Losing a person in your life, from relationship breakup, divorce or death is a stressful event and now researchers have looked at how long it takes to recover a personal sense of control.
Relationship breakups reduce your sense of control – but only temporarily.
A study in PLOS One has found that people feel they have less control over their lives in the 12 months following a separation. But after this, their sense of control gradually recovers.
Conversely, people feel more in control in the year following the death of a partner. Perhaps oddly divorce has no impact on one’s sense of control – although the research refers to the end of the process, not the often-traumatic beginning.
The researchers, who are based at Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, Germany examined data from the Socio-Economic Panel Study, a German longitudinal study which has been running since 1984. In 1994, 1995 and 1996, study participants were asked about their sense of control over their own lives.
The researchers examined 1,235 people who had separated from their partners, 423 who divorced, and 437 whose partners died.
Women were more likely to have lost some of their sense of control following a separation, but, like men, on average they regained this sense of control after a year. Younger people were more likely to report an increased sense of control after a breakup than older people.
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The opposite was true if a participant’s partner had died. In that case, older people were more likely to experience an increase in control and younger people were more likely to report a decrease.
“After losing their spouse, individuals might not only regain capabilities to shape their own daily routines but also recognize to be able to deal with life despite this tragic experience, resulting into higher perceived control,” suggest the researchers in their paper.
The researchers couldn’t find a link between perceived control and divorce. They state this is possibly because divorce is formalised at least a year after separating, meaning at this point people have recovered their sense of control.
“Our findings suggest that people sometimes grow from stressful experiences – at least regarding specific personality characteristics,” write the authors.
“In the years after losing a romantic partner, participants in our study became increasingly convinced in their ability to influence their life and future by their own behaviour.
“Their experience enabled them to deal with adversity and manage their life independently, which allowed them to grow.”
Ellen Phiddian is a science journalist at Cosmos. She has a BSc (Honours) in chemistry and science communication, and an MSc in science communication, both from the Australian National University.
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