In a long-term relationship, your own identity becomes increasingly intertwined with your partner’s. As Elizabeth Barrett Browning is reported to have said to her husband Robert Browning: “I love you not only for what you are, but for what I am when I am with you. I love you not only for what you have made of yourself, but for what you are making of me. I love you for the part of me that you bring out.” There’s even evidence that we can end up confusing our partner’s traits for our own.

So when a break-up happens, does this mean that our personalities fundamentally change? And related to that, does our personality type affect the way we are likely to respond – whether we’re likely to stay single, for example, or instead bounce back quickly into another intense relationship? 

Women who’d gone through a divorce showed signs of increased extraversion and openness to experience

To a certain extent, the answer to these questions may depend on your gender. One US study published in 2000 found different effects of divorce on men and women. Paul Costa Junior and his colleagues tested the personality of more than 2000 people in their forties and then caught up with them again six to nine years later, questioning them about the major events had happened in their lives, and testing whether their personalities had changed.

Perhaps surprisingly, women who’d gone through a divorce showed signs of increased extraversion and openness to experience, which the researchers put down to a liberating effect of the break-up. In contrast, divorced men seemed to have become less conscientious and more emotionally unstable – the researchers said they seemed to have found the break-up demoralising.

Not all studies have found this pattern, however. A group of German researchers measured the personality traits of more than 500 middle-aged men and women at three time points over 12 years from 1994 to 2006. They found that men and women who went through a divorce had become less extravert. One explanation is that they had lost many of the friends and other relationships they shared with their spouses, meaning they had less chance to socialise and behave in an extraverted fashion. Divorcees also showed a reduction in their “dependability” – a facet of the broader personality trait of conscientiousness – perhaps because they no longer had the need to support a long-term partner. 

Getting over it

Although the effects on extraversion were modest in size, they could have meaningful consequences for a person’s life, especially given what we know about lower extraversion being associated with increased risk for loneliness (see box). The researchers argued that we shouldn’t be too worried, however. “We find no evidence that this major change experience necessarily portends manifold and long-standing ‘corruption’ of the individual”, they said. It may be painful but we can get over it, in other words.

It’s not only the case that a serious break-up affects our personality; our personality also influences the way we are likely to respond to such a split. A study published this year measured the personalities of over 2000 people in Flanders who had gone through a divorce, to see what kind of new relationships they formed in the ensuing seven years (with one of the highest divorce rates in Europe, Flanders provides a rich source of data for this kind of research).

Divorced extraverts were more likely than other personality types to quickly remarry

Split personalities

What determines a couple's risk of breaking up?

As you might expect, certain traits can put strain on a relationship, making divorce more likely. Many studies have shown that people who score higher in the trait of neuroticism – marked by greater emotional instability and more frequent experience of negative emotions like anxiety and depression – are more likely to experience relationship difficulties and ultimately break-up, while high scorers on conscientiousness and agreeableness are more likely to stay together. Meanwhile, those of us who score highly on extraversion – a trait characterised not only by being sociable and outgoing but also more generally with seeking reward and excitement – tend to have more sexual partners and are more inclined to having affairs.

An Katrien Sodermans and her colleagues found that divorced extraverts were more likely than other personality types to quickly remarry. High scorers on neuroticism were more likely than others to either stay single over the seven years or to progress through a series of multiple short-term relationships – both outcomes indicating a reluctance to commit again. Meanwhile, high scorers on conscientiousness were more likely to form a new serious relationship, to co-habit for a long time and then to eventually remarry this person.

One of the reasons that break-ups are so distressing is that they can lead us to question who we are. Especially through a long-term, committed relationship, our identities become so interlinked with our partner’s that when we lose them, we lose part of ourselves. This can be seen in a reduction in “self concept clarity”, as measured through less agreement with statements like “In general, I have a clear sense of who I am and what I am” – with scores sinking after a divorce.

Intriguingly, a paper published this year found that our response may be moderated by our beliefs about personality – whether we agree with statements such as: “the kind of person you are is something very basic about you and it can’t be changed very much”. Lauren Howe and Carol Dweck at Stanford University found that people with this rigid view of themselves tended to take rejection more personally, feeling that it revealed something bad about their character, and as a result they found the experience even more distressing.

The researchers also found that these kinds of attitudes were malleable – when exposed to arguments (supposedly from a magazine article) suggesting that personality is fixed, participants were more likely to take a hypothetical rejection personally, as compared with others who read an article about how personality is changeable. There’s a positive way to interpret this – presumably by reminding ourselves that we are complex, multi-faceted characters capable of change, we can inoculate ourselves to some extent against the distressing effects of rejection.

We could also heed the lessons from the research showing that divorce often precipitates a loss in extraversion. It may be wise to anticipate this effect and after a breakup to make an extra effort to forge new friendships and social circles and thus avoid loneliness. Of course the end of a long relationship is unlikely to ever be easy, but remember that it needn’t be self-defining. And if the relationship was claustrophobic and constraining, there’s evidence you may go on to experience feelings of hope and a new lust for life.

  • Since we published this article, many readers have questioned why we have spelt 'extraversion' with an 'a', rather than the more common spelling of 'extroversion' with an 'o'. Although the latter is acceptable for general use, extraversion is the accepted scientific term used to describe a very specific personality type involving sociable, outgoing behaviours, and a greater tendency to seek reward and excitement. For more information (the history of the term is fascinating) you can read Dr Scott Barry Kaufman's explanation in Scientific American.

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Dr Christian Jarrett edits the British Psychological Society's Research Digest blog. His latest book is Great Myths of the Brain.

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