Crying and control: This is what breakups do to our brains - study

External control beliefs are generally strongest during childhood and old age when a person's daily life is most dependent on others. There are, however, spikes and dips when large life events occur.

‘A SINGLE QUESTION serves as the sole criterion for whether or not a couple should stay together: Do you still love each other?’ (photo credit: ERIC HIBBELER/THE KANSAS CITY STAR/TNS)
‘A SINGLE QUESTION serves as the sole criterion for whether or not a couple should stay together: Do you still love each other?’
(photo credit: ERIC HIBBELER/THE KANSAS CITY STAR/TNS)

Does anyone really have control over their life? A recent study out of Germany found that people's perception of control significantly changes in the first year after a romantic relationship ends. 

Eva Asselmann of the HMU Health and Medical University in Potsdam, Germany, and Jule Specht of Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, found that people experienced a drop in perceived control for the first year following a breakup, followed by years of gradual increase.

According to the peer-reviewed study, published in the open-access journal PLOS ONE on August 3, women were more likely than men to experience this phenomenon.

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 behavior.

Study authors Eva Asselmann and Jule Specht

Conversely, researchers found that, overall, those whose partners passed away experienced an increase in perceived control during the first year after the loss. However, this was not entirely true across the board. Younger people tended to feel more out of control than older people upon the death of a partner. 

The authors of the study concluded: “Our findings suggest that people sometimes grow from stressful experiences - at least regarding specific personality characteristics. 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 behavior. Their experience enabled them to deal with adversity and manage their life independently, which allowed them to grow.”

 A woman mourns the loss of a loved one (credit: INGIMAGE) A woman mourns the loss of a loved one (credit: INGIMAGE)

Internal control beliefs

A perceived sense of personal control over one's surroundings — also called internal control beliefs — is inextricably linked with overall mental health and emotional adjustment throughout all stages of life. It acts in balance with external control belief, the understanding that events occur due to external factors such as luck, fate, chance or other people.

External control beliefs are generally strongest during childhood and old age when a person's daily life is most dependent on others. There are, however, spikes and dips when large life events occur - for better or for worse.

Researchers found no solid correlation between divorce and control beliefs. 

The researchers examined data from a multi-decade household study in Germany; specifically the yearly results from 1994, 1995 and 1996. They evaluated levels of perceived control across 1,235 people who separated from their partners, 423 who divorced and 437 whose partners died.