Skip to main content


How Perception Of Control Changes After Breakup, Divorce, Death Of Partner

By April 3, 2023Blog
How Perception Of Control Changes After Breakup, Divorce, Death Of Partner - Sam Owen

Experiencing the loss of a relationship can be a tumultuous time, whether you’ve gone through a relationship breakup, a divorce, or lost your partner to death.

Different factors will affect how you experience this phase of your life, from how in-love with them you were to how old you are to how long you were together to how much emotional and physical closeness you experienced during your relationship to the reasons behind the loss.

There can be many layers to healing and it can take varying lengths of time but does losing a relationship change how in control of your life you feel?

After all, feeling in control is important for our mental health and ability to achieve goals [1] and can be defined as:

  • ‘the belief in one’s ability to exert control over situations or events’.

Researchers have found that there are changes in how in control we believe we are post-breakup, divorce and death of a loved one.


Research into personality growth after relationship loss

Using data from the Socio-Economic Panel Study (SOEP), a national household panel study from Germany, researchers Eva Asselmann and Jule Specht from Humboldt University of Berlin, assessed changes in internal and external control beliefs [2].

The study utilised the Locus of Control concept defined by Rotter back in 1966 [3] whereby:

  • those with an internal locus of control believe it’s mainly their behaviour that determines the situations and events in their life, while
  • those with an external locus of control believe mainly external forces do, for example, other people or other factors outside of their control.

The perceived control of 14,772 individuals had been assessed in 1994, 1995, and 1996 allowing the researchers to assess differences between those who had experienced a relationship loss and those who hadn’t.

Once a year, participants were asked whether in the current or previous year they had experienced a relationship loss through either separation, divorce or the death of a partner, and if so, the year and month of the loss. Consequently, of these 14,772 individuals, 1,235 had been separated, 423 had gotten divorced, and 437 had lost their partner to death.

Below are some of their key findings with my perspectives bullet pointed with each.


Separation/breakup and perception of control

The researchers found that in that first year after a relationship separation/breakup, people’s external control beliefs were higher compared with all other years before and after the loss. However, their perception of internal control increased gradually over the years thereafter.

So at first they felt less in control over the events of their life but after a year after this relationship loss, they started to see themselves as more in control again of their life and increasingly so.

  • The sadness and perhaps shock of losing a relationship may hinder the person’s sense of control. As their mental health takes a dip, so too may their belief of internal control.
  • Feeling things are out of one’s control might also be a survival mechanism to help the person work through emotions at a pace they can handle, like if they are not ready to take ownership of the role they played in the dissolution of the relationship.


Death and perception of control

Interestingly, for those whose partner had died, their internal control beliefs were higher in the first year after the death of their partner than they were before.

  • Knowing that one’s partner is not coming back and it’s a case of ‘If it’s going to be, it’s up to me’, might make one more inclined to really take ownership over all they can as they enter peak survival mode.

Furthermore, not only did these people have higher internal control beliefs after the death of their partner, simultaneously, they also had higher external control beliefs when compared with those who had not experienced any relationship loss.

  • As death is usually seen as out of one’s control and instead naturally in the control of an outside force such as God or ‘just a part of life’, one may be more inclined to take charge of the aspects of their life that they can be in control of.

The death of a partner, also resulted in higher internal control beliefs more than one year after this experience compared with before they had experienced such loss.

  • Such personality growth continues maybe because their view of life is completely altered by such a loss. They may become acutely aware that life is to be lived and enjoyed and that to do so requires taking charge of one’s life. And so they do it.


Divorce and perception of control

For divorced individuals, there was no change in their perception of control.

Interestingly, though, those who were divorced (and single), believed themselves to be more in control than never married, married and widowed individuals.

  • Divorced people seem to be a particularly resilient set of individuals. It does take a huge amount of self-belief and determination to start all over again, forgetting all that you had envisaged for your future, and the things you believed to be true, and walk away from deep pain and on towards a better life.
  • Losing a partner to divorce is an entirely different life course to losing them to death (something you have no control over), and perhaps this is why divorced people have a higher belief of internal control than their widowed counterparts.


Relationship loss vs. no relationship loss

Those who had separated from a partner and those who had lost a partner due to death, had higher internal control beliefs after experiencing loss than those who had not experienced any relationship loss.

  • So we might say, these people went on to become mentally stronger as a result of their life experiences. Something also referred to as ‘stress-related growth’.


Gender and age

Compared with men, women who had separated from their partner had higher external control beliefs.

  • Women are more prone to mood disorders compared with men [4] so it may be that in the early stages of such a loss, women are more predisposed (perhaps biologically) to feeling despondent/out of control of their lives.

Younger individuals had higher internal control beliefs after separating from their partner.

  • Maybe people expect such changes to occur more frequently in young adulthood and, therefore, are able to continue moving forward without a change in personality.

Younger versus older individuals had their perception of control more negatively impacted by the death of their partner.

  • At a younger age, death of a partner is likely to be a more unexpected life event. We just don’t expect a partner to die when we’re young adults. As we become older, we see more clearly that life can be unpredictable and people die more often as we age. We go through life’s trials and tribulations, and watch our friends do the same, usually growing mentally as we do, becoming more resilient and more accepting of life’s unpredictability and its ups and downs.


Factors that may affect changes in perception of internal control

As highlighted by the researchers, other factors that were not studied in this piece of research, could also have an impact on perceived control after relationship loss. Factors such as one’s personality, attachment style, social support network, religious beliefs, and more. They absolutely would, not just could.


How to feel in control after the loss of a relationship

So if you’re going through the aftermath of a recent, or not so recent, relationship loss, here are some simple tips to help you.

  1. Know in your heart that there will come a day when you feel okay, that there is a light at the end of the tunnel but that for now you just need to ride the storms until you get there.
  2. Surround yourself with people who have your best interests at heart, who will uplift you and help you to see how wonderful you are, help you to feel loved, and be a listening ear when you need it.
  3. Keep. The. Frenemies. Far. Away.
  4. Engage in self-care that reinforces your self-worth such as maintaining cleanliness, wearing nice clothing and using only positive self-talk.
  5. Engage in self-care that helps regulate your emotions such as positive self-talk, exercise (aerobic and strength training), and spiritual activities such as prayer.
  6. Read helpful articles and books such as: How To Heal Emotionally Yourself With Focus And Distractions and Resilient Me and Anxiety Free.
  7. Seek professional help if need be.
  8. Keep working on important goals in your life as much as you can. It will help keep you balanced and keep reminding you that you are in control of most things in life which in turn will help you to get through this tough time resiliently and on to a much more exciting chapter in your life.

You can. You will.



1. Ly, V., Wang, K. S., Bhanji, J., & Delgado, M. R. (2019). A Reward-Based Framework of Perceived Control. Frontiers in Neuroscience, 13, 65.

2. Asselmann, E. & Specht, J. (2022). Personality growth after relationship losses: Changes of perceived control in the years around separation, divorce, and the death of a partner. PLOS ONE 17(8): e0268598.

3. Rotter, J. B. (1966). Generalized expectancies for internal versus external control of reinforcement. Psychological Monographs 80(1), 1–28. doi: 10.1037/h0092976

4. Riecher-Rössler A. (2017). Sex and gender differences in mental disorders. The Lancet. Psychiatry, 4(1), 8–9.