The Truth About Rebound Relationships

... and why they may work out just fine for you.

Posted Nov 13, 2015

Dean Drobot/Shutterstock
Source: Dean Drobot/Shutterstock

Our romantic relationships are a central focus in our lives. We devote massive amounts of time, energy, money, and other resources in the pursuit of new romantic partners or the maintenance of established relationships. Indeed, people often cite having meaningful romantic connections as among their most important life goals (e.g., Aron, Fischer, & Strong, 2006). Even the mass media—from books to movies to supermarket tabloids—demonstrate an extreme preoccupation with the formation, maintenance, and dissolution of romantic bonds.

For better or worse, in most of today’s Western cultures we have immense freedom to follow our hearts’ desires when it comes to love; however, this freedom also means that we are likely to experience the loss of either a dating or marital relationship at least once in our lives—and probably more frequently. We often date multiple partners, with varying degrees of commitment, before entering into matrimony, and nearly 2 million adults in the United States divorce every year (e.g., Tejada-Vera & Sutton, 2010).

Looking at these numbers, it’s not shocking that psychological researchers have invested a lot of time, effort, and money into understanding what the loss of a romantic relationship means for people. Despite the massive amount of research that psychologists have conducted looking at the consequences of a breakup or divorce—spoiler alert: It makes us sad, we’re confused about who we are, but most of us eventually recover (e.g., Lee & Sbarra, 2013)—the same researchers are only just starting to look at the question of how we move on.

How do we move from one relationship to the next? What factors are important in predicting when, after a breakup, we choose to start dating again? What do we look for in new partners? Do our dating choices impact our well-being?

One area of focus has been on the quintessential “rebound relationship.” Rebound relationships are defined as any new romantic entanglement initiated shortly after the end of another relationship (Brumbaugh & Fraley, 2015). The popular perception of these rebound relationships is that they are bad for us and represent misguided attempts to emotionally recover and move on after a breakup or divorce (Lue, 2011; Meyer, 2012). Rebound relationships can take different forms, ranging from casual sexual partners to new exclusive relationships (e.g., Brumbaugh & Fraley, 2015); however, researchers are only just beginning to look into why people get into these types of relationships and what the consequences might be.

Despite the popular view that rebound relationships are a bad idea, most emerging evidence suggests that they are not necessarily doomed to fail, or even harmful to us. In one study, people who stayed single for less time between relationships actually tend to report better emotional well-being. Other research has found that time between divorce and remarriage has no effect of on the stability of one's second marriage (Brumbaugh & Fraley, 2015; Wolfinger, 2007). Quicker rebounds are especially likely among people high in attachment anxiety, who fear rejection and desire closeness with others. Forming a new relationship predicts faster emotional recovery for such individuals after a breakup (e.g., Spielmann, MacDonald, & Wilson, 2009).

On the other hand, when people still long for an ex-partner, the quality of their new relationship suffers, although this longing may especially be present when people are already unhappy with their current (rebound) relationship (e.g., Spielmann, Joel, MacDonald, & Kogan, 2012). Moreover, people who attempt to suppress thoughts of an ex-partner they still long for tend only to think about that person more (Wegner & Gold, 1995).

Rebound relationships may be a mixed bag: They appear to be fine for some, even beneficial. But for others, getting re-involved quickly after the end of a relationship may actually be more distressing than staying single for a while. Only you know what’s best for you. That said, if you do enter a rebound relationship, now at least you have some science to back you up when friends or family tell you it’s a terrible idea.

Aron, A., Fisher, H., & Strong, G. (2006). Romantic love. In A. Vangelisti & D. Perlman (Eds.), Cambridge handbook of personal relationships (pp. 595-614). New York:          Cambridge University Press.

Brumbaugh, C. C., & Fraley, R. C. (2015). Too fast, too soon? An empirical investigation into rebound relationships. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 32, 99-118.

Lee, L. A., & Sbarra, D. A. (2013). The predictors and consequences of relationship dissolution. In C. Hazan & M. Campa (Eds.), Human bonding: The science of affectional ties (pp. 308-324). New York, NY: Guilford Press.

Lue, N. (2011, May 18). Rebound relationships in a nutshell: Transitionals, buffers and why you should step away from the light when they’re not over their ex. Retrieved from http://www.baggagereclaim.co.uk/rebound-relationships-in-a-nutshell-tran...

Meyer, C. (2012). What is a rebound relationship? Retrieved from http://divorcesupport.about.com/od/romanceafterdivorce/p/reboundrelation...

Spielmann, S. S., Joel, S., MacDonald, G., & Kogan, A. (2012). Ex appeal: Current relationship quality and emotional attachment to ex-partners. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 4, 175-180.

Spielmann, S. S., MacDonald, G., & Wilson, A. E. (2009). On the rebound: Focusing on someone new helps anxiously attached individuals let go of ex-partners. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 35, 1382-1394.

Tejada-Vera, B., & Sutton, P. D. (2010). Births, marriages, divorces, and deaths: Provisional data for 2009. National Vital Statistics Reports, 58(25), 1-6.

Wegner, D. M., & Gold, D. B. (1995). Fanning old flames: emotional and cognitive effects of suppressing thoughts of a past relationship. Journal of personality and social psychology, 68(5), 782-792.

Wolfinger, N. H. (2007). Does the rebound effect exist? Time to remarriage and subsequent union stability. Journal of Divorce & Remarriage, 46, 9-20.