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The Appeal and the Risks of Rebound Relationships

When every partner is "the One," until the next one.

Matt broke up with Cindy three months ago. They had been together for a year, but the last few months, in his mind, were all downhill. He was tired of her criticism, her withdrawal. But now he’s met Sara and, wow, what a difference: She's lively and funny, laid back and complimentary. "She’s The One," he’s already telling his friends.

But his friends are shaking their heads. They’ve been through this before. At one time, Cindy was "The One." That was right after his breakup with Laura. Matt’s a "rebounder"—he can’t seem to be unattached and on his own for more than a few days.

Anatomy of a Rebound

You’ve likely met people like Matt; you may have fallen into a rebound relationship yourself. It’s alluring: Once a relationship is over, there's a void in your life. Regardless of the quality of the past relationship, there’s loss and grief because the psychological attachment is broken.

And at these early stages of grief, it’s easy to have tunnel vision: You dwell on what was wrong in the relationship—what hurt and wounded you. Your thinking is black and white—your fault, her fault, your explanation is way too simplistic. The problem, Matt’s brain tells him, was that Cindy was critical and withdrawn. The solution? Find someone who isn’t like that.

Enter Sara: Just the right mix. Her liveliness and positive feedback is what he focuses on. It helps heal his wounds. And her company pushes aside the loneliness; he feels great.

But as Matt’s friends know, even if he doesn’t, this run with Sara is going to end. Six months or a year from now, she’s no longer going to be the One. Little irritating things will start to emerge, and Matt will begin to pull away, or get annoyed.

Why? For a couple of reasons: Sara will have done a good job of healing Matt's wounds, and he now needs other things from a relationship that Sara may or may not be able to provide. He may also be coming out of his grief—he’s waking up, so to speak, and can see Sara in a more realistic and complete way, warts and all. And finally, the downside of his simplistic theory takes hold: The things about him, and the nuances of his relationship with Cindy that fired her criticism and withdrawal—perhaps his moodiness, unreliability, or difficulty opening up—now come to the surface with Sara. She does have a different personality than Cindy, but they both start falling into the emotional potholes that Matt brings to the relationship.

Doing It Differently

So what’s Matt to do? He needs to slow it down and stop going on autopilot.

What this means is that he needs to realize that grief and loneliness and the punch in the gut are normal aspects of ending relationships. He needs to learn to handle these feelings, rather than running from them or smothering them. Rather than clinging to a Sara, he needs to reach out to his friends for support, or get involved with his work or other activities that give him a sense of purpose, focus, and accomplishment.

He needs to take time to reflect on this relationship with Cindy—to mentally deconstruct it, seek out the nuances, even have post-mortem conversations with her to fully understand her side of the story. He needs to understand how her criticism and withdrawal were bad solutions to other problems in the relationship that they didn't talk about. This is the information he needs—the more complex explanation—to help him navigate his next relationships. If Cindy won’t talk to him, he can go into therapy and find someone who can stir the mental pot and ask these hard questions.

And if he wants to date, is that OK? Sure, as long as, again, he slows it down, and isn’t talking engagement by the third date. He needs to play the field some to get his sea legs and discover the variety of personalities out there—not just the Cindys and the anti-Cindys. And if the One really does come along, he needs to date for a long time—perhaps years—to move beyond the healing of wounds, the grief, and the negative nuances. He needs to be able to see the relationship with eyes wide open, to see his part, and to see if he can solve problems in ways besides his cut-and-run approach.

If you’re a rebounder and want to try doing it differently next time around, start by taking it slow. Experiment with spending time by yourself. Try to figure out the moral of the story of your past relationship.

It's time to stop the cycle.