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Why Rebound Relationships Might Not Be So Bad

It's one way people rebuild their self-concept.

Key points

  • Romantic breakups produce distress that can linger post-dissolution.
  • Rebound relationships begin before people have resolved feelings towards an ex-partner.
  • Despite the bad reputation, rebound relationships help people move on and rebuild self-concept.
  • Time spent being single, between one relationship and the next, does not predict a new relationship's stability.

Sadness, anger, relief, guilt, hurt. The period after a breakup is a painful, confusing time (Sbarra, 2006). How should people cope? Wallowing in pajamas and sadness and binge-watching TV may feel appropriate for a while, but then what?

Breakup distress follows a trajectory

People thrive by maintaining satisfying close relationships (Baumeister & Leary, 1995). For most adults, romantic relationships provide an important source of support, companionship, and intimacy. To lose a relationship is to lose an everyday counterpoint, someone with the potential to make life easier and the future brighter.

Potential is key: Breakups tend to happen when people judge their relationships as not being the close, supportive, loving relationship they desire, as not offering a brighter future. Realizing a relationship is not working can be devastating. As much as this discovery is painful, the disruption that accompanies breaking up is equally distressful.

In general, the intensity of relationship-dissolution distress spikes around the breakup or divorce, and then it starts to subside. If people are angrier, anxiously preoccupied with their partner, or don't accept the breakup, their sadness takes longer to fade; the longer they hold onto feelings of love, the slower their sadness subsides (Sbarra, 2005).

At some point, people begin to consider pursuing new partners. Maybe their relationship has been "over" for months, even if the breakup has just occurred. They may have already mourned its loss and are ready for something new. Maybe the relationship was not particularly close, and life requires little readjustment: finding a new partner seems a natural next step. Others, however, are in the thick of grieving. They ruminate about their relationship, are deeply sad and distressed, and want to get back with their ex-partner. Should they stay single or seek a new relationship?

New partners can fill the void

In the aftermath of a distressing breakup, some people seek out casual sex. A risky coping strategy, casual sex can be a way for some people to manage their distress and distract themselves from a lingering attachment to an ex (Shimek & Bellow, 2014). The more angry and distressed people are about their breakup, the more they might try to manage those negative emotions through casual sex (Barber & Cooper, 2014).

Other people aren't in it for sex specifically: they want new relationships, and these relationships can be surprisingly healthy, even if they occur soon after a breakup.

There's no "right" time to enter a new relationship

Media and lay wisdom tends to suggest that jumping into a new relationship post-breakup is hazardous for mental well-being. The common rule: People should spend a substantial amount of time being single before they enter a new relationship (how long, exactly?). As widespread as these beliefs might be, they don't hold up under empirical scrutiny.

A rebound relationship is a relationship that someone enters before they have "gotten over" lingering feelings of love or attachment to an ex (Brumbaugh & Fraley, 2015). Friends might raise their eyebrows, parents might shake their heads: people think rebound relationships are destined to fail. You're not ready. You're not over your ex.

But is being ready really equivalent to being over your ex?

Rebound relationships predict positive psychological outcomes

A growing body of research points to the benefits of rebound relationships. As ill-advised as they generally are, rebound relationships may actually play an important role in helping people feel better about themselves and resolve lingering feelings towards an ended relationship.

People who enter rebound relationships and are single for a shorter period of time report greater well-being, and their new "in a relationship" status predicts fewer residual feelings of attachment to their prior partner (Brumbaugh & Fraley, 2015). They can do better not worse than people who bide their time, waiting to feel ready.

Rebound relationships help rebuild the self

Relationship endings are not only emotionally challenging, but they are also cognitively stressful. Breakups require significant mental work. Having once defined themselves in a relationship (us), ex-partners must now redefine who they each are. They must break their cognitive interdependence. This process generally includes losing aspects of themselves that they had acquired from their partner (Lewandowski et al., 2006; Slotter et al., 2010), a process that can leave people feeling small, confused, and lacking clarity of self-concept (who am I without her?).

New relationships can help. Sure, you can rebuild yourself on your own: You might dye your hair, take up kayaking, or take that long-overdue trip to Europe. But what might really help you rebuild your self-concept is a new partner, and all the many relationship-based ways this partner can help you expand your self-concept (Aron et al., 2013). Close relationships are a keen way we can grow, an inherently rewarding experience.

Rebound relationships can accelerate the self-rebuilding process by helping us grow in new ways, sooner than we might have otherwise. Self-expansion is a healthy process where we gain new skills, hobbies, habits, and experiences (Aron et al., 2013).

Rebound relationships have long-term potential

Probably the most critical question is whether relationships can last if they begin before someone fully resolves lingering feelings for an ex. The rebound effect suggests that new relationships, begun too soon, are unlikely to succeed.

Is there empirical support for the rebound effect? No. The data show that time spent being single, between a divorce and a new relationship, does not predict the new relationship's success (Wolfinger, 2007). Being single for a designated time period is not a pre-requisite for a new relationship's well-being.

Thus, the stability of a rebound relationship seems to have nothing to do with its "rebound status," and might have everything to do with the normal predictors of healthy relationships. Are partners compatible? Do they enjoy similarities in aspects that matter, like values, future goals, and how they like to spend their time?

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Aron, A., Lewandowski Jr, G. W., Mashek, D., & Aron, E. N. The Self-Expansion Model of Motivation and Cognition in Close Relationships. The Oxford Handbook of Close Relationships.

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.

Baumeister, R. F., & Leary, M. R. (1995). The Need to Belong: Desire for Interpersonal Attachments as a Fundamental Human Motivation. Psychological Bulletin, 117(3), 497-529.

Brumbaugh, C. C., & Fraley, R. C. (2015). Too fast, too soon? An empirical investigation into rebound relationships. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 32(1), 99-118.

Lewandowski Jr, G. W., Aron, A., Bassis, S., & Kunak, J. (2006). Losing a self‐expanding relationship: Implications for the self‐concept. Personal Relationships, 13(3), 317-331.

Sbarra, D. A. (2006). Predicting the onset of emotional recovery following nonmarital relationship dissolution: Survival analyses of sadness and anger. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 32(3), 298-312.

Slotter, E. B., Gardner, W. L., & Finkel, E. J. (2010). Who am I without you? The influence of romantic breakup on the self-concept. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 36(2), 147-160.

Shimek, C., & Bello, R. (2014). Coping with break-ups: Rebound relationships and gender socialization. Social Sciences, 3(1), 24-43.

Wolfinger, N. H. (2007). Does the rebound effect exist? Time to remarriage and subsequent union stability. Journal of Divorce & Remarriage, 46(3-4), 9-20.

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