11/15/2012 08:02 pm ET | Updated Jan 15, 2013

'It Was a Dark and Stormy Divorce...'

About 2 million men and women go through marital separation every year, and many of those separations end in divorce. These stressful and painful events are known to cause all sorts of problems later on, including serious depression and deteriorating health. Despite this, very little is known about what really works to promote healing after a difficult breakup.

One promising intervention is what's known as "expressive writing," which involves disclosing one's deepest thoughts and feelings through daily writing exercises. People going through separation or divorce are encouraged to let go of their inhibitions and write continuously for 20 minutes on each of four consecutive days, exploring details of the experience that they have not shared even with family and friends. This therapy is not new. Indeed, it's been around for a quarter century, and has been shown to have a small but positive effect on both physiological and psychological well-being.

The theory behind expressive writing is compelling. Taking pen in hand -- literally -- is thought to enhance cognitive adaptation to stressful experiences. It's believed that self-disclosure through writing can restore the shattered sense that the world is a meaningful and comprehensible place. But beyond this broad theory, little is known about how and why the act of writing works therapeutically, and for whom.

University of Arizona psychological scientist David Sbarra and colleagues decided to investigate the underpinnings of expressive writing, but they wanted to do more than that. They also wanted to see if they might improve upon the intervention. They had the idea that writing a coherent story about the difficult experience of ending a marriage might have benefits beyond simply writing about anger and guilt and humiliation. They suspected that narrative itself has psychological value, helping to integrate thoughts and emotions into something that makes sense and has meaning.

So they designed an experiment to compare traditional expressive writing with a novel variation based of storytelling. They recruited men and women who were recently separated and randomly assigned them to one or the other intervention. Those in the traditional therapy were told to write for three days about their private thoughts and feelings, while those in the novel therapy were instructed to narrate the story of their marriage and its dissolution. They could write the story in the first-person or as an observer, but the key was to have a coherent tale, with a beginning, a middle, and an imagined end somewhere in the future. A third group, the controls, simply wrote about their day -- when the alarm woke them, what they ate for breakfast, and so forth. The scientists predicted that those who did the writing intervention -- either traditional or narrative -- would do better than controls, and that those who crafted a coherent story would do better than those who merely wrote about feelings.

The scientists also assessed two characteristics of volunteers that they thought might be important. One was the tendency to brood, to become preoccupied with questions like, why me? This is a fairly stable personality trait. They also assessed how engaged they were in trying to restore meaning to their lives. An active search for meaning includes a lot of rumination, but also aims for new understanding of the upsetting experience -- including re-evaluation of basic goals and beliefs. They expected that ruminative and meaning-seeking men and women would benefit the most from the writing interventions, and especially from the storytelling.

And what did they find? This story has a surprise ending. When the scientists evaluated the volunteers' emotional condition up to nine months later, they found that those who were prone to brooding or actively seeking meaning did significantly worse following a writing intervention -- either the traditional or the story writing. This was the exact opposite of what they had predicted. Looked at another way, it means that those who wrote about the quotidian details of their daily lives -- the controls -- fared best over the long haul. And among the controls, the ruminators and meaning seekers reported much less emotional disturbance.

These findings have important clinical implications. As the scientists write in a forthcoming issue of the new journal Clinical Psychological Science, it may not be advisable for those whose marriages are crumbling to write deeply about the experience, and indeed it may be harmful for those who tend to brood or actively seek meaning in their misfortune. The scientists have some ideas about why this may be so. Although it's common for people to look for meaning in traumatic experiences, many never actually find the meaning they are seeking. A prolonged search that fails to find meaning just makes things worse, and writing interventions may exacerbate the sense of futility. It's possible that engaging in expressive writing while the experience is still unfolding -- still raw and upsetting -- may intensify rather than lessen the distress. The act of writing might could also make people focus narrowly on themselves and their neediness.

The control subjects merit some special consideration here. Not only did they not do worse emotionally -- they did much better than those in either therapeutic intervention. Was there something about the control condition itself that actually has therapeutic value? Quite possibly, Sbarra and colleagues believe. It's plausible that writing about boring and ordinary stuff helps divorcing men and women to re-engage in their daily lives without focusing on emotional pain and loss. This would explain why the ruminators did especially well: Thinking about lunch and laundry may distract brooders from their brooding.