Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


Rebound: Time Heals, But a New Relationship Is Quicker

The question isn't whether to rebound but when and to what.

When an important relationship ends, just grieve. Don't go looking for a rebound. You can't run away from your problems. Only time will heal.

I agree with that common advice whole-halfedly. I think it's absolutely half-true, and so would like to make the case for the other half.

Life is incredibly short. We don't have forever to grieve. Until you have exhausted all of the options and configurations available, you would do well to move on, start a new life, change the scenery. Rebound is good. Life rebounds and so should you.

The question isn't whether to rebound but when and to what.

I think of it like brachiating, letting go of one branch to reach for another the way arboreal primates do. If it's too soon to let go of the last branch, you'll never make it to the next branch, but it's hard to let go of the last branch without having a new branch drawing you forward. In other words, if you reach out for a rebound before you have let go you won't make it, but the best way to let go is to have something new to reach for.

One argument against rebounding is that you'll miss important lessons learned only by sitting with the grief. Yes, of course you want to harvest the lessons from whatever it is you're grieving, but how much can you harvest? In any long relationship, the quantity of interactions, motivations, and causal links is simply overwhelming. What caused what is usually extremely complex. You won't be able to figure out exactly what went wrong.

Besides, grief itself is very likely to muddle your analysis. The more you need to know the answer, the harder it is to get at an honest and neutral one. Grief's urgent inquiry has flesh in the game. It prefers some, and dreads other explanations of what went wrong. Caring confounds clarity.

As for it being impossible to run away from your problems, yes, some of them, but for most relatively well-balanced people, different circumstances and different relationships bring out different behaviors.

Once, I had a four-year partnership in which we never quarreled. When it ended, I thought to myself, "Wow, I've finally graduated. I'm essentially quarrel-free now. I'm a grownup!" In the next relationship I quarreled pretty constantly. I came away feeling terrible for having turned out to be, in essence, a quarreler.

But it's not clear that quarrelling or not quarrelling were my essence at all. Both quarrelling and not quarreling were apparently in my range and repertoire, but most likely the determining factor was a difference in the chemistry between the two different partners and me.

The fact that you were not the best in one circumstance doesn't mean you that that's the best you can be. Some circumstances bring out the worst in us. So don't dwell; rebound. Use your lifetime wisely. Do what you're good at. Use what freedom you have to find the people who bring out the best in you and be with them.

If you've been grieving a while, calculate your grief-time as a percentage of your remaining life expectancy. You can look up your life expectancy here: I'm 53, so, according to the chart, I've got maybe another 30 more years. At my age, if I grieve a loss for a year, that's 1/30th or 3.3% of my remaining life--a sobering statistic.

Sobering, but, of course, it's not as though a statistic can change one's grieving behavior. Who has that much conscious control over strong emotions? When I was in deep grief once, a friend told me the solution was to allocate just twenty minutes a day to grieving. It sounded good on paper but that's not how grief really works. It's not like you can stop it by rational choice. "Always something there to remind me," as the song says--little triggers everywhere re-open the wound and the more often it's reopened the more likely it is to be reopened again.

Still, there is often conscious ambivalence about whether to grieve or not, and the statistic can speak to that. Those mourning the death of a loved one can feel, even years later, that they are dishonoring the memory of the departed by not grieving longer. For that, the statistic does help put it in proportion. My mother, in great health mourned my father's death for a full year, and then discovered terminal cancer that killed her within another year. That drove home to me the ways in which extended grief implies a luxurious overestimation of the time we have here.

Yes time heals, but slowly. Time plus changed circumstances heals faster.

I like to keep a role model on each side of a question like how long to grieve. In favor of long grief I see the monk, patient with suffering and pain, who can meditate for years and comes out wiser and clearer than the rash rebounder.

On the other side, I see and admire the efficiency of a cancer patient whose prospects are few. She throws herself completely into a treatment regime, confident that it is going to work, and then, at some point when it doesn't, gives up suddenly on that treatment, withdrawing her commitment completely, moving instantly to another, saying "that last one was never going to work, but this new one will most certainly be the cure."

It's the logical thing to do. In life's time-limited Easter-egg hunt, searching for the people and circumstances that bring out the best in you, you should give in turn each candidate your all, and then be strategically fickle enough to drop the unsuccessful candidates instantly and completely. You want to cultivate the amnesia of the serial-infatuated romantic teen: "John? You mean my boyfriend all last year? He was a dork. I always knew that relationship would never work. But, Sam, my new boyfriend--he's perfect for me!"

It's logical, even if it's not very human. We're not good at stopping on a dime like that. We don't turn corners that easily. Machines do. When you turn off your computer, it's not crestfallen that the fun has ended. It doesn't dwell on the past.

Why then do we? A very short answer is that habits beget habits. A relationship is an attachment habit that is reinforced over time by collecting to itself all sorts of other attachment habits. Divorce settlements between the long-married are usually much more complicated than settlements between the briefly married. Attachment's compound. More time; more attachment. Not so with computers. No matter how long you keep them on, they don't get more attached to being on.

The longer you're in a relationship, the more dependencies you'll accumulate. So there's always something there to remind you.

More from Jeremy E. Sherman Ph.D., MPP
More from Psychology Today