Are rebound relationships (and rebound sex) really often helpful?
July 19, 2015 9:01 PM   Subscribe

Looking at the end of a significant LTR that's probably going to be crushing once I get over the shock. They say that the best way to get over someone is to get under someone else. I have no experience with this. Is it really often true? (they also say that low-fat deserts and education debt are good for you).

I'm a middle-aged het man staring down the end of a relationship approaching a decade in length. It's one of a small number of sexual relationships I've had in my life -- probably partly because of religious nurture and partly by my own cautious nature I haven't gotten sexually involved easily. Rebound relationships of any kind haven't been a big part of my experience and rebound relationship sex is something I've never done.

Breakups are almost always terribly hard for me: I don't get in easy, and I don't get out easy. The unique emotional connection is what I treasure most about relationships, and it's always by nature irreplaceable. Sure, there's probably the next person, but it's never the same and I'm enough of an unusual flavor of tea that good companionship rarely seems to come back around quickly. On top of that I have what seems to be a better than average memory, and consequently probably a stronger attachment to the past. For example, I've taken as much as 10 years to really get over a 2 year LTR. If that ratio holds true for the current collapsing connection, I can expect to have really moved on sometime after most of my actuarial cohort is dead.

So many people (certainly most of my exes) seem to move on more readily and quickly than I do. And there's this saying. I'm starting to wonder if rebound relationship sex really is at least one part of a toolbox other people have. Or if it just as often ends up (I'd fear) being gross or empty-sad or something like using a recreational drug as a crutch for grief, only putting off the real emotional work involved in moving on.

Or maybe it just really depends on who you are and what kind of relationship you're getting over.

If there's such a thing as a good study on the topic (maybe even a good study of a broader population than college students), that's what I'd like to know most about, but thoughtful anecdotes and good exploratory writing might be helpful too.
posted by wildblueyonder to Human Relations (16 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite

My conclusion has been: It varies. I can't do it; for me it's empty and sad. I've seen friends find it immensely helpful. It would be paternalistic for me to doubt their experiences, and silly to discount my own, so I've decided that it helps some people and makes other people feel worse, and it's helpful to know which category you are likely to fall in before pursuing it, though it's ok to experiment a bit before deciding that.
posted by jaguar at 9:37 PM on July 19, 2015 [5 favorites]

I should clarify: I'm talking only about sex. My much-more-judgmental opinion about rebound relationships is that they are extremely likely to hurt someone and should be avoided.
posted by jaguar at 9:39 PM on July 19, 2015 [8 favorites]

Rebound falls into existential physics. It is like the opposite game. I feel it is best to patch the holes in your bucket, be good to yourself, nourish your entity, let that be the fallback position. It takes some time for emotional habits to come to rest. The next relationship deserves a clear horizon. There is no harm in knowing more about relating, it is better to relocate your own singular essence.
posted by Oyéah at 10:09 PM on July 19, 2015 [4 favorites]

The only value I found in rebound sex was reassuring myself about my general attractiveness. Otherwise it was too much like eating twinkies.

I tend to think it's a lot about who you are. My ex had moved in with his new girlfriend less than 2 months after we gave up on therapy. I'm 3 years in and just starting to date. I don't believe either of us are unhealthy (though it is tempting to believe he is!), just different.

That said, there's a line between giving yourself time to mourn and dwelling on the past to the point where it damages your future. I would recommend a therapist to help you with the difference between the two.
posted by frumiousb at 10:10 PM on July 19, 2015 [1 favorite]

I agree that there's a huge difference between rebound sex and rebound relationships. I've had one of each, and the clear, consensual, "no getting attached, only friends with benefits" talk beforehand, and lack of "dating" was crucial. It was fun and made me feel attractive and I don't regret it at all. He didn't get weird and neither did I.

The relationship, on the other hand, lasted 3 months and I deeply regret because I essentially took advantage of someone who wanted a real relationship with me while I was still in love with my ex and really only wanted a warm body. I hurt him and regret it.

So don't do that. Make it clear what the rules are. Pick someone you don't have any emotional connection to, nor they you.
posted by quincunx at 10:32 PM on July 19, 2015 [6 favorites]

Or if it just as often ends up (I'd fear) being gross or empty-sad or something like using a recreational drug as a crutch for grief, only putting off the real emotional work involved in moving on.

That can happen, sure. Also, though, for some people who've historically experienced emotions and sex as intrinsically connected, rebound sex (honest rebound sex, not confused and misleading rebound relationships) can help unlock that perceived necessary connection. Splitting sex from emotional bonding can imo be a useful tool to enhance discernment and both help prevent falling for the wrong people (e.g. because you've mistaken attraction for compatibility), and help you learn what (and who) you might really like, and why.

Also like a tonic, fun like that can be healing, in itself, I think that's often underestimated. (The same goes for other kinds of fun.)

It can still get messy, of course, if you're not as clear with yourself (and your partner) as possible on what you're doing, and even then, it's possible to get attached or hurt someone. I think even the potential fallout is still valid and useful experience, though, if you're honest and respectful, and try to learn what you can from it. (It can be preferable to staying celibate or leading someone on, that's for sure.) And of course, you might learn it's not for you (at the moment, or ever), which I think is also useful to know (vs. think).
posted by cotton dress sock at 12:00 AM on July 20, 2015 [1 favorite]

I think it depends a lot on the individual, and also whether you are the dumper or the dumpee. Dumpees generally have a harder time, I think, because often they didn't see it coming. Dumpers have more time to prepare because they are generally dissatisfied for a while before reaching the conclusion that ending the relationship is the way to go. I've been on both sides of this and yeah, dumping is hard but much easier than being dumped. There's also the mutual dump, which is I guess optimal, as far as these things go.

For me personally, rebound relationships would be a really really bad idea. As others have said, it's hard to see how it's at all fair for the other person. Rebound sex would necessarily be casual sex, which I am not good with, so that's also out. But I am also middle-aged and have enough experience with all different kinds of relationships that I have learnt the hard way what really doesn't work. If you haven't had much experience with casual sex, maybe it would?

As for studies, a quick scan reveals most studies are either done on uni students or recruited through the internet. That aside, I found one which summarises:
[...]These findings suggest that anxious individuals' hyperactivated breakup distress may act as a catalyst for personal growth by promoting the cognitive processing of breakup-related thoughts and emotions, whereas avoidant individuals' deactivated distress may inhibit personal growth by suppressing this cognitive work.
Contrary to our hypothesis, breakup distress was not associated with proclivity to rebound; rather, rebounding directly mediated anxious individuals' personal growth. This finding extends the work of Spielmann and colleagues [24], who found that highly anxious individuals were less likely to remain attached to an ex-partner insofar as they perceived new romantic prospects. To the extent that rebound relationships encourage attachment reorganization and detachment, anxious individuals' cognitive and emotional resources may be diverted from the former partner into self-cultivation, potentially increasing their own attractiveness as a dating partner. Fear of further relationship failure may also motivate anxious individuals to develop their relationship maintenance skills within new relationships by carefully attending to their past relationship mistakes. Alternatively, highly anxious people may re-frame the past relationship as particularly unsatisfying when they enter a new relationship, thereby enhancing their sense of growth and being in a better place.

—"Attachment Styles and Personal Growth following Romantic Breakups: The Mediating Roles of Distress, Rumination, and Tendency to Rebound". Marshall, Tara C; Bejanyan, Kathrine; Ferenczi, Nelli. PLoS One 8.9 (Sep 2013).
It seems to be based on the idea of attachment theory and seems only to consider the anxious and avoidant attachment types. So if you are anxious (online quiz based on a book about attachment theory applied to romantic relationships) then yes, possibly rebound sex could help your personal growth, though not necessarily help you feel less distressed/over the previous relationship. Avoidant people, on the other hand, might find rebound sex/relationships helps them feel less distressed but at the cost of any personal growth or insight.

Let me know if you want me to send you the article.
posted by Athanassiel at 12:13 AM on July 20, 2015 [7 favorites]

I too find it very difficult to get over the end of relationships. I broke up with someone about a year ago (it was a very short relationship, where now I believe I was the rebound) and it was extremely painful for me. It was so bad I almost wanted to kill myself, and I cried myself to sleep for months -- partially because I loved the guy, and partially because I realised I was being used as a rebound.

Nevertheless, I made the decision not to date anyone just to have a warm body, because what you're doing by having a rebound relationship is using someone else to take away your pain. And what kind of person does that? A selfish one. You end up hurting the other person, and then they end up with the same pain you had.

Break the cycle. Date only when you feel ready. For me, one year post-breakup, I'm finally ready to date, and I healed myself all without hurting someone else and without needing to wade through the regret of a rebound relationship.
posted by rozaine at 12:19 AM on July 20, 2015 [2 favorites]

I remember reading that for women in particular, it's a biological mechanism. In that, the release of oxytocin has an erasure effect on partners of the past. I can't find the actual study, but here's an post that goes into it a bit. Whereas for men, oxytocin kept them bonded longer.

And even though this article is from a fluff magazine, it explains a little why men suffer more in breakups. It's not just you, it seems.

Anecdotally, I find the above to be true for myself. I didn't fall in love with my boyfriend until I established a physical connection with him, and prior to doing so I was in a rebound-like situation where I thought I'd never move on or get over it. Instead, very quickly I was in a different circumstance and although it did take me a while to get past the breakup like situation I had been in, being with someone else helped me to see that the other person wasn't the end all and be all. It was basically the best thing I did for myself to get over my heartbreak.
posted by Dimes at 12:24 AM on July 20, 2015 [7 favorites]

It really varies. Works for some people a lot of the time, works for some people some of the time, works for some people never or almost never. From what I've seen, one's comfort with casual sex in general can be a pretty strong indicator of whether rebound sex (not rebound relationships, which are just damaging for everyone involved for the most part) is likely to work or not. For me it works, when it does, as a combination of 'oh yes ok I am actually desirable' and the natural boost of the endorphins from fun sex.

The trick for me is that rebound sex kinda has to be wham-bam-thank-you-Sam and that's it. After a breakup there's all the leftover emotions sloshing around, and it's really easy to spill them on someone else. So if this is something you want to explore, I advise approaching it as a one-night-stand, no contact after kinda thing. No reruns! It's super duper easy, in my experience, to convince yourself that something other than great sex happened. So tailor your search accordingly; if you're looking online then 'NSA' is a keyword you definitely want to use.

The thing is, for me a lot of the time, rebound sex falls really, really starkly into one of two categories: 1) hey! that was fun and I feel a bit better about myself as a desirable human! or 2) throws into sharp relief how Not Over It I am because I've tried to do it when I wasn't actually ready.

Depending on how you feel about such things, it might even work to visit a professional. (There's many past AskMes on how to do so). The thing about hiring a sex worker for this purpose is that they have a seriously vested interest in keeping any emotional stuff off the table, so it really can just be a fun romp kinda thing. Plus there's the ease of negotiating exactly what you would like to happen. That's not something that works for everyone (doesn't work for me for example), so it's just a thing I'm throwing out there.

I guess at the end of the day, what I'm saying is: prior to this relationship, how did you feel about casually meeting someone, hopping on the good foot and doing the bad thing, and then walking away? If that's something you're comfortable with usually, then sure, this might be a useful thing for you to do to get some of that "yeah I'm a sexy beast" validation and have a couple of fun hours with someone. (And, this goes without saying, obvs be upfront and honest about what you're looking for and what you aren't). If you're not usually comfortable with totally casual no-strings sex, then yeah, this is the sort of thing that's likely to leave you feeling empty and sad.

Now, you could end up feeling empty and sad even if you are comfortable with casual sex. Just saying that the less comfortable you are, the more guaranteed this is not to work for you personally.

It sounds to me from your question that you're one of the latter sort of people, that casual sex just isn't something you really do. So for you? This is probably not a great idea.

One of the worst things about relationships ending, which is what makes breakups so hard to process, I think, is that we don't really have a significant cultural model for processing the grief. When a loved one dies, there are these prescribed rituals to go through that can be really helpful by providing a concrete way to say goodbye. But breakups don't come with coffins, don't come with something tangible you can look at and say "okay they're gone."

Perhaps it might be effective for you to say goodbye to the relationship in some way. Intentionally and mindfully throwing something out, or writing something down and burning it, even burying something. Consider, maybe, your faith's approach towards death and grieving. Since it's a paradigm you're already familiar and comfortable with, maybe there are some elements in that approach you can tease out and repurpose for processing this particular grief.

So maybe it might be best for you at this time to focus more on self-care, constructive mourning of the relationship, and spending time with your support network.

I'm really sorry your relationship has ended. Hang in there.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 12:56 AM on July 20, 2015 [1 favorite]

If you've already done 95% of the emotional processing of the loss before the person's actually gone, it's quick and the person who follows isn't necessarily a rebound. If you have a couple where one person has been Staying For The Kids or something for an extended period, then that person quickly taking up with somebody else is just an ordinary part of humans not wanting to be alone. It's similarly not a rebound if you break up with someone you were only seeing for a couple months and not seriously and then start seeing someone else. No trauma in the separation.

That's a very different thing from if you are presently going through a really upsetting, traumatic experience and you're trying to mend it by filling that hole with another person. That works out... well, very rarely. Carpentry with a migraine might seem productive, and hell, if you hit your thumb with the hammer then at least for a few minutes you'll forget about the migraine. Later, though, you'll have both a migraine and a broken thumb and nothing accomplished. Migraines are time for self-care, not for big new endeavors that you're much more likely to screw up because you're already hurting.
posted by Sequence at 1:55 AM on July 20, 2015 [1 favorite]

My rebound relationship was good in one way - it taught me that The Evil Ex's behaviour was not normal and that I would be perfectly able to find a normal relationship one day. It was also bad because I had a lot of getting over to do before I was ready for a normal relationship, and Mr Rebound was totally not on the same page (I thought he was, but my head was all over the place and I totally misjudged it) and thought we were going to have to live happily ever after, and I had to end things and there were ugly scenes and angst and woe. I'm also kind of glad that the person filling the "my last relationship" box is this decent ordinary guy and not the evil one, if that makes sense, but I really regret hurting him.
posted by intensitymultiply at 3:53 AM on July 20, 2015 [1 favorite]

So you break up with your partner of 6 months but soon start dating someone else. That relationship does very well and eventually there is marriage and bliss until the day one of you pulls the plug on the life support as per your wishes. Was that a rebound relationship or just a relationship? Rebound is a qualifier we assign after it goes down in flames as a way to distance ourselves from failure.

So if we look at rebound relationships or sex we have already limited it to a pool of activities people don't think much about.

Go have sex. Go date.
posted by munchingzombie at 6:59 AM on July 20, 2015 [1 favorite]

There is a website called the Science of Relationships that features articles and podcasts written by psychology PhD's that discuss relationship issues in the light of scientific research findings. There is a podcast on just this topic of rebound relationships here. And a corresponding research paper that explores its utility. My feeling about them are that they can be beneficial to help you understand on a gut level that there are other people out there that can bring you happiness. However, if you get back out there too soon, when the wounds are still really fresh, a new relationship can be much more detrimental than helpful. Finding that cross over point, when you realize that some new connection and nourishment will enrich your life in some way again rather than highlight your previous hurts is the crucial question to answer within yourself. Some hurts may never be 100% gone, and that is OK. They just get filed somewhere one day and we move on.
posted by incolorinred at 7:11 AM on July 20, 2015 [1 favorite]

I was married for more than two decades. I am not easy to get close to and the emotional attachment part matters a whole lot to me. Casual sex is not my thing.

When I got divorced, I made the decision that the first guy I slept with would be a throwaway experience with someone who did not matter to me. I knew at least a couple of people who got divorced after long relationships and later married the very first person they hooked up with before the divorce was even final. I felt neither of them really fully resolved their relationship issues. I was molested and raped as a child. I spent a lot of years suicidal. It was important to me to not half ass it. I wanted my personal crap fully resolved.

So it was really important to me to not make the mistake of going "You are the first person other than my ex in a bajillion years and I had an orgasm and everything! Clearly, it is True Love. We must get married!" I felt that would be a disaster.

I think I did the right thing for me. The other thing I decided was that I wanted to resolve certain things on my own and not let some man "rescue" me. I think my ex and I rescued each other, but what I did for him was never acknowledged. He saw himself in heroic terms and me in pathetic terms and it justified a pattern of treating me like a second class citizen. I would rather be alone than be subjected to that again. So I have actually been alone for a decade.

Overall, these have been the best years of my life and I am content with the choices I made.

So I would suggest you figure out what your internal dynamic is and what your goal is. If you know that you place too high a value on sex per se, a throwaway encounter might be helpful. But there are other options that might be more useful to you, like keeping a journal or talking with a therapist. It depends a lot on what is going wrong in your relationships and why.
posted by Michele in California at 10:01 AM on July 20, 2015 [1 favorite]

Like Michele, I was also married for over two decades and this was my experience, although I can't say that it is universal: I dated right away. I was eager to see who and what was out in the world. And it was hard to do. Dating implies that you're looking for a relationship, so to undertake to date someone with no expectation of or desire for a relationship is kind of dishonest, and it was far too early for me to have a relationship with anyone. However, when I'd date someone and they'd string me along for a while and THEN tell me they weren't looking for a relationship, I'd feel used and generally unlovable. It was bad for me. Eventually, I met a guy who was totally upfront about his not wanting to have any kind of relationship aside from fun and sex together. We saw each other for about six months, and this clearly established no-strings pseudo-relationship, where we both acknowledged that we were seeing other people, really worked for me. I enjoyed the time I spent with this person and the sex was good, without any pressure to feel it connected to love or permanence. He's a nice man, and we still keep in touch. During the time I was seeing him, I met someone I was interested in having a relationship with. This was about 2 years after my marriage dissolved, and probably about the right time frame for me. I've been very happy with this relationship, in a way I would not have been capable of had it formed right after I became single. So, yes, NSA sex worked for me and got me to a place where I was willing and ready to form a more permanent bond with someone. But then, I am awfully fond of sex, and this might not work for everyone.
posted by alltomorrowsparties at 10:19 AM on July 20, 2015 [1 favorite]

« Older Is prematurely-cancelled British thriller "Utopia"...   |   Help me fill all these random drawers! Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.