Published on January 6, 2023 Updated on March 9, 2023
Our attachment styles affect how we cope with breakups. But there are steps you can take to manage emotion regulation during breakups in healthy, healing ways.
Breakups are undoubtedly emotional rollercoasters. Just when we get over the initial rough patch and start to feel better, without warning, we drop back down to feeling miserable. One of the main reasons for this seesaw of emotions is that breakups ultimately threaten our inherent need to belong. As social animals, we not only feel the need to belong with someone – we crave it.
What’s more, how we manage this up and down of emotions can often be affected by our attachment style. Yet, we wish to highlight the fact that our attachment styles are not the only determinant of how we manage our emotions during a breakup – our circumstances, personality types, and relationships are all important factors to consider. But having said as much, our attachment styles do predispose us to certain emotion regulation strategies.
To help you understand how your attachment style affects how you manage your emotions during a breakup, this article discusses:
Emotion regulation is our ability to cope with and respond to a situation that triggers our emotions. We use emotion regulation strategies every day to manage different, demanding circumstances and prevent ourselves from feeling lost in the whirlwind of our feelings – essentially keeping our emotions from taking over our lives.
Yet, while emotion regulation is the ability to successfully identify, understand, and work through tough negative emotions, emotion dysregulation is when we fail in this process.
The inability to successfully regulate emotions is usually characterized by unhealthy methods of managing negative feelings – such as giving in to our emotions too much, dismissing them entirely, or adopting a maladaptive coping strategy like binge eating or drinking.
If you would like to learn more about how emotion regulation works, check out our introductory article on emotion regulation. You can also find out how emotion regulation develops in children and how emotion regulation affects relationships.
Also, if you’d like to find out how well you regulate your emotions you can take the emotion regulation quiz on our website for a report.
Breakups are emotionally challenging for most people. Little reminders of our ex-partners seemingly pop up everywhere – we see their faces in those of strangers in the street and often feel like we can’t go to the coffee shops, supermarkets, or pubs we used to frequent together.
This effect is due to the variety of psychological and physiological symptoms we experience after a relationship ends, including anxiety, grief, depression, and sleeping difficulties. We may also feel sad, frustrated, and angry at the situation, our ex-partner, or even ourselves. Yet some of us are more capable of handling this maelstrom of emotions because we have healthy emotion regulation strategies, but others may struggle to cope with their feelings of heartbreak.
Our ability to handle and process tough emotions during a breakup is often influenced by the attachment style we developed with our primary caregiver(s).
Adults with an insecure attachment style are more prone to feelings of anxiety, grief, sadness, and depression during a breakup than secure attachers. Amongst other reasons, this may be partly due to the fact that insecure attachers were typically not provided with the internal means to regulate their own emotions and feel a sense of self-worth and validation. So they often rely on their partner to help them feel secure, comforted, and protected. For this reason, during a breakup, insecure attachers often struggle with accepting that their partner is no longer available to them in this way. If you would like to learn more about how some people in our lives become attachment figures and others don’t, check out our previous article on the topic.
Due to how a romantic partner can become an attachment figure, insecure attachers become more likely (than secure attachers) to resort to emotion-focused coping strategies when the relationship ends. And even though focusing on our emotions to a certain extent can be healthy and cathartic, doing so too much or for too long can have a detrimental effect on mental well-being as it adds to symptoms of grief rather than eases them. This is because focusing on the negative can lead to emotion dysregulation as it does not allow us to restore our emotional balance.
If you haven’t already and would like to find out more about your attachment style, check out our free attachment style quiz.
Research has identified three main coping strategies for breakups based on the different attachment styles: secure, anxious, and avoidant strategies. If we view attachment styles as a spectrum of anxious and avoidant behaviors, we can see that those who lean towards anxiety tend to hyperactivate their emotional response, so they may struggle to regulate their intense emotions. Those who lean towards avoidance may under-activate their emotions and hence their dismissive attitudes fire up. Disorganized attachers tend to vacillate between both ends of the spectrum.
It may help you to use the quiz report from our website to help you reflect on which of the following strategies you’re more likely to engage in during a breakup.
*Remember – the disorganized attachment style alternates between the dimensions of attachment avoidance and anxiety depending on mood and circumstance. So aim to keep this in mind when interpreting the following information.*
Secure attachers grew up with caregivers that were loving, supportive, and attuned to their needs. So, as adults, secure attachers typically feel comfortable expressing their emotions and discussing their troubles. For this reason, during a breakup, secure attachers are more likely to have an open discussion about their feelings and welcome the same from their ex-partner. Also, they are more likely to go to their friends and family as sources of support during this tough period. As a result of this open communication, the secure attacher gets the opportunity to discuss their needs and wants in a healthy manner, which ultimately helps them to process unresolved feelings.
The secure strategy highlights how important it is to practice open and non-judgmental discussions with our loved ones. By doing so, we can ensure that we can move forward with a feeling of resolve and closure and, hopefully, without resentment.
People develop attachment anxiety because their caregivers’ support and availability were inconsistent. So, they learned to adapt their expressions of emotion to what they thought would get them the response they needed from their caregivers, for example, throwing temper tantrums to get attention.
As adults, anxious attachers often continue to adapt their expressions of emotion to provoke the response they desire. For example, instead of expressing their emotions candidly to their partner, they exaggeratedly express what they’re feeling as they believe doing so will evoke the response they want.
Another emotion regulation strategy that someone with high attachment anxiety is prone to, is forgiving their partners for transgressions such as cheating, as this means that the partner might stay in the relationship. Even though the anxious attacher likely would feel extremely hurt by such acts, the thought of being abandoned by their partner is even worse than feeling betrayed. This is problematic because it can give way to dysfunctional relationship patterns and dependence.
These are both prime examples of under-regulation of emotions, as it seems as though the anxious attacher may either lack control over how they express their feelings, or else may subconsciously be adapting how they express their emotions to derive the outcome they want from a situation.
Considering that people high on attachment avoidance needs were typically rejected by their caregivers during their early years, they learned that attempts to speak openly about their feelings and wants would be largely ignored. Hence, avoidant attachers often become pros at denying and pushing down their emotions.
An example of how people high on attachment avoidance push down their emotions is how they’re prone to pretending everything is fine or retreating to their personal space after a breakup. What’s more, they may become difficult to reach and withdraw from social media in the aftermath of a relationship ending.
This suppressive attitude is another prime illustration of emotion dysregulation, as it is an over-regulation of emotions – bottling everything up in an unhealthy way. Over-regulation of emotions can be harmful as it essentially sweeps troubles under the rug, leaving them there to pile up over time. A disorganized attacher typically relies only on themselves to feel better and often doesn’t allow themselves the opportunity to reflect on their issues. So, inevitably, after time the lid can blow off the metaphorical pressure cooker of their emotions and they could lapse into an emotional spiral.
For the most part, the answer to this question is yes. The findings from research suggest that the situation is often worse for the person who was broken up with, rather than the breaker-upper. The reasons for this are pretty obvious – the person who did not choose to end the relationship may still desire their partner’s love and support and need them as an attachment figure. This is especially true for people with high attachment anxiety – such as anxious and disorganized attachers.
Although reflecting on our past relationships can be helpful for self-improvement, and even closure, too much of a good thing can actually be harmful. Anxious attachers are particularly prone to the downside of self-reflection as they are predisposed to focus on worst-case scenarios and the negatives of a situation. Clearly, this form of deliberation after a breakup could make matters worse.
Think of it this way: on an emotional rollercoaster, when you start free-falling, you may want to try and find a way back up instead of forcing an even faster free-fall. However, the way anxious attachers (and some disorganized attachers) often lean into the fall and focus on the negatives forces them into a spiral of maladaptive emotions.
Yet, there is a flip side to this effect. Avoidant attachers may be skilled at dismissing their emotions after a breakup. But if a relationship was particularly meaningful or long-term, or if there was an unexpected betrayal, the avoidant attacher may no longer be able to rely on their usual strategy. Instead, they may fall into a whirlwind of negativity as they may not have the skill set to manage their emotions in a healthy way. Also, an avoidant attacher may reflect on how the other person in the relationship was to blame for the breakup rather than take responsibility for the role they played.
In this article, we’ve aimed to highlight how breakups can be emotional rollercoasters – and how this may particularly be the case for those of us with attachment insecurities.
Of the three main strategies discussed – secure, anxious, and avoidant – it’s clear that the secure strategy is the healthiest approach. This is because it reinforces the need for open communication and healthy separation. We outline a couple of tips inspired by the secure strategy below:
Openly communicating how we feel is one of the most effective ways of processing our emotions and letting things go. Whether this is speaking to friends, family members, or an ex – speaking up about how we feel can make the breakup process easier and enable us to move on in a healthy manner.
Some breakups can actually be amicable. So if there’s no need to escalate the situation – don’t. On the other hand, being sensible also means understanding when a strong reaction is appropriate – sometimes, it’s important to express concern and advocate for hurt feelings.
This one is one of the hardest strategies – but nevertheless an essential one. Your own mental well-being is a priority when you’ve just gone through a rough emotional situation. Take some much-needed self-care time and focus on your own well-being, whether through engaging in nurturing activities, or speaking to a loved one or professional about what you’re going through.
Breakups are an inevitable part of life – but their inevitability makes them no less difficult and heartbreaking. If you’re struggling to cope with your emotions in the aftermath of a breakup, make sure to talk to a trusted friend or loved one, and practice regular self-care. Overall, if you’re finding that your emotions are too overwhelming to manage by yourself, consider consulting a mental health practitioner for advice. After all, our relationship with ourselves is the most important one to cultivate in life – all the rest will follow suit.
Baumeister, R. F., & Leary, M. R. (1995). The need to belong: Desire for interpersonal attachments as a fundamental human motivation. Psychological Bulletin, 117(3), 497–529. Davis, D., Shaver, P.R., Vernon, M.L. (2003). Physical, Emotional, and Behavioral Reactions to Breaking Up: The Roles of Gender, Age, Emotional Involvement, and Attachment Style. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 29(7), 871-884. Fagundes, C.P. (2011). Getting over you: Contributions of attachment theory for postbreakup emotional adjustment. Personal Relationships, 19(1), 37-50. Gillath, O., Bunge, S.A., Shaver, P.R., Wendelken, C., Mikulincer, M. (2005). Attachment-style differences in the ability to suppress negative thoughts: Exploring the neural correlates. NeuroImage, 28(4), 835-847. Heshmati, R., Zemestani, M., Vujanovic, A. (2021). Associations of Childhood Maltreatment and Attachment Styles with Romantic Breakup Grief Severity: The Role of Emotional Suppression. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 1-22.