January is almost over. It has frankly been a pretty rough month, all told. The polar vortex has settled down here in Cleveland (where I live), bringing with it the brutal cold. Lake effect decided to be a pal and dump a heavy blanket of snow. I was sick for most of the month with a rotten upper respiratory infection.
But I’ve had it easy compared to some others I know. Because this January has been a heartbreaking one for many of my friends. So many breakups. Several long-term relationships have come to an end. And even though these are largely amicable splits (I’m amazed that I know so many folks who behave like adults, truly), it hasn’t been easy for anyone directly involved.
“It’s breakup season,” my friend said. “People don’t want to go into Valentine’s Day coupled with folks they don’t love, that sorta thing.”
“Yes!” I replied. “I wanna say they’ve done research on this.”
So I decided to dig a little deeper.
Blue Monday, Reputed to Be the Most Depressing Day of the Year
I started with work that I’m very familiar with: Cliff Arnall’s Blue Monday. Arnall, working as a psychologist specializing in seasonal disorders at the University of Cardiff, devised the following formula to find the most depressing day of the year:
where W = weather; D = debt; d = monthly salary; T = time since Christmas; Q = time since failing new year’s resolutions, M = low motivational levels; Na = feeling of need to take action
Granted, it’s a bit of a rough calculation with some operational liberties taken but what the hey… Gotta start somewhere, right?
Anyway, Arnall crunched the numbers and discovered that the most depressing day of the year statistically speaking would be the third Monday of January — or Blue Monday. After Arnall declared this, the idea spread, and now Blue Monday is generally thought to be the most depressing day of the year.
Whether or not Arnall’s original math checks out, I would actually expect that Blue Monday’s subsequent renown would by itself contribute to it becoming an even more depressing day than normal due to priming effects (i.e., when a response is affected by exposure to a stimulus — more on that later).
My thought when setting out to review any studies I could find of breakup frequency was that perhaps low mood this time of year would also result in a higher number of breakups than normal.
Here’s what I found.
The Time Between the December Holidays and Valentine’s Day Seems to Be Brutally Heartbreaking
Designers David McCandless and Lee Byron teamed up to analyze 10,000 Facebook statuses that had been scraped for break up-related phrases (e.g., “break up”, “broken up,” etc.) over the course of a year, and together they plotted when they occured into a very elegant chart at their site.
They found that breakups began to rise in the fall starting in November (interestingly, also the time of the infamous “turkey drop,” i.e., when students come home from college on holiday and break up with their flame who is still in high school) and continue to stay elevated throughout most of the winter.
According to their data, there’s a notable spike about two weeks before Christmas. Perhaps this is because people don’t want to buy their partner a Christmas present? Or take them home for the holidays?
And there’s also a notable dip on Christmas Day itself (the graph has cheekily noted “Too cruel?” next to this).
However, once the new year begins, there’s a steep and steady climb from that Christmas Day low that continues up until about the middle of March.
According to this data set, the late fall and winter as a whole? Form a relatively contiguous breakup season (with the notable exception of Christmas Day mercy).
This finding was supported by a survey conducted by Yahoo Personals! (ah, the good old days before they were bought) that found that between the December holidays and Valentine’s Day that people are more than twice as likely to consider breaking up than at any other time of year.
Similarly a sociology study conducted at the University of Washington found that divorce filings started to rise in January and continued to rise through the beginning of the year through March, at which time they began to fall off. However, they did find a second spike occurring in filings in August, suggesting that there may not be a single “breakup season” but multiple. However, the study’s authors noted that there was some limitations due to its method, particularly the fact that they tracked divorce filings and not breakups. Filing for divorce is an official event that takes time and logistical planning. As such it can often occur long after a couple has stopped living with or dating one another. And for that reason, divorce filing times aren’t exactly analogous with actual breakup times.
So…Is Winter Really Breakup Season?
Bottom line: Is any of this airtight evidence that winter is breakup season? No. Not really.
It’s not straightforward. And there do seem to be some methodological challenges when it comes to getting good data on this .
But with everything I found taken together, it does seem to suggest that there could be something there.
This post is part of an ongoing Poly Land feature called Psyched for the Weekend, in which I geek out with brief takes about some of my favorite psychological studies and concepts. For the entire series, please see this link.
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