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Health News

Relationship Study Examines Grief

     

      (U-WIRE) CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. -- Dave Sbarra loves breakups.

      That''s because when they happen, it gives him another chance to study the complexities of grief associated with breakups. He''s fascinated by it all.

      The fifth-year Clinical Psychology graduate student, who also is the man behind the "Got love?" and "Hoos dating?" signs emblazoned on flaming red paper and plastered across Grounds, studies the many aspects of relationships: how they progress over time and what happens when they end.

      His two new studies this semester, the Virginia Dating Study and the University of Virginia Dissolution Study, attempt to unearth the mysteries behind male-female relationships, which often are the subject of many students'' imaginings and intense longings.

      "As far as we''re concerned, we''re hoping to better understand all sorts of relationships," said Psychology Prof. Bob Emery, whose studies on divorce influenced Sbarra''s research.

      The popular dating study centers on ways young adults'' romantic relationships change over time. For 150 participants, this was a chance to find out how their relationships worked, and how they metamorphosed over time.

      "We''re doing this to find the ebb and flow from week to week, just to find out what makes them tick, what makes them so strong," said third-year College student Melissa Polk, a research assistant for the study.

      Polk''s assignment is to invade the private romantic lives of 60 participants. Starting with an interview, she asks questions that assess the current relationship of each participant. Then, every week for the remainder of the relationship, she sends an e-mail asking questions about their feelings for that week. For example, one question asks, "How would you best describe the current state of your relationship?" The participant is given 11 options from which to choose, ranging from "I am in love with this person, but things aren''t going as well as before," to "I wish we could just be friends" to "We''re breaking up."

      When Polk hears those final words that shatter any young heart, he or she promptly is removed from the study.

      "We''d refer them to the breakup study," Polk said.

      This is when Sbarra really goes to work.

      After receiving a major grant from the National Institutes of Health for this lesser-known and certainly less popular project called the U.Va. Dissolution Study, he seeks to find out how individuals emotionally grieve the end of a close relationship.

      "The breakup study is directly related to Bob [Emery]''s study on divorce. It''s based on his model on how people grieve," Sbarra said.

      Like the dating study, participants in this study also get interviewed and observed periodically. But rather than weekly e-mails, researchers randomly page the participants every day, asking them to write down their feelings at that particular moment. This is to preclude the participant from constantly recording emotions at a high or low time of day. At the end of the month, the researchers interview the participant again.

      Nobody knows much about how people deal with the end of a romantic relationship. Most of the past research on grief has focused on death and dying.

      "The end of a relationship is an important thing in society. Yet we know nothing," Sbarra said.

      What researchers do know is that over 50 percent of marriages end in divorce, a disheartening number by any standard.

      Sbarra has two theories about the grieving process. First, he proposes a correlation between the attachment style -- how easy it is for someone to get into a close relationship -- and how they grieve. So for example, all students who find it harder to get close may all find it harder to get over the breakup.

      Second, he believes the grief process involves three feelings -- love, anger and sadness -- going out of sync.

      He thinks it''s feasible to think of grief as an emotional cycle. So, right after the breakup the three feelings may be out of cycle with each other. This may explain how the "ex" initially feels intense anger on one day and intense hurt or sadness on another. Over time, the feelings subside. But it is not until all three emotions come together in the same cycle that the grief can end, and the person can say he is "getting over" the loss.

      Sbarra thinks the grieving process for breakups is similar to when a spouse dies, the major difference being the permanence of the loss. Emery says because the possibility to kiss and make up is still there, grieving may actually be harder after a breakup.

      "In general, when the loss is revocable that can make the adjustment last longer," Emery said.

      The project focuses on young adults in their early 20s, but the flaw in the study lies in the fact that the study is conducted on a college campus, which only thrives with college student relationships.

      But Emery and Sbarra say that because grief is universal, this will not significantly affect their study.

      "There''s lots of theories on grieving. There''s no one right way. We''re just trying to understand the process," Emery said.

     

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