The ending of a close romantic relationship is difficult for all involved. There’s no one “best” way to cope with a breakup, and much depends on timing, but one likely outcome is that people look for rebound relationships. When those involve sex, especially casual hookups, the impact actually may be to magnify the extent of the loss.
Although there are ample online sources of advice about how to handle the temptation to engage in rebound (or revenge) sex, there is surprisingly little research. University of Missouri psychologists Lindsay Barber and Lynne Cooper (2014) could find only 12 published articles in psychological journals but they found approximately 18 million online sites on the topic through a Google search. Barber and Cooper's investigation paves the way for gaining insight into this often experienced but little understood aspect of sexual behavior.
As you might imagine, or perhaps have experienced, when you’ve been left behind by a romantic partner, your feelings of self-esteem are likely to dip and you may feel general sadness and perhaps anger. At the same time, after a partner has left, it’s harder to meet your general needs for affection, not to mention sexual activity.
Barber and Cooper decided to examine these potential psychological results of a breakup. They were also interested in assessing recovery from breakup, so they followed their participants over the course of an entire semester. On average, the participants had broken up with partners 3 months prior to the study’s beginning. As a result, the investigators could examine up to 8 months of feelings of distress, low self-worth, and patterns of rebound sex.
For the purposes of definition, the authors defined rebound sex as a desire to ease the pain of losing one’s partner, and revenge sex as a desire to hurt or exact payback on the partner. There are different motives for rebound and revenge sex, but both occur in the aftermath of a serious relationship. To truly qualify as rebound or revenge sex, the activity has to be with a new partner—not an ex (and definitely not the most recent ex).
Using the criterion of having recently ended a serious relationship, Barber and Cooper followed a sample of 170 undergraduate students (two-thirds of whom were female) over the course of one semester, assessing their feelings of anger and distress toward their ex-partner; their self-esteem; their motives for sexual activity (solitary or with a partner); and frequency of sex with a new partner. All of these were tracked via online diaries in relationship to the individual’s gender, the causes of the breakup, and the length of time since the breakup.
Of the two-thirds of the sample who had sex following a breakup, more than half fit the criterion of having rebound sex (since it was not with an ex or the ex-partner). In general, the evidence affirmed the existence of rebound sex as a bona fide phenomenon occurring among approximately one-third of people who experience a relationship’s ending. And at least some people cope with a relationship’s ending by becoming involved in sex with a stranger.
However, the nature of a relationship, and the way it ended, play important roles in determining who becomes involved in a rebound romance. In the first place, the partners left behind were initially angrier and more distressed, using rebound sex as a coping strategy. By the end of the study, those who were dumped eventually leveled out on all measures—other than anger about the relationship’s ending.
Levels of commitment to the relationship while it was in existence also served as predictors of rebound sex involvement. Those with higher commitment to their ex were less likely to have rebound sex, at least immediately after the breakup. However, when they did have rebound sex, they were more likely to admit that they used it to help cope with their loss.
Those with lower commitment to the relationship got involved in rebound sex more readily, but for them the sex was not a way to help them cope. Eventually, their rates of rebound sex leveled off. Considering all factors together, the highest continuous rates through the study for rebound sex were among the people highest on these four motives: the desire for revenge; self-affirmation; coping; and getting over the partner.
Barber and Cooper concluded that rebound sex serves a variety of functions for people who’ve experienced the involuntary ending of a relationship. Individuals on the rebound use sex to cope with feelings of distress, anger, insecurity, and self-doubt. They’re particularly likely to do so when they expressed a strong commitment to the now-extinct relationship.
Interestingly, self-esteem itself seemed less vulnerable to the effect of a relationship’s ending. People high in self-esteem were more likely to be in strongly committed relationships, but when those relationships ended, their self-esteem didn’t suffer.
Having high self-esteem about one’s appearance also seemed to serve as a protective factor against the negative effects of a relationship’s ending. It’s possible that people who feel better about their appearance because they are objectively more attractive can bounce back and become involved in stable relationships rather than continuing to have sex with strangers as a way to cope.
There are, of course, limitations in the study which pertain mostly to the nature of the participants. Students in their first few months of college are going through a whole host of changes, not only in their relationships, but in their identities in general. They are also being placed under a pressure-cooker in which the factors impacting their social lives are perhaps more intense than at any other point in adulthood. On the positive side, the longitudinal nature of the study made it possible to observe changes over time rather than, as in much relationship research, examining reports obtained on one occasion.
Barber and Cooper also point out that whether rebound sex is healthy or not remains a debatable point. Rebound sex may very well be risky sex. Particularly among the most vulnerable, who don’t seem to level off in intensity of seeking sex with strangers, this could mean that they become taken advantage of or are more likely to develop sexually-transmitted infections. On the other hand, rebound sex serves as a way to cope with the pain of being left and might facilitate the recovery process, at least in the short term.
To sum up: Your chances of engaging in rebound sex are likely to be highest for a few weeks after a relationship’s ending. If you’re still seeking casual sex as a way to fill an emotional gap, it might be time for you to seek other, more adaptive ways to find relationship fulfillment.
Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D. 2014
Barber, L. L., & Cooper, M. L. (2014). Rebound sex: Sexual motives and behaviors following a relationship breakup. Archives Of Sexual Behavior, 43(2), 251-265. doi:10.1007/s10508-013-0200-3