Self & Health

Coping With a Breakup: Mood symptoms following the end of a romantic relationship

by Christina Giagkou



Much contemporary anthropological and psychosocial research has been focused on the study of human reaction employed in response to stressful life events and it is well-established that these events are a risk factor for mental health problems. Dealing with the loss of a romantic relationship is indisputably one of the most common and traumatic life experiences.

Romantic relationships are a universal human experience and a crucial part of most adult’s lives. They serve important functions in our life, fulfilling our needs for emotional attachment, social integration, feelings of love and sexual satisfaction. Their role in individuals’ well being has been praised repeatedly by many researchers, stating that, being in a romantic relationship is associated with greater levels of happiness and pleasure and fewer mental health problems. However, romantic relationships yield a unique set of challenges, including the breakup experience.

According to the research, the majority of romantic relationships end and are replaced by new ones. Existing research has shown that approximately 80% of individuals have experienced at least one romantic breakup during their lifespan.  Research focused exclusively on young adults, also supports the high prevalence of romantic breakups. For example, in a recent study, Rhodes and colleagues (2011), found that, a percentage of 36.5 out of 1295 university students, had experienced one or more romantic breakups in a 20-month period, while in another study, the two thirds of 192 students broke up in a 3-month period. As a result, romantic breakups are highly prevalent, especially among young adults.

Over the past decades, psychological literature has focused on this social phenomenon and it is now well-established that romantic breakups are among the most difficult and stress-inducing life experiences. In 1987, Simpson stated that: “few life experiences can compare with the end of a romantic relationship, concerning the pain, the anguish and the emotional distress” (p. 683), a statement that is consistent with several recent studies. Indeed, in a big telephone survey, the majority of 5.000 participants when asked to name the most painful life event answered “the breakup of a romantic relationship”. 

While breakups are traumatic experiences by their nature not everyone reacts in the same way. As a result, over the past decade there have been various attempts by researchers to examine the emotional outcome following a romantic breakup. However, examining previous literature, it is well established that there are notable differences regarding the type and severity of the emotional outcome following the termination of a romantic relationship.

A well- studied emotional outcome, which has been consistently associated with romantic breakups is the experience of dysphoria. Dysphoria is defined as “severe levels of distress but not severe enough to be considered as depressive symptoms” and it is highly prevalent among breakup samples. Nevertheless, research on dissolution, predominantly focuses on investigating the link between romantic breakups and depression. The majority supports that depressive symptoms are highly prevalent among breakup samples, emphasizing a strong association between the breakup and the experience of depression. For instance, a study conducted in a sample of 583 students that had recently experienced a breakup found that 40% and 12% of the sample, experienced clinical and moderate depression respectively. Additionally, results from another study reported that 51 out of 88 college students presented high scores in depression and anxiety scales, emphasizing that this could be considered a psychiatric case. Indeed, anxiety is often comorbid with depression and often related to a romantic breakup. 

What is clear though, is the fact that, while romantic breakups almost always involve some degree of distress, the magnitude and the nature of the distress vary and that several factors contribute to these differences. Several studies, which have explored potential factors related to the emotional consequences of a romantic break up, suggest that attributes associated with the quality of the relationship can predict the level of distress after the termination. In particular, these attributes include satisfaction with the relationship, emotional intimacy with the former partner and commitment to the relationship and the partner. Also, over time, according to the theory of Rusbult, long-term relationships involve more investment, such as joint activities or common friendships, and for this reason the emotional reaction is more intense when the duration of the relationship is longer. In addition, several studies suggest that the person who did not begin the separation experiences more negative feelings. The decision of separation is directly related to rejection and the sensitivity to rejection has been associated with depression and emotional distress. One possible explanation for the different emotional reaction between the one who decided to breakup and the other who did not, could be the fact that life events that are perceived as controlled cause less negative emotions. It has also been established that the time that has taken place since the separation and the beginning of a new relationship are correlated with the emotional reactions of individuals. The time that has been mediated by separation, has been found in several studies, inversely associated with distress, in the sense that the more recent the breakup is, the greater the distress following it.  

Overall, we could argue that romantic breakups have an impact on individuals’ mood but one of the most challenging questions posed in dissolution research is why certain people experience high levels of negative emotions while others do not. Besides the aforementioned relationship characteristics, that have been found highly associated with the emotional outcome following a romantic breakup, the role of personality has been studied extensively over the years. But this will be analysed in a future article..


Christina Giagkou

From an early age, I developed a keen interest in how people think, feel and react under different conditions. This led me to pursue a degree in Psychology and later on to graduate with a Master’s degree from King’s College London. However, my creative personality and my obsession to social media resulted in my current profession as a Marketing manager


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