Am I Normal? When will I get over my breakup? (Transcript)

Monday, October 18, 2021

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Mona Chalabi:
[00:00:00] I broke up with my partner the same week that I started making this podcast. We'd been together for about a year. I remember just a few hours after we were sitting in a couples counseling session and deciding that our relationship was over, I recorded this.

Mona (audio diary):
So... [BEEP] and I broke up this morning. And it kind of went exactly as I thought it would, [00:00:28] I suppose. Right now I don't really feel like there is anything to say. And that’s its own kind of sadness, like, I don’t know, there's nothing left.

Mona Chalabi:
You know, the sadness was just kind of boring. I think I could cope with extreme, teary, tumultuous grief. Because that kind of sadness is unsustainable, it passes. But it was this low-level hum of sadness that was really difficult to budge. Everywhere I looked, everything I did, there was just another reason to feel sad.

Mona (audio diary):
So I'm sitting in my living room, and in the corner, I can see a pair of shoes that belonged to my ex. And it was like a running joke. I always hated those shoes. He always hated all of my shoes, too. And we used to, like, lovingly tease each other about how disgusting our respective fashion tastes were. And when I look at those shoes, I don't, like, I don’t feel angry at this person anymore. But I still feel a lot of sadness. I miss him.

Mona Chalabi: [00:01:39] I just wanted to feel better and get over this breakup fast. In those first few weeks the only thing I wanted to know was, how long does it actually take to get over somebody? Can anyone just put a number on it for me? Just, just give me a date that I can circle on my calendar.

[00:02:04] I’m Mona Chalabi, and I'm a data journalist. I look for numbers in all kinds of places, like the appendix of a PDF or in some government’s database, or sometimes even a dusty old medical journal. I use numbers to help me make sense of a chaotic world. But if you're like me, it's easy to get stuck in this weird black hole of online searches and endless numbers. And you’re left asking yourself: Where do I fit in? How does this apply to me? What if it doesn't? What should I do?

See, life is messy, and data isn’t always the best way to answer our questions. No matter how helpful numbers can be, they can never tell the whole story. From the TED Audio Collective, this is Am I Normal?

Mona Chalabi: [00:03:00]
There is a popular saying about breakups, that the pain lasts half as long as the relationship did. That would not be good news for me. I was with my partner for a year, which would mean six months of misery. About four months into my breakup, I still wasn't over [BEEP], but I was over talking about it. My friends and family had heard it all. There was nothing left to say. Even I didn't want to hear about my heartache anymore.

So I did what I often do when I'm stuck in a messy emotional situation: I looked for data to help me make sense of it all. Just how long should it take me to get over this breakup?

The first number I found confirmed what I -- and you -- already know: A lot of people go through breakups. A study from Stanford that looked at new unmarried couples, found that 70% of them broke up in the first year of their relationship. [00:04:00] And it turns out that researchers are working on an answer to my question, about how long it would take for me to be happy again.

One study asked people who were going through a breakup to rate their distress, misery, whatever you want to call it, over the space of ten weeks. And one of the findings that most surprised me was that breakups often aren't as bad as people expect them to be.

Eli Finkel: [00:04:32]
What we found is that, on average, people overestimated how much despair they would feel following a breakup. When we're deeply in love, we think there is no world after this partner. And, and on average, we substantially underestimate our resilience.

Mona Chalabi:
That's Eli Finkel. He's a professor at Northwestern University [00:04:53] and one of the authors of this study that I've been quoting.

Eli Finkel:
I’m a coauthor of the 2008 study called Mispredicting Distress Following Romantic Breakup.

Mona Chalabi:
In simple English, that means they found a bunch of college freshmen who were in relationships, and every two weeks they gave them a survey and asked questions like:

Eli Finkel: [00:05:14]
Are you still involved with the person that you were involved with last week? Okay, great. If you were to break up with that person over the next two weeks, how upsetting would it be if you broke up? And then we also had them forecast out four weeks from now, eight weeks from now, and twelve weeks from now. [00:05:29] And in any given follow-up period, in any given two week period, some relatively small number of people indeed broke up. And those people then entered our sample of, of people that, where we could compare their forecasts of how distressed they would be to how actually distressed they were upon breaking up.

Mona Chalabi: [00:05:49]
And over and over again, the forecasts were wrong. On average, people were less sad than they thought they'd be.

Eli Finkel:
One possibility [00:06:00] is that the point of love, the reason why we have this emotional bonding attachment system, is to keep us together. You know, chimps and bonobos, they're our closest primate relatives. They don't have pair bonds. [00:06:15] Why do humans have it? Well, the argument goes that, that human infants are so immature at birth, right? The birth canal is too narrow. The brain is too big. And because the human infant is born so immature and takes so many years before, like a child can actually accumulate enough of its own calories to survive, that you actually need both parents.

[00:06:36] And so the argument goes that we've evolved this sense of emotional attachment because of how important it's been for the survival of our, of our genes, and ultimately of our species. And so we might also have evolved to be pretty careful about blowing it up. And so we are reluctant or conservative about breakup decisions.

Mona Chalabi:
I guess [00:06:56] I'm just wondering whether an intrinsic part of [00:07:00] being in love… is to delude yourself, maybe, in some ways. And maybe one of the delusions that, that is required for you both to stay together, in partnerships that are so frequently difficult, is the belief that it will be very, very… It will be even harder to live a life without one another.

Eli Finkel:
That’s right.

Mona Chalabi:
[00:07:23] This research was super interesting to me. But there were a few details that did make me think twice. It's been a long time since I was a college student. So was any of this even applicable to me?

Mona Chalabi: [00:07:38]
I called up one of the smartest and funniest people I know, someone who also cares about my complicated feelings: My mum.

Mona Chalabi: [00:07:47]
How long do you think it takes most people to get over a breakup with someone?

Mum (Dr. Chalabi): [00:07:51]
About 15 minutes.

Mona Chalabi:
What!

Mum (Dr. Chalabi):
10 minutes.

Mona Chalabi: [00:07:56]
Jokes aside, as a retired gynecologist, my mum is kind of obsessed about sample populations in studies. She'd always look it up before prescribing any kind of medication to her patients. And so, as I told my mum the details about this study on heartbreak, the first thing she said was:

Mum (Dr. Chalabi): [00:08:14]
What was the analysis in the study?

Mona Chalabi:
Great question, mum. Like, it was about 26 couples. What do you think about that sample size?

Mum (Dr. Chalabi): [00:08:23]
No, it's not a lot. And maybe he took them from one group. Like they are university teachers, university students…

Mona Chalabi:
Exactly, mum, exactly! You got it. They were all university students.

Mum (Dr. Chalabi):
Wow. That, that doesn't reflect anything. They're all young and naive. And then wanting a relationship, and then break it up, circumstances changed. And is it from the same environment? [00:08:52] He has to take different samples to generalize it. I don't like this study.

Mona Chalabi: [00:09:00]
Why did you, why did you assume university students?

Mum (Dr. Chalabi): [00:09:04]
Yes. I guessed it's university students because they are more accessible, so they can access them and take information from them. And also, they may be paid for it and they, they financially need the money. So they go into their study.

Mona Chalabi: [00:09:23]
No shock there. My mum is always right. But when research only uses young students, the data can get complicated.

Mona Chalabi: [00:09:48]
You might be surprised just how much research is based on the lives of college students. A 2008 study found that college students made up over two-thirds of the research in a major psychology journal. It's less common these days, but it is still a problem because most of those students are WEIRD.

Mona Chalabi:
I'm using that word because it's an acronym. [00:10:13] It means that those students come from cultures that are Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic. Those WEIRD students can't possibly reflect the whole world.

Mona Chalabi:
And even in those cultures, college students aren't like the general public. They tend to be young. They tend to come from middle and upper-class communities.

Mona Chalabi: [00:10:35]
So if you're listening to this and thinking, why am I still really sad after my breakup? Well maybe, it's because you're not part of that largely homogenous group of 17 to 19-year-olds. And there's another thing. It's not just who is in the sample, it's also how big the sample is. Just like my mum said. See, Eli’s study followed [00:11:00] 26 couples. Just 26 Northwestern University couples. [00:11:05] That is not a representative group.

So, maybe no surprise, after they published the study, Eli and his coauthors got a lot of pushback.

Eli Finkel: [00:11:21]
I got these emails that were bleeding heartbreak from people who were just devastated years after a bad breakup.

Mona Chalabi: Those emails prompted Eli and his team to go back to their data. Now, instead of just focusing on the most common experiences, his team decided to look at other voices in the dataset.

Eli Finkel: [00:11:41] We said, all right, well, let's ignore the averages. [00:11:44] Let's look at how many people went the other way. So how many people were there who actually were more distressed than they thought they would be? And it turns out that that was about a third of our sample.

Eli Finkel: So about two-thirds of our sample overestimated how upset they'd be. About one-third of our [00:12:00] sample actually underestimated it.

Mona Chalabi: [00:12:03]
Eli realized he couldn't fit everyone's experiences into just one group. And so he took the time to apologize to the people that had sent him those bleeding heartbreak emails. This is a clear example of how we can't take the experience of a few dozen teens and extrapolate that out to everyone. Like the experience of divorcing someone that you've been with for 20 years [00:12:26] and co-parented with, just isn't going to be the same as a breakup from a college student.

It's also important to note that all of the couples in the study who broke up, did so within six months of the study beginning. Remember how I said that at the start of a relationship, the chance of breaking up is 70%? [00:12:48] Well, that number drops very quickly the longer that people have been together. If they've been together for five years, the chances of breaking up are just 15%. And they keep dropping the longer [00:13:00] the relationship lasts.

[00:13:07] And so I'm back at square one. Just wondering how long it's going to take me -- a 32-year-old person at the end of a year-long relationship -- how long it's going to take me to get over it. And, what I should do with his shoes.

Mona (audio diary): [00:13:26]
Yeah. I don't know what the fuck to do with the shoes. Like, I'm going to have to give them back at some point, I think they're expensive. But… Yeah. And maybe the truth is that I'm not ready to deal with the shoes yet.

Mona Chalabi: [00:13:45]
The first few months after my breakup, I was sad, and lonely. And I was also confused about being sad and lonely. With no clear answers in the research, I turned to someone who has lots of experience with breakups.

Hod Tamir: [00:14:01]
So, I'm Hod Tamir. I'm a psychologist in Brooklyn and I focus on relationships.

Mona Chalabi: [00:14:08]
Hod is a smartly dressed, middle-aged white guy with a salt-and-pepper beard. He was also my couples therapist. Like, honestly part of the reason why I came here as well, was because I wanted you to tell us whether or not to stay together.

Hod Tamir:
Yeah. It's not, it's not black and white, right? So we, we loved someone…

Mona Chalabi:
In case you're wondering, I asked [BEEP] and he said he's okay with this whole weird interview thing. [00:14:33] So when I asked Hod how long it would take for me to feel happy again, he said maybe I was asking the wrong question.

Hod Tamir: [00:14:42]
People want to be prescribed a certain timeline, that, that, what's acceptable versus not acceptable. And that has to do with how we cope with these emotions, right? With loss, with grief, right? But I don't, I don't think there is a magic number. So, I, I think it's hard to say like, okay, you'll be healed in four to six weeks, you know, or whatever it is. I think everyone has their process.

Mona Chalabi: [00:15:05]
Hod thought that my process of focusing on data and numbers was distracting me from the thing that I really needed to do, feel my feelings. [00:15:15] He said that it's essential to getting over a breakup. And he said that if I did that, then I would feel happy again. Eventually.

Hod Tamir: [00:15:26]
We're very resilient, you know. There's a beauty of having more experience with relationships that we feel like, okay, this is great and I can still survive if it doesn't work out. [00:15:35] And there's a confidence and a comfort that comes with that. I don't think that's tragic. I think it's tragic to be stuck in something that you're not sure about for your entire life. That, to me, that's tragic.

Mona Chalabi: [00:15:48]
I think he's right. I think that part of what made this breakup difficult was my uncertainty about whether or not it was the right decision. [00:15:57] And I think there is peace and stillness in [00:16:00] just sitting with a choice, even if that stillness is a sad stillness.
So I took Hod's advice and I sat, just staring at my ex’s shoes. Feeling sad.

Mona (audio diary):
And I think I'm realizing that the goal here isn't to look at the shoes and feel nothing. The goal is more to feel okay with the sadness that comes up when you look at them. [00:16:27] And I think I'm slowly getting there.

Mona Chalabi:
Okay, I know Hod told me that I couldn't put a number on this. But I'm still me and numbers help me, so I want to try. See, I started a draft of this episode the week that my partner and I broke up. Eventually I did sit with my sadness, but I also started my own one-woman anthropological study.

[00:16:51] About ten weeks after we broke up, I don't know, I guess I felt about 20% less sad? There's obviously no clear methodology [00:17:00] here. But see, the pandemic meant that this whole podcast got put on ice, and in some ways my feelings did too. Since that 20% decline, it kind of feels like I flatlined. And I don't know how much my feelings have changed over those two years.

Mona (audio diary): [00:17:18]
I definitely feel less sad than when it first happened. I don't think I can answer the question of how long it has taken me to get over it, because… I don't know if I'm over it. I still think about this person pretty often. I kind of go back and forth about why it was that we didn't work out. And there's like, sometimes there's one reason, [00:17:40] there's another reason.

Mona (audio diary):
I gave back the shoes. So it was the pandemic. My ex had moved in with his parents, far, far away from New York. And so I kind of, like, used this key that I’d never returned and let myself in [00:18:00] into this empty apartment because there was, like, stuff rotting in the fridge that I threw out. And I watered the plants. And it felt really unkind to not leave a note, but I had no idea what a note would say.

Breakups are shit.

Mona Chalabi: [00:18:21]
I underestimated how long it would take me to get over this. And maybe the pandemic made things harder for me and others. Maybe Eli needs to update his research and include pandemic breakups. All of this has shown me that breakups are hard, and my feelings two years later are kind of normal. Even if a lot of people find breakups easier than they expected, they're still hard. [00:18:46] They take as long as they take. And that's okay.

Mona Chalabi: [00:19:14]
Am I Normal? is part of the TED Audio Collective. It’s hosted and produced by me, Mona Chalabi. And it's brought to you by the wonderful teams at TED and Transmitter Media. This episode was produced by Constanza Gallardo and Amy Standen. Sara Nics is Transmitter’s Executive Editor, Wilson Sayre and Lacy Roberts are our Managing Producers, and Gretta Cohn is our Executive Producer. The TED Team is Michelle Quint, Banban Cheng, and Roxanne Hai Lash. Jennifer Nam is our fantastic researcher and fact checker.
That original theme song was by Sasami. Michelle Macklem is our sound designer and mix engineer. And we’ve got additional production support from Domino Sound.

Mona Chalabi: [00:19:56]
And of course, I have to thank the person I've been in the longest relationship with, my mum.

For transcripts and research that I talk about in this show, you can check out the link in the show’s description.

[00:20:10]
We're back next week with more Am I Normal? Make sure that you follow the show in your favorite podcast app so that you can get every episode delivered straight to your device. And if you enjoyed the show and want to support us, hit the share button and send it to someone else that you think would like it. Maybe it's someone who's on the verge of a breakup, or someone who's still struggling with one even though some time has passed. Or just someone who loves digging into data or messy human feelings.

You can find more about this episode’s guests from the following links: Eli Finkel at Northwestern University and his website, and Hod Tamir at The WISR Place.