Cognitive processing after romantic relationship breakup: the good, the bad, and the ugly

Thumbnail Image



Journal Title

Journal ISSN

Volume Title


University of New Brunswick


The current multi-phased dissertation investigated adjustment following romantic relationship breakup in young adults. Relationship breakups have been associated with a variety of psychiatric symptoms in this population. While many factors may contribute to the response to a breakup, of particular interest were repetitive thinking and retrieval of personal memories, which have been implicated in the development of emotional disorders. This dissertation consisted of two complementary studies in which 148 undergraduates who experienced a romantic breakup in the past four months took part. Study 1 investigated whether brooding, reflection, deliberate thinking, and intrusive thinking would have different effects on distress and personal growth after a breakup. Study 1 employed a longitudinal design in which a battery of questionnaires assessing trait-like repetitive thinking, and breakup-specific thinking was administered within the first four months of the breakup. Sixty-five students participated in an online follow-up six months later. The results indicated that individuals with a general tendency for brooding and who experienced more unwanted intrusive thoughts about their ex-relationship reported greater distress and reduced recovery in the follow-up period, whereas those who engaged in more constructive, reflective thinking about the ex-relationship experienced more post-trauma growth and recovery. Study 2 investigated the frequency and valence of intrusive memories, as well as overgeneralized memory of the ex-relationship in relation to depressive symptoms. In this study, participants completed a series of questionnaires and a laboratory-based autobiographical memory task that assessed overgeneralized memory. In addition, sixty-one participants completed an online diary in which intrusive memories about their relationships were reported. Analyses revealed no evidence of overgeneralized memory of the ex-relationship being linked to depressive symptoms. However, brooding and frequency of negative intrusive memories of the breakup predicted depressive symptoms two months after the breakup. In both studies gender, time since the breakup, and desire for the breakup were controlled. Taken together, the results from this multi-method dissertation indicated that brooding, and intrusive thoughts and memories were associated with high distress and depression, and less recovery from a relationship breakup. Deliberate thinking and reflection were identified as adaptive forms of repetitive thinking related to personal growth and recovery.