The Truth About Rebound Relationships
Surprising research into how we rebound, and why we get back with exes.
Posted Jun 20, 2014
How long do rebound relationships last?
It's a question I'm often asked, and the answer really depends on two factors: How good the rebound relationship is; and how attached the person is to their ex.
Rebound relationships can often help people stop missing their exes. When a person starts dating someone new, their success in having found another appealing person to date can help them feel better about their romantic prospects.1 This can make people feel less dependent on their exes for meeting their emotional needs—a key step to getting over past relationships. And if the rebound relationship is with a rewarding, high-quality partner, then that partner can gradually replace the ex in their lives.
If, however, the new relationship is not particularly rewarding, then the rebound relationship can backfire. Recent research conducted by my colleague Stephanie Spielmann, myself, and our collaborators, showed that unrewarding rebound relationships can actually lead people to feel more attached to their ex-partners, rather than less.2 This association appears to go the other way as well—if, for some reason, a person is having a difficult time letting go of their ex, they’re not going to be able to invest in a new relationship as fully, making that relationship less rewarding. Basically, our emotional and attachment needs are hydraulic: The more we rely on one individual to meet these needs (e.g., an ex-partner), the less we tend to rely on another individual to meet these same needs (e.g., a new partner).
So how long will a rebound last? It really depends on whether the rebound relationship is better than the relationship that was left behind.
How likely is it that someone will go back to an ex after a rebound?
The answer to this question is a bit more complicated. People usually break up for a reason, and so the chances of getting back together with an ex depend on whether the issues that led to the breakup have been resolved. The research on on-again/off-again couples—those that break up and get back together multiple times—indicates that some of the most common reasons for getting back together with an ex include things like improved communication (e.g., getting along better, working through issues together), or improvements with the self or partner (e.g., being more understanding or supportive, working on flaws that bothered the partner).3
In terms of how rebounds might play a role, again, it really depends on how rewarding those rebound relationships are. New rewarding dating experiences can help to lower attachment to an ex-partner, making it less likely that the person will want to get back with their ex.1 On the other hand, bad dates can indeed motivate people to go back to their exes. In the research with on-again/off-again couples, dating experiences during “off” periods was one of the more common reasons people gave for wanting to give their ex another try. It seems that after people break up, unrewarding dating experiences can make them feel like their other dating options aren’t as good as they thought, making their exes more appealing by comparison.
Therefore, two key factors influence people’s decisions about whether to get back together with an old flame—the quality of the relationship with the ex-partner, and the quality of the relationship with the new partner. Exciting new dating prospects can trump past worn-out relationships and help people get over their exes so they can better focus on their new, more compatible partners. On the other hand, when people fail to connect with new partners, it can make them long powerfully for the familiarity of an ex, particularly if they found the ex to be deeply rewarding in the past. Under these circumstances, people sometimes do decide to give their old flame another go—assuming the ex is also willing, of course.
If you're the ex in this situation, what does all this mean for you? Outside of trying to improve on your own relationship with your ex, all you can really do is wait and see—but do so patiently. Nagging or otherwise trying to interfere with your ex’s new relationship will likely only remind your ex of the bad times in your former relationship. Remember, you want to look good next to your competition—and good sportsmanship is attractive.
Are you questioning whether your relationship is right for you? We are conducting a new online study about how people decide whether or not to end a relationship. If you are thinking about ending your dating relationship, please consider participating!
1. 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.
2. Spielmann, S. S., Joel, S., MacDonald, G., & Kogan, A (in press). Ex appeal: Current relationship quality and emotional attachment to ex-partners. Social Psychological and Personality Science.
3. Dailey, R. M., Rossetto, K. R., Pfiester, A, & Surra, C. A. (2009). A qualitative analysis of on-again/off-again romantic relationships: “It’s up and down, all around”. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 26, 443-466.