intensity of various possible depressive symptoms
= .80). As the current sample was not drawn from a clini-
cally diagnosed population, higher scores on the BDI indicate
greater emotional distress rather than higher levels of clinical
depression.
Results and Discussion
When recalling the end of their most recent romantic relation-
ship, participants reported moderate yet significant amounts
of self-concept content change (M = 3.45, SD = 1.35), t(91) =
17.40, p < .01. We conducted a simple regression analysis to
determine the association between remembered self-concept
content change and overall self-concept clarity. As predicted,
and as reported in Table 1, the more self-concept content
change individuals reported experiencing following their recent
breakup, the less clear their current perceptions of their self-
concept (Regression 1).1,2
We next examined whether self-concept content change
and/or self-concept clarity would predict higher levels of post-
breakup emotional distress. As reported in Table 1, when
entered independently into the regression model, both higher
levels of self-concept content change (Regression 2) and
lower levels of self-concept clarity (Regression 3) predict
higher levels of emotional distress. However, when entered
simultaneously in the model, only self-concept clarity emerged
as a significant predictor (Regression 4). This is perhaps not
surprising, given the literature linking self-concept clarity and
psychological well-being. Thus, in Studies 2 and 3 we focus
on self-concept clarity as a predictor of the emotional distress
reported by participants post-breakup.
Study 1b
Method
Participants and procedure. In this study, 66 Northwestern
University undergraduates (35 women) participated. All par-
ticipants in this study were currently involved in romantic
relationships, with a mean length of 13.9 months (SD = 11.40).
Measures. As in Study 1a, participants completed a series of
questionnaires, which were embedded within a larger general
survey of attitudes and personality. Participants completed
a seven-item measure of their psychological commitment to
their romantic relationship, which included items such as
“I want my relationship to last a very long time” (1 = strongly
disagree, 7 = strongly agree; Rusbult, Martz, & Agnew,
1998; α = .94). We assessed forecasted self-concept content
change by asking participants to imagine how they would
change if their current relationship were to end in the near
future using the same measure from Study 1a, although this
measure was reworded to reflect future rather than past con-
tent change (α = .76).
Results and Discussion
As predicted, when individuals currently in relationships
imagined how they would respond to their relationship end-
ing, they forecasted that the content of their self-concepts
would change (M = 3.10, SD = 1.35), t(65) = 13.02, p < .01.
As predicted, and presented in Table 1, a simple regression
analysis demonstrated that higher levels of commitment to
their current relationship predicted greater forecasted self-
concept content change among participants (Regression 5).
This suggests that relationship commitment, which is one rela-
tionship factor that has been persuasively linked to greater
overlap between romantic partners’ self-concepts (Agnew
et al., 1998), predicts greater forecasted self-concept content
change.
Taken together, Studies 1a and 1b support our hypothesized
relations among romantic breakup, self-concept change, and
emotional distress. However, though supportive, the measures
used in Study 1 are laboratory approximations of individuals’
post-breakup experiences; a study based on individuals’ real-
world experiences could bring extra insight to the present
investigation. A further limitation of Study 1b is that individ-
uals’ forecasts of self-change may not accurately reflect
how they would actually respond to a relational loss (Eastwick,
Finkel, Krishnamurti, & Loewenstein, 2008). Therefore,
Study 2 examined individuals’ naturalistic reports of self-
concept change after a recent breakup. Additionally, since all
of the measures were collected at the same time, the potential
for reverse causality is a limitation of Study 1. Therefore,
Study 3 examines individuals’ reports of self-concept change
longitudinally.
Study 2
Study 2 furthered our investigation into the impact that
romantic breakup has upon individuals’ selves. We examined
online diary entries, or blogs, collected from individuals writ-
ing about a recent romantic breakup. Specifically, we wished
to highlight the differences in the amount of self-concept clar-
ity experienced by individuals who wrote about (a) a recent
breakup, (b) a recent nonsocial life change (a career change
in the current study), or (c) topics reflecting no current life
changes. We also explored individuals’ level of self-concept
constriction as a function of writing topic.
Central to the current thesis, we predicted that individuals
who wrote about a recent breakup, relative to individuals who
wrote about either of the other two topics, would express less
self-concept clarity in their online diary entries. Additionally,
we sought to replicate the findings of Lewandowski and col-
leagues (2006), predicting that individuals who wrote about a
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152 Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 36(2)
recent breakup, relative to individuals who wrote about either
of the other two topics, would exhibit more self-concept con-
striction, as evidenced by the use of fewer nonredundant
self-descriptors in their online diary profiles. Finally, we
explored the relations among breakup, self-concept constric-
tion, self-concept clarity, and emotional distress.
Method
Participant and diary characteristics. A total of 76 different
Internet diaries (46 written by females) were sampled from
various online public sources (e.g., blogspot.com). The dia-
ries fell into three separate conditions: 28 individuals wrote
about a recent breakup, 26 individuals wrote about a
recent nonsocial life change (a career change in this case),
and 22 individuals wrote about other topics (e.g., music or
movies) that did not reflect any life change. Research assistants
selected diaries for each condition by searching the aforemen-
tioned sources for key words (i.e., breakup/romantic breakup,
career change/job change, preferences/favorites). Initially,
28 diaries were selected for each condition; however, upon
inspection 2 diaries in the career change condition and 6
diaries in the no life change condition were duplicates. That
is, they were contributed by the same author as another
selected diary; thus, they were discarded from the final sample.
The individuals in each of the conditions were age- and gender-
matched to the selected diaries in the breakup condition, such
that each breakup-relevant diary entry was yoked with a
matched entry from the other two conditions. Participant ages
ranged from 18 to 56 years. The mean age for participants
was 32.39 in the breakup condition (SD = 11.83), 32.58 in the
career change condition (SD = 11.72), and 32.08 in the control
condition (SD = 11.07).
We collected two different writing samples from the diaries
of each participant. The first was an entry taken from partici-
pants’ online diaries, or blogs, to assess self-concept clarity.
The online diary entries are ideal for assessing self-concept
clarity in naturalistic writing samples, as they are designed to
allow individuals to articulate, in writing, their self-relevant
thoughts. The diary entries of participants in the breakup
condition focused on the recent dissolution of a romantic rela-
tionship, the diary entries of participants in the career change
condition focused on a recent career change, and the diary
entries of participants in the control condition focused either
on the events of their day or their favorite music and movies.
If multiple entries on a particular topic were available, we
collected the writing sample from the diary that was closest
in time (i.e., posting date) to either the relevant breakup or
career change. For the control condition, the most recently
written entry was selected for analysis.
The second writing sample was the “About Me” section,
located on the profile page of the user’s diary, in which par-
ticipants wrote a short segment describing themselves. We
used this self-descriptor section, in which individuals list
their self-aspects for others to see, to examine whether self-
concept constriction experienced by participants varied across
conditions. These self-descriptor sections are typically com-
pleted when the individual’s online profile is first filled out,
but could be changed at any point in time by the individual.
The self-descriptor sections are ideal for assessing self-concept
size in naturalistic writing samples, as they are designed for
individuals to create a “laundry list” of the number of self-
aspects they possess. Although these self-descriptor sections
have the drawback that there is no record of when the section
was last updated, their ability to be altered makes them
useful (albeit imperfect) for assessing self-concept constric-
tion, as they can be changed to reflect individuals’ current
state of self.
Linguistic analysis strategy. We analyzed each writing
sample in multiple steps. First, we analyzed each participant’s
selected diary entry for the amount of self-concept clarity evi-
denced using two independent coders. Coders examined each
diary entry for words relevant to low levels of self-concept
clarity. Specifically, they marked 10 synonyms for confusion:
confuse, uncertain, disorganize, bewilder, conflict, contradict,
unsure, turmoil, turbulent, and the phrase I don’t know. Coders
searched the diary entries for the root of each of the words;
thus, confuse, confusion, confused, and so forth would all be
marked as indicative of the construct of interest. Coders then
rated the identified words with regard to the self-concept rel-
evance of the confusion (1 = not at all to 7 = extremely). For
example, the phrase “I don’t know who I am anymore,” would
be coded as more self-concept relevant than “I don’t know
my way around my new office yet.” The more self-concept
relevant the confusion words rated by the coders, the lower
the level of self-concept clarity exhibited in the participant’s
diary entry. The coders exhibited strong interrater reliability
= .89), so their individual ratings were averaged to create
a mean self-concept clarity score for each participant.
Next, we separately determined the overall word count
for each participant’s self-descriptor, “About Me,” section
and diary entry. Then, two independent coders rated the self-
concept constriction present in each of the “About Me”
sections, using Lewandowski and colleagues’ (2006) proce-
dure. Specifically, they counted the number of nonredundant
self-descriptors used in each participant’s “About Me” section
(e.g., friendly and sociable would be counted as one descrip-
tor, whereas friendly and smart would be counted as two).
The coders exhibited excellent interrater reliability (α = .92),
so their individual counts were averaged to create the final
count of nonredundant self-descriptors.
Finally, we analyzed each participant’s selected diary entry
for the amount of emotional distress present using the Lin-
guistic Inquiry and Word Count program (LIWC; Pennebaker
et al., 2001). This program analyzes text files on various
dimensions and reports the percentage of words, which we
converted to proportions, out of the total word count for each
text file that fits into each specified dimension. Entries for
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Slotter et al. 153
the current analyses were copied directly from their Internet
source and pasted into a text file where they were checked
for spelling and grammatical mistakes before being submit-
ted to LIWC for analysis. LIWC provides a default dictionary
for coding emotional distress, including root words such
as sad, angry, anxious, and so on. We ran this specific diction-
ary to calculate the amount of emotional distress evidenced
in the participants’ diary entries. LIWC has the advantage of
being unbiased, unlike a human coder, but is insensitive to
context. For this reason, we only used the program to code
emotional distress rather than our context-dependent self-
relevant variables.
Results and Discussion
Self-concept clarity analysis. We first analyzed the coded
self-concept clarity expressed in the participants’ diary entries.
All omnibus ANOVA tests are presented in Table 2. As pre-
dicted, the overall effect of condition was significant and
remained so when controlling for the overall word count of
the diary entries. Specifically, when controlling for overall
word count of the diary entries, planned contrasts showed
that individuals in the breakup condition expressed less self-
concept clarity (M = 2.51, SD = 0.32) than the participants in
either the career change condition (M = 6.88, SD = 0.34),
t(73) = –8.91, p < .001, or the control condition (M = 6.68,
SD = 0.36), t(73) = –8.65, p < .001, whereas the amount of
self-concept clarity expressed by participants in the career
change condition and the control condition did not differ,
t(73) = –0.14, p = .89.
Self-concept constriction analysis. We next analyzed the
self-descriptor, “About Me” sections provided by each par-
ticipant as a function of condition.3 All omnibus ANOVA tests
are presented in Table 2. As predicted, the overall effect of
condition emerged as significant and remained so when con-
trolling for the overall word count of the self-descriptor
sections. Specifically, when controlling for overall word count,
individuals who wrote about a recent breakup used fewer
nonredundant terms to describe themselves (M = 4.64, SD = 3.28)
than did individuals in either the career change (M = 7.31,
SD = 5.51), t(75) = 2.94, p < .01, or control conditions (M =
9.18, SD = 6.23), t(75) = 3.24, p < .01, whereas the number
of nonredundant self-descriptors used by individuals in the
career change condition and the control condition did not
differ significantly, t(75) = 1.70, p = .23. These results con-
ceptually replicate the laboratory results of Lewandowski et
al. (2006), even in “messy” real-world context of individu-
als’ self-descriptions on the Internet, by demonstrating that
the experience of a romantic breakup predicts fewer descrip-
tors being used to express the self-concept.
Emotional distress analyses. Finally, we explored the link
between self-concept change and emotional distress; we
present these analyses in Table 3. We first explored whether
self-concept constriction predicted elevated emotional dis-
tress as coded by LIWC. Self-concept constriction did not
significantly predict participants’ emotional distress (Regres-
sion 1). Given that past research has not established a link
between self-concept constriction and emotional distress,
this is perhaps not surprising (Lewandowski et al., 2006).
We next turned our attention to the well-established link
between self-concept clarity and emotional distress by exam-
ining whether self-concept clarity mediated any relationship
between romantic breakup and emotional distress as coded
by LIWC (Baron & Kenny, 1986). Condition was effect coded
throughout (breakup = 2, career change = –1, control = –1). We
regressed emotional distress upon condition and found that
individuals in the breakup condition expressed more distress
than individuals in the other two conditions (Regression 2).
We next regressed self-concept clarity upon condition and
found, as in our previously reported ANOVA, that individu-
als in the breakup condition expressed lower levels of clarity
than individuals in the other two conditions (Regression 3).
Finally, we regressed emotional distress upon self-concept
clarity and found that lower levels of self-concept clarity also
predicted higher levels of emotional distress (Regression 4).
As predicted, when included simultaneously in the regression
(Regression 5), self-concept clarity remained a significant
predictor of emotional distress, but breakup condition fell to
nonsignificance. Preacher and Hayes’s (2004) SPSS macro for
testing mediation using bootstrapping techniques, as advo-
cated by Shrout and Bolger (2002), revealed a total indirect
effect of condition with a point estimate of –0.52 and a 95%
BCa (bias corrected and accelerated) bootstrap confidence
interval of –0.9215 to –0.1844 (based on 5,000 resamples).
Zero falls outside of this confidence interval, indicating sig-
nificant mediation at the p = .05 level.4 Thus, a substantial
portion of the emotional distress reported by participants
who wrote about a recent breakup was predicted by the
reduced levels of self-concept clarity that these individuals
were experiencing.
Taken together, the results from Study 2 indicate that after
a romantic breakup, individuals write about themselves in
a way that is both smaller and less clear. These findings
replicate and extend previous work by Lewandowski and
Table 2. ANOVA Results From Study 2
Dependent Independent
variable variable Covariates df F
Self-concept Condition None 2, 73 52.80***
clarity
Diary entry 2, 72 55.66***
word count
Self-concept Condition None 2, 73 5.11**
constriction
Self-descriptor 2, 72 6.04**
word count
**p < .01. ***p < .001.
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154 Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 36(2)
colleagues (2006) by demonstrating that individuals who
have recently experienced the end of a romantic relation-
ship exhibit self-concept constriction. Individuals who wrote
about a recent breakup also expressed lower levels of self-
concept clarity compared to participants in the other conditions.
Lack of self-concept clarity predicted greater emotional dis-
tress, mediating its association with breakup. These findings
suggest that individuals often suffer an unclear sense of who
they are after experiencing the loss of a romantic relationship
and that this lack of self-concept clarity contributes to their
experience of post-breakup distress.
The current study’s emphasis on naturalistic reports of the
breakup provides the distinct strength of capturing individu-
als’ actual reactions to the dissolution of real relationships in
a naturalistic setting untainted by any awareness that they
were involved in a research study. Thus, our data show that
both self-concept constriction and reduced self-concept clar-
ity appear to characterize the post-breakup experience to
such an extent that these constructs are observable in the text
analysis of even a relatively small sampling of online diaries.
These methods also have limitations. Specifically, in natu-
ralistic writing samples, we cannot (a) know with certainty
that the individuals from whom we sampled diaries in the
control condition had not experienced recent life changes that
they did not report, (b) know any other characteristics of the
individuals from whom we sampled diaries that they did not
report, (c) allow for random assignment of participants to
specific conditions, or (d) know with certainty that alternate
patterns of relations among our variables are not a possi-
bility, as in Study 1. We sought to address these issues in
Study 3 by examining individuals’ levels of self-concept clar-
ity and emotional distress over a 6-month period as a function
of whether or not they experienced a romantic breakup during
that time.
Study 3
Study 3 assessed the longitudinal association between roman-
tic breakup and self-concept clarity. We hypothesized that
(a) the self-concept clarity of individuals who broke up
would decline over time relative to the self-concept clarity
of individuals whose relationship remained intact, (b)
self-concept clarity post-breakup would mediate the link
between breakup and subsequent emotional distress, and
(c) this mediation would emerge beyond the effects of
other traditionally examined factors that predict emotional
distress after a breakup, specifically, felt rejection at the
hands of the ex-partner.
Method
Participants and recruitment. In Study 3, 69 Northwestern
University freshmen (35 women) participated in a 6-month
study of dating processes. Eligibility criteria for the study
required that each participant be (a) a 1st-year undergraduate
at Northwestern University, (b) involved in a dating relation-
ship of at least 2 months in duration, (c) 17 to 19 years old,
(d) a native English speaker, and (e) the only member of a
given couple to participate in the study. All 69 participants
completed the study. At study intake, participants had been
dating their dating partners for an average of 13.05 (SD =
9.76) months. During the study, 26 participants’ relationships
ended.
Procedure and materials. The present study was part of a
larger investigation of dating processes that consisted of
multiple parts. Relevant to the current study, participants
completed (a) an initial intake session, (b) a 10- to 15-minute
online questionnaire every other week for 6 months (14
total), and (c) a final session at the end of the 6-month period.
As participants responded to nearly identical online ques-
tionnaires 14 times in 6 months (Part b), we streamlined the
study by assessing our constructs of interest with brief, one-
item measures (potentially diminishing the likelihood of
detecting significant effects) to bolster participant retention.
Measures. At study intake (before the 14 waves of online
data collection), we assessed participants’ self-concept clar-
ity using the 12-item scale from Study 1b (Campbell et al.,
1996; α = .90) and emotional distress using the Center for
Epidemiological Studies Depression measure (CES-D;
Radloff, 1977). The CES-D is a 20-item measure of the amount
of distress an individual has experienced in the past few
weeks. Items such as “I was bothered by things that don’t
usually bother me” and “I thought my life had been a failure”
assessed how frequently an individual had experienced a given
Table 3. Emotional Distress Regression and Mediation Results From Study 2
Regression number Dependent variable Independent variable(s) df B SE t
1 Emotional distress Self-concept constriction 74 -0.07 0.03 -0.59
2 Emotional distress Condition 74 0.51 0.18 2.85**
3 Self-concept clarity Condition 74 -2.12 0.28 -7.78***
4 Emotional distress Self-concept clarity 74 -0.24 0.05 -3.46***
5 Emotional distress Self-concept clarity 73 -0.23 0.07 -3.46***
Condition 73 0.01 0.22 0.05
**p < .01. ***p < .001.
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Slotter et al. 155
depressive thought or feeling (0 = rarely or none of the time,
3 = most or all of the time; α = .91). Higher scores on the
CES-D indicated higher levels of depressive symptomology;
however, like the BDI scores in Study 1a, the scores obtained
on the CES-D measure from the current study’s sample
should be interpreted as greater emotional distress.
Participants reported their relationship status on each of the
14 biweekly assessment waves. Over the course of the study,
26 participants reported that their relationship ended. The
mean assessment wave at which the breakups occurred
was Wave 7.46 (SD = 3.29, mode = Wave 6, range = Wave 3
through Wave 11).
Participants also completed a one-item measure of time-
varying self-concept clarity (“In general, I have a clear sense
of who and what I am;” 1 = disagree strongly, 7 = agree
strongly). This item was taken verbatim from the single-factor,
12-item scale and was a brief, face-valid measure that allowed
us to assess changes in the construct over time. Individuals’
mean scores across the 14 waves of data collection on the
time-varying measure of self-concept clarity exhibited a
strong positive correlation with their scores on the full-length,
12-item scale from study intake (r = .53, p < .05). Partici-
pants also completed a one-item measure of felt rejection by
their partner (“I felt rejected by my partner;” 1 = disagree
strongly, 7 = agree strongly) as part of the biweekly assess-
ment waves. This item allowed us to assess whether any
effects of self-concept clarity on emotional distress post-
breakup in our meditational analyses would emerge beyond
traditional factors associated with distress post-breakup.
At the end of the 6 months, participants returned for their
final session and once again completed the 20-item CES-D.
In sum, we assessed (a) self-concept clarity and the CES-D
at study intake to enable us to control for these baseline
factors in our analyses, (b) time-varying self-concept clarity
and relationship status at each of the biweekly online assess-
ments over the course of 6 months to assess participants’
levels of self-concept clarity over time as a function of rela-
tionship dissolution, and (c) the CES-D during the final
session of the study to assess participants’ levels of emotional
distress as a function of previous self-concept clarity and
relationship dissolution.
Analytic strategy. To analyze the impact of romantic breakup on
self-concept clarity, we employed individual growth curve
modeling (Singer & Willett, 2003). We examined whether
breakup predicted immediate decrements in self-concept clar-
ity, decrements in self-concept clarity over time, or both.
Our desire to assess self-concept clarity as a function of
breakup (an event that occurred midstudy and one that only
some individuals in our sample experienced) necessitated the
specification of a discontinuous individual growth curve
model for predicting change in self-concept clarity (Singer
& Willett, 2003, chap. 6). We specified a Level-1 model that
permitted two different types of discontinuity in self-concept
clarity. There could be (a) a shift or disruption in the elevation
of the individual’s self-concept clarity immediately after a
romantic breakup (called the intercept in this model) or
(b) an alteration in rate of change of the individual’s tra-
jectory of self-concept clarity over time following the
romantic breakup (called the slope).
To represent these discontinuities in self-concept clarity,
we included three different predictors in the Level-1 statisti-
cal model for individual change. Our first temporal predictor
was a continuous measure of time (TIME) that captured the
linear change in self-concept clarity over the entire study.
Our second Level-1 predictor was a time-varying dichotomous
predictor (BREAKUP) that distinguished the pre-breakup
epoch from the post-breakup epoch, enabling us to examine
whether self-concept clarity was immediately disrupted at
breakup. Our third Level-1 predictor was a second continuous
variable (TIMESINCEBREAKUP) that measured the pas-
sage of time following breakup, enabling us to examine
whether self-concept clarity took on a different rate of change
post-breakup. Our Level-1 individual growth model, adapted
directly from Singer and Willett’s (2003, p. 198) Equation
6.4, was:
SCCit = π0i + π1i(TIMEit) + π2i(BREAKUPit) + (1)
π3i(TIMESINCEBREAKUPit) + εit.
In Equation 1, SCCit is the time-varying self-concept clarity
score for individual i at time t (1 of the 14 waves of online data
collection). TIMEit denotes the number of assessment waves
since study intake and increases by a value of 1 for each
assessment wave (0 to 13). Thus, π1i is the rate of change in
self-concept clarity per 2-week increment in time for all
participants. BREAKUPit denotes whether or not individual is
breakup status at time t was intact (0) or broken up (1). It has a
value of 0 at every wave until a breakup occurs. Starting at the
next assessment wave, BREAKUPit attains a value of 1. Thus,
π2i is the magnitude of the immediate “vertical” disruption or
difference in elevation of the individual’s level of self-concept
clarity directly after their relationship ends.
TIMESINCEBREAKUPit has a value of 0 at every wave
until a breakup occurs. Then, starting at the next assessment
wave—the assessment immediately following report of the
breakup—it begins to increase in lockstep with the primary
temporal predictor, TIMEit. Thus, TIMESINCEBREAKUPit
clocks the amount of time (measured in biweekly assessment
waves) that has passed since an individual romantic relation-
ship ended. For example, if Sarah broke up with her partner
at Wave 6, her TIMEit score would start at 0 (Wave 1) and
extend to 13 (Wave 14), whereas her TIMESINCEBREAK-
UPit score would be 0 for Waves 1 through 6, 1 for Wave 7, 2
for Wave 8, . . . and 8 for Wave 14. If a participant does not
experience a breakup during the course of the study, that indi-
vidual’s TIMESINCEBREAKUPit value remains 0 for all
waves. Thus, π3i is the magnitude of the difference in the rate
of change of the individuals’ trajectory of self-concept clarity
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156 Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 36(2)
between pre-breakup and post-breakup. An individual’s over-
all rate of change in self-concept clarity after a breakup is
the sum of π1i (the parameter associated with TIMEit) and π3i
(Singer & Willett, 2003, see pp. 198-200). Given our results
from Studies 1 and 2, any change in immediate level or tra-
jectory of self-concept clarity over time after a breakup
should be negative, indicating a decrement in immediate
elevation 2i), in rate of change (π3i), or in both. Finally, εit
is a Level-1 residual in self-concept clarity.
In addition to the results from Equation 1, we also report
an auxiliary analysis. In this analysis, we added the Level-2
variable of INTAKE SCCi, which is the study intake score
of self-concept clarity for individual i, to Equation 1. In this
analysis, we examined both the main effect of this Level-2
predictor and its interactions with our Level-1 predictors. This
analysis allows us to examine our central effects, outlined
previously, when controlling for participants’ intake level of
self-concept clarity.
Results and Discussion
Primary analysis. The results from Equation 1 are presented
in Table 4. This analysis revealed a significant, positive effect
of TIMEit1i) indicating that in general, participants’ self-
concept clarity increased over the course of the study. Our
sample of participants consisted mainly of college freshmen,
so perhaps it is not surprising that they gained an increas-
ingly clear view of themselves over time.5
We next examined the effects of breakup on individuals’
self-concept clarity, both immediately after the breakup and
over the following weeks. BREAKUPit2i) predicted an
immediate change in self-concept clarity, such that individuals
whose relationships ended experienced a significant drop in
self-concept clarity at the assessment wave when the breakup
occurred. Additionally, TIMESINCEBREAKUPit 3i) predicted
a significant decrement to individuals’ slopes of self-concept
clarity in the weeks following romantic breakup. This effect
suggests that while freshman generally experience an increase
in self-concept clarity during the first 6 months of college,
experiencing a romantic breakup during this time significantly
diminishes this increasingly clear sense of who and what they are.6
We illustrate the effects of Equation 1 in Figure 2, which
presents model-implied self-concept clarity trajectories for
two hypothetical individuals: one whose relationship remained
intact throughout the study (see solid line) and one whose
relationship dissolved at Wave 6 (the modal breakup wave;
see dashed line). Whereas the former individual’s trajec-
tory increased over time, the latter individual’s trajectory
exhibited both a marked decrement at the breakup wave and a
negative-leaning trajectory over time; as noted previously,
this alteration in trajectory over time was a significant, neg-
ative deviation from the trajectory of the individual whose
relationship remained intact.
Auxiliary analysis. In an auxiliary analysis, we added the main
effect and all interactions of the Level-2 predictor of INTAKE
SCCi, which we first mean centered, to Equation 1. This
variable significantly and positively predicted time-varying
levels of self-concept clarity, B = 0.32, t(865) = 3.29, p < .01.
When including INTAKE SCCi in our model, the immediate
effect of BREAKUPit was reduced to nonsignificance, π2i =
–0.20, t(865) = –1.26, p = .20. The effects of TIMEit, π1i =
0.04, t(865) = 6.05, p < .001, and TIMESINCEBREAKUPit,
π3i = –0.05, t(865) = –2.68, p < .01, remained robust in this
rigorous analysis. None of the interactions between INTAKE
SCCi and our Level-1 predictors were significant. These results
suggest that the effect of breakup on individuals’ self-concept
clarity may largely emerge over time—in the weeks follow-
ing the breakup—rather than right away, as the immediate
effect of breakup appears to be accounted for by differences
in participants’ initial levels of self-concept clarity. How-
ever, future research is necessary before definitive claims
can be made.
Figure 2. Study 3: The model-implied self-concept clarity
trajectories for two hypothetical individuals: one whose
relationship remained intact throughout the study (solid line) and
one whose relationship dissolved at Wave 6 (the modal breakup
wave; dashed line)
7.0
6.0
5.5
6.5
5.0
4.5
4.0
0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 2 13
Table 4. Equation 1: Fitted Level-1 Discontinuous Individual
Growth Model of Self-Concept Clarity From Study 3
Parameter Independent variable df B SE t
π1i TIMEit 867 0.04 0.21 6.12**
π2i BREAKUPit 867 -0.44 0.01 -2.12*
π3i TIMESINCEBREAKUPit 867 -0.05 0.02 -3.02***
Note: The Akaike’s Information Criterion fit statistic for our fitted Equa-
tion 1 equaled 2,180.60.
*p < .05. **p < .01. ***p < .001.
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Slotter et al. 157
Mediational analyses. To test whether the decrement to self-
concept clarity that individuals experience over time after a
breakup significantly mediates the relation between breakup
and emotional distress (Baron & Kenny, 1986), we completed
a series of regressions on our variables of interest: relation-
ship status, trajectory of self-concept clarity, and emotional
distress. We present the results for all of our regressions in
Table 5. All analyses reported control for participants’ study
intake levels of emotional distress, as reported on the CES-D.
Unsurprisingly, participants’ emotional distress at study intake
was positively correlated with their emotional distress at the
final session of the study (r = .56, p < .01).
Our mediation analyses required that each participant have
a single score for his or her trajectory of self-concept clarity
during the study. Thus, we calculated the slope of each par-
ticipant’s trajectory of self-concept clarity from participants’
biweekly reports of SCCit. Participants who did not experi-
ence a breakup during the study were randomly yoked to
one of the participants who did experience a breakup. The
calculated slopes for individuals whose relationships ended
during the study included only the assessment waves
recorded after the breakup occurred, and each participant
who experienced a breakup (N = 26) had either one or two
non-breakup participants (N = 43) randomly yoked to him or
her. Thus, each non–breakup-experiencing participant’s self-
concept clarity slope was also calculated including only the
assessment waves recorded after breakup of their yoked
breakup-experiencing participant. For example, if Joe’s rela-
tionship ended at the modal Wave 6, his slope of self-concept
clarity would be calculated for Waves 6 through 14. If Sam
was yoked to Joe but did not experience a romantic breakup
himself, his slope of self-concept clarity would also be calcu-
lated from Waves 6 through 14. This yoking procedure was
used to ensure that the breakup and non-breakup groups did
not differ systematically in how many waves of data (or
which waves of data in particular) they contributed to the
slope calculation.
We then predicted whether the association between
breakup and emotional distress would be mediated through
more negative trajectories of self-concept clarity. As pre-
dicted, romantic breakup significantly predicted participants’
emotional distress at the end of the study, such that individu-
als who had experienced a romantic breakup during the study
were more emotionally distressed at the conclusion of the
study than were those who had not (Regression 1). As in the
discontinuous growth curve analysis, participants’ trajecto-
ries of self-concept clarity were more negative if their
relationship ended than if it had not (Regression 2). In addi-
tion, increasingly negative trajectories of self-concept clarity
predicted greater emotional distress at the conclusion of the
study (Regression 3). As predicted, when breakup and self-
concept clarity slope were included simultaneously in the
model, the association between self-concept clarity slope
and emotional distress remained significant, while the asso-
ciation between romantic breakup and emotional distress
was reduced to nonsignificance (Regression 4). Importantly,
Preacher and Hayes’s (2004) SAS macro for testing media-
tion using bootstrapping techniques revealed a total indirect
effect of breakup with a point estimate of 0.39 and a 95%
BCa bootstrap confidence interval of 0.2249 to 0.6236
(based on 5,000 resamples). Zero falls outside of this confi-
dence interval, indicating significant mediation at the p = .05
level.7 These results are consistent with our hypothesis that
one key reason why breakup leads to emotional distress is
that breakup predicts reduced self-concept clarity, which in
turn predicts emotional distress.
Auxiliary mediational analysis. To examine whether our
meditational analyses emerged beyond the relational factors
traditionally found to predict emotional distress after a
breakup, we added participants’ average score on the mea-
sure of partner-specific felt rejection taken at each of the
biweekly assessment waves to our primary meditational
analyses. We calculated the average score of participants’
felt rejection using the same strategy used to calculate slopes
reported previously with regard to the assessment waves
included and yoking strategy. Greater felt rejection, when
entered simultaneously into the mediation, significantly pre-
dicted participants’ greater emotional distress, B = 1.13, t(65)
= 4.55, p < .001. However, the effect of participants’ slope of
self-concept clarity on emotional distress, as well as the
bootstrapping analysis, remained robust. This suggests that a
significant amount of the distress experienced by individuals
Table 5. Emotional Distress Regression and Mediation Results From Study 3
Regression number Dependent variable Independent variable(s) df B SE t
1 Emotional distress Breakup 68 1.49 0.75 2.00a
2 Slope of self-concept clarity Breakup 68 -0.12 0.01 -6.68**
3 Emotional distress Slope of self-concept clarity 68 -3.34 0.86 -2.90*
4 Emotional distress Slope of self-concept clarity 66 -2.86 0.50 -2.69*
Breakup 66 0.03 0.62 0.05
Note: All regression equations in Table 5 control for participants’ intake levels of emotional distress on the Center for Epidemiological Studies Depression
measure.
a. p = .05.
*p < .05. **p < .01.
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158 Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 36(2)
whose relationship ended was predicted by the self-concept
confusion they experienced after the breakup—beyond the
distress caused by other aspects of the breakup, such as felt
rejection.
General Discussion
The loss of a romantic relationship has multiple psycho-
logical consequences—including, as the current data suggest,
various types of self-change. After a romantic breakup, indi-
viduals changed the content of their selves (Study 1), felt
their selves are subjectively less clear (Studies 1 through 3),
and felt their selves are subjectively smaller (Study 2). This
loss of self-concept clarity was robust enough to appear in
naturalistic writing samples (Study 2) and on validated mea-
sures of self-concept clarity (Studies 1a and 3). Individuals
both remembered (Study 1a) and forecasted (Study 1b)
change across a wide variety of domains that are known to
impact the self-concept after an important romantic rela-
tionship ends. Moreover, aspects of the relationship that
encourage cognitive interdependence magnified the confusion
felt after relational loss. Specifically, individuals in more
committed relationships were more vulnerable to self-change
when imagining separating from their partners (Study 1b).8
As hypothesized, reduced self-concept clarity predicted
the emotional distress suffered in the wake of romantic
breakup. We are not suggesting that this is the only source of
distress following the end of a romantic relationship; factors
such as individuals’ feelings of rejection are powerful sources
of sadness. However, the current research is the first to
demonstrate the important, unique contribution of reduced
self-concept clarity to the emotional distress that individuals
experience post-breakup.
Of course, most individuals become less distressed over
time after a relationship ends. We conceptualize the self-
concept change evidenced in the current research as part of a
restructuring of the self. Our data suggest that the process of
self-restructuring takes time, as reduced self-concept clarity
and emotional consequences could still be seen in our sam-
ples weeks after the breakup. Our survey and linguistic data
(Studies 1a and 2) were taken at a single time point, however,
and even our longitudinal data only followed participants
for a few months (Study 3), meaning that we did not have the
ability to track individuals through the redefining of the self
that we believe transpires as individuals regain a sense of who
they are without their partners. The amount of time and the
processes, conscious or otherwise, that individuals go through
to rebuild their sense of themselves would be a fascinating
avenue for future research.
Whether a loss of self-concept clarity is a standard, per-
haps even adaptive, reaction to breakup is another avenue for
future research. Self-concept change, including reduced self-
concept clarity, may be necessary for individuals to recover
from a breakup. Maintaining self-representations implicated
in a defunct relationship may represent rigidity that would
reduce well-being outcomes over time.
Investigating other ways in which individuals’ selves
become implicated in romantic relationships would also con-
tribute valuable information to the study of the self in a
relational context. Given Andersen, Chen, and Miranda’s
(2002) theory of transference of the relational self—that
individuals carry relational prototypes and scripts with them
throughout their lives—future work should endeavor to
investigate whether old self-in-relationship representations
from former relationships can be merely transferred onto
new partners. If so, it may be reasonable to hypothesize that
this transference would lessen the impact of breakup upon
individuals’ selves, as they never have to truly discard their
self-in-relationship representation. This could also have inter-
esting implications for relationship functioning to the degree
that individuals’ cognitive interdependence with a romantic
partner is not tailored to that specific partner but is the result
of a general self-in-relationship model that is applied to all
romantic partners.
Conclusions
Romantic relationships can provide some of the richest emo-
tional rewards of adulthood, but they can also leave us achingly
vulnerable. Romantic partners merge activities, social net-
works, goals, and even aspects of their self-concepts. Couples
may not only come to complete each others’ sentences, they
may actually come to complete each others’ selves. When
these relationships end, individuals experience not only pain
over the loss of the partner, but also changes in their selves,
which uniquely contribute to their post-breakup distress. Our
findings that a variety of types of self-change appear to be
a prevalent experience for individuals when a romantic rela-
tionship ends provide additional testament to the power of
close others to impact one’s sense of self.
Acknowledgments
We extend our thanks to John Willett, Paul Eastwick, Sarah Johnson,
Gale Lucas, and Laura Luchies for their valuable input on this article.
Declaration of Conflicting Interests
The authors declared no conflicts of interest with respect to the
authorship and/or publication of this article.
Funding
The authors received no financial support for the research and/or
authorship of this article.
Notes
1. Gender did not contribute significantly in any analyses in Stud-
ies 1a or 1b.
2. In Studies 1a and 1b, participants also reported on their dis-
positional level of self-esteem (Rosenberg, 1965). In all cases,
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Slotter et al. 159
self-esteem did not significantly predict or moderate any of our
key effects.
3. Coders also noted participant gender in Study 2, which did not
contribute significantly in any analyses.
4. A Sobel’s z test revealed similar conclusions (z = –3.21, p < .01).
5. While participant gender did not contribute significantly to our
analysis as a main effect, it did moderate the overall effect of
TIMEit, Gender × π1i = .03, t(66) = 2.29, p < .05. Specifically,
the effect of TIMEit on time-varying self-concept clarity was
somewhat stronger for women than for men, although it remained
significant and positive for both, π1 i women = .05, t(31) = 5.52,
p < .001; π1 i men = .02, t(30) = 2.81, p < .01. Gender did not
significantly moderate any other effects in the model, and all
central effects remained robust after controlling for all gender
effects.
6. An alternate way of specifying Equation 1 would be to predict
self-concept clarity from BREAKUPit, TIMEit, and their inter-
action term. This alternate approach changes the meaning of
the π2i parameter from the magnitude of the effect of roman-
tic breakup on self-concept clarity at the time of breakup to the
magnitude of the effect of romantic breakup on self-concept
clarity at study entry (Singer & Willett, 2003, see pp. 198-201).
Although the latter is less relevant to our theoretical analysis, we
did run this alternate analysis and found (a) no significant effect
of BREAKUPit on individuals’ self-concept clarity at study entry,
π2i = –.17, t(867) = –0.96, p = .34, and (b) a significant effect of the
BREAKUPit by TIMEit, interaction effect, π2i = –.02, t(867) = –2.14,
p < .05. The interaction effect in this alternate model is analogous
to the TIMESINCEBREAKUPit parameter in Equation 1.
7. A Sobel’s z test revealed similar conclusions (z = 2.65, p < .01).
8. Unfortunately, we were unable to look at other relationship fac-
tors, such as relationship length, that could impact self-concept
clarity and emotional distress, as we did not have that data
in Studies 1 or 2 and were underpowered—with only 26
breakups—to examine such factors in Study 3. Based on the cur-
rent studies, we would suggest that any factor that increases cogni-
tive interdependence during the relationship would predict greater
self-change, including reduced self-concept clarity, post-breakup.
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