Does Journal Writing Help You Heal From Divorce? Not Necessarily

expressive writing to help with break up or separation

Expressive writing or journaling isn’t always the best way to heal after a breakup. (Image by mrsdkrebs, flickr)

Sometimes journaling your feelings after a divorce or separation doesn’t help you heal. New research tells us when writing does more harm than good after a breakup.

“I think many, many therapists have a tendency to believe that journaling unequivocally is a good thing to do [after divorce or separation], especially when people are trying to figure things out in their head,” said psychological scientist David Sbarra of the University of Arizona. “This study is important because it challenges our notions about what might be the thing to do to promote healing after a divorce. It makes us reconsider the things we do to try to put our lives back together.”

Expressive writing or journaling has been shown in numerous studies to be an effective way for people to heal from divorce, separation, or other stressful life events.

However, it’s not always the best way for everyone to cope with a breakup.

If you’re struggling to move on after a divorce or separation, read How to Let Go of Someone You Love.

What This Research Shows About Divorce, Writing, and Healing

Journaling your feelings can leave you feeling more upset months later, especially if you’re prone to seeking deeper meanings for life events such as divorce or separation. These research findings surprised Sbarr; he initially set out to compare how two different styles of expressive writing affected the emotional healing of recently separated or divorced individuals.

Instead, he found that expressive writing of any kind can actually hinder emotional recovery for certain individuals. For them, non-expressive control writing might actually be a more effective intervention.

Sbarra studied individuals who had physically separated from a spouse on an average of three months before the start of the study. After completing an initial assessment to determine their emotional baseline, participants were randomly assigned to one of three groups. Members of one group were asked to journal their feelings about their relationship through traditional expressive writing. Another group was asked to practice a technique known as narrative expressive writing — to write about feelings but within the framework of a narrative with a beginning, middle and end, effectively telling the story of the marriage. The third, the control group, was instructed to simply keep a journal of basic daily activities, without writing about emotions or opinions.

Journaling feelings was especially ineffective for people who are “high ruminators” – they tend to brood over the circumstances of their separation or divorce, in search of answers. (That would be me! I ruminate about everything, including my past meals).

If you’re going over and over something in your head and then write down your deepest darkest thoughts, you will feel even worse. If you tend to ruminate, you’re more likely to heal from divorce by “control writing” (not journaling your emotions about the breakup).

What’s More Effective Than Journaling to Heal From Divorce or Separation?

“If you’re someone who tends to be totally in your head and go over and over what happened and why it happened, you need to get out of your head and just start thinking about how you’re going to put your life back together and organize your time,” said Sbarra. “Some people might naively call this avoidance, but it’s not avoidance; it is just re-engagement in life, and the control writing asks people to engage in this process.”

He also said that there aren’t many known interventions to promote adjustment and healing after a divorce or separation. I think it depends on you – how you bounced back from difficult situations in the past, how you overcame past problems, and what your personality and coping strategies are like.

Further research is needed, Sbarra said, to measure whether non-expressive control writing provides healing benefits over not journaling at all. But he can imagine how journaling about mundane tasks might be helpful to some.

If you’re newly separated or divorced, you may find What to Do After the Divorce Papers Are Served helpful.

Are you having trouble moving on after the divorce? Read How to Get Over Your Ex Boyfriend When You’ve Tried Everything.

What do you think – would journaling help you heal from a break up, divorce, or separation?

To read the full study, go to Post-Divorce Journaling May Hinder Healing for Some. This research study will be soon published in Clinical Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.

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3 thoughts on “Does Journal Writing Help You Heal From Divorce? Not Necessarily”

  1. Laurie, Thank you for this interesting article. I’ll post it on my company’s Facebook wall and on my website. I feel the journal writing tool when adapted to an individual (like you did for you) will work. I suggest to my clients that they make a date with their Journal start a dialogue and ask it what method would work for them. WriteON!

  2. Thank you for your comment, Johanna! In my counseling class, I learned that narrative therapy can be an effective way to cope with separation and divorce. It’s story telling that can change how you view an event, and it can help you heal.

    It may also depend on how “fresh” or recent the divorce is. If you got divorced 10 years ago and are still emotionally raw, then journaling may not be helpful.

  3. I agree the effectiveness of journaling would likely depend on one’s personality and I can see how it could cause people to obsess over their hurt, annoyance, or anger rather than helping them to move on.

    As I began the process of dealing with my separation, I tried expressive writing for a while. Whenever an incident came up between me and my ex, I would write about it, but then I would only just end up vibrating with anger. I found that I was thinking about the interaction way more than it deserved. And it wasn’t helping me to understand it better. So I took a different approach.

    Rather than write about my feelings, I wrote about the thing that ticked me off in a neutral way. I pretended I was writing it for a judge, or some other person, who simply wouldn’t care how I felt and would only be concerned about the facts. That, more than anything, helped me to work out my feelings, detach, and excise blame from the experience. As a result, I’m less emotionally involved with my ex.

    I cannot imagine healing from separation and divorce when strong, negative feelings are left over. But, as with just about anything that involves individuals, there is no single way to heal that works for everyone.