Are you in a new relationship with someone who just stopped seeing someone else? Some call these relationships “rebound relationships.” Do rebound relationships work? This is a question I have heard from many who have and haven’t been in rebound relationships. To help understand rebound relationships and to see if they really do work, I have interviewed psychologist Jay Seiff-Haron.
Tell me a little bit about yourself.
“I am a family therapist and clinical psychologist in San Francisco, California. I work with families mostly from a perspective called attachment, which is itself based upon decades of research and observation of patterns in human relationships — though different from the currently trendy attachment parenting, which is something else. Most of my practice consists of couples counseling from an attachment perspective, called, Emotionally Focused Therapy for Couples (EFT). Based upon years of experience in therapy with parents and toddlers who have experienced divorce, difficult custody disputes and trauma, I also conduct parent-child assessments and have begin to conduct court-ordered custody evaluations.”
What are some reasons someone would rebound from a relationship that has ended into another relationship soon after?
“I would define a rebound relationship as one that becomes serious in the months immediately following another serious relationship’s end, while one or both people are still mourning the loss of the prior relationship. Is that right?”
“Well then, as a relationship ends and after, we can all experience the entire range of human emotions: from relief and a giddy sense of freedom through boredom, apathy and the blues, as well as intense feelings of loss, rejection, betrayal, fear, loneliness and shame. I guess the key to a rebound relationship is that most of us have relatively stable ways of coping with more difficult feelings. Some of us reach out and double our phone bills, while others take time alone until they feel ready to re-engage. Some drink or eat to excess, or become promiscuous; others strive to reconnect old friendships or form new ones.”
So you’re saying that some people get into new relationships quickly?
“Yes, sometimes. The key to understanding ‘˜the rebound’ is that, at the end of a relationship, the defining feeling is one of loss: loss of self-esteem in the face of rejection, loss of trust in the face of betrayal, loss of companionship in the face of a break-up, loss of confidence in having children or avoiding a lonely old age, and so on. Is it any wonder, then, that if a new relationship presents itself, we might be prone to reach out quickly and with both hands? It is a sure way of assuaging the loneliness, failure and shame, of turning a difficult moment into an opportunity.”
So what is wrong with the rebound?
“On the face of it, nothing is wrong with it. Sometimes rebound relationships work. Other times, they don’t. Relationships are incredibly complex, and (as we all know, to our wonder and chagrin) they are outside of anyone’s complete control. It is hard to generalize as a result. Hmm. My colleague Evelyn Schmechtig-Cochran is also a couples therapist. She believes that sometimes rebounds can work, and cites friends who are happily married after meeting on the rebound.
“I guess that I should be less vague. Actually, the research has not shown much support for a rebound effect. For example, Wolfinger’s (2006) re-examined data from more than 10,000 households, a study published in 1988 called the National Survey of Families and Households. He concluded:
This paper has a single straightforward finding: there is no rebound effect. People quickly entering new relationships after an initial divorce, whether by remarriage or cohabitation followed by remarriage, do not have higher divorce rates. This finding persists after controlling for key demographic differences between respondents. The advice offered by many self-help books (“Don’t get into a new relationship too quickly!”) therefore has no basis in reality. (p. 18-19)
“In other words, how things go will depend more upon the personalities, coping styles and specific attachment dynamics in the relationship than upon one-size-fits-all nostrums. There are some people who begin dating right after relationship ends, who happen to meet the right person and then end up very happy together. Sometimes, this is because they did not have much mourning left to do, because they had emotionally exited the previous relationship a long time before it actually stumbled to a conclusion. I’d say that in such a case, the person is not so much rebounding as feeling finally free.”
So rebound relationships are typically healthy ones?
“I’m not sure we can generalize that way. I can think of an acquaintance who always has a new girlfriend waiting in the wings before the old girlfriend exits. While not (to my knowledge) being unfaithful in any sexual sense, certainly there is an emotional infidelity to planning your next relationship while still in the last one. I’d call that a rebound relationship, for sure: it seems motivated in part by a desire not to alone, rather than an actual interest in the new partner. I am sure that he likes the women he dates, and most of his relationships last for years… but it seems as if he is picking the next nice person that comes along, rather than seeking someone who would truly be special to him. Doesn’t bode well for the future of the next relationship, does it? But the problem may not be a supposed rebound effect, so much as the dishonesty to his girlfriends in general.
“Without knowing exactly how he goes about this, we might also term that behavior ‘˜too little time spent searching’ or ‘˜inability to tolerate solitude’, both of which imply deeper issues related to self-esteem: doesn’t he believe that he is worth someone special? In Dr. Wolfinger’s (2006) study, he concludes only:
“[Dr. Wolfinger has] examined the rebound hypothesis only as it pertains to marriage. Perhaps it does hold for dating relationships. Future research might explore this issue should adequate data become available. The rebound effect may also exist within remarriage only for certain kinds of people, so analyses employing detailed psychometric measures might prove fruitful.” (p. 18-19)
“On the other hand, I also know spouses of 11 years who got together less than 24 hours after a break-up, and were possibly introduced by the ex as a distraction from more emotional processing. So what? In plain English, I have faith in the power of love and caring to overcome loss and mourning. Though one or both partners might be on a rebound, still the relationship is not necessarily doomed. Partners might enter into a new relationship to assuage loneliness or fear or self-doubt, but the thing about someone who cares is, that actually can assuage loneliness or fear or self-doubt. The question is how the relationship develops, not how it starts. If they can soothe and care for one another, the new relationship could end up much healthier than the prior one.”
So you’d say that the difference is whether or not they love each other?
“Maybe eventually, but that would be a tricky standard at the outset — but care about each other, sure, as well as the process of the relationship and the reasons for it. If one partner is in the relationship primarily to avoid loneliness, it stands to reason that they are not in it because they truly care about the other person — even if they think they do. And that last part, even if they think they do, is the key thing that is confusing for the partner.
“The main differentiator is not so much the accident of timing at the outset, but the way in which the two people relate and what they are looking for. Frantic efforts not to be alone or to throw oneself into another relationship, any relationship, may not be the death knell of a relationship, since they may well be experienced as care, interest and support by the partner. However, the relationship certainly needs to develop more legitimate connections and caring for one another based upon real experiences of one another that are not mostly reactive to loneliness, or the relationship will fail.”
What can someone do if some of the previous relationship issues enter into the rebound relationship?
“We’ve all (I hope!) experienced the lightning bolt that can strike at the outset of a new relationship: the sun has never shined so bright, the person can do no wrong, their faults are endearing rather than annoying… The trick is to differentiate that perfectly wonderful state of affairs, what we in the field call limerence, from a very similar state in which, instead of riding high on a hormonal surge of love and affection that is grounded in a balance of connection and autonomy, the person instead can’t tolerate being alone and seems desperate for connection. Speilmann, MacDonald & Wilson (2009) showed that there people whose relationship histories predispose them to have more difficulty letting go. That doesn’t mean they shouldn’t date and don’t deserve happiness, but it does imply that they may be more likely to rebound when not yet ready.
“For the other person, the key might be to ask questions like, how well does my partner know me? How much of this relationship is based upon hope and fantasy? How comfortable do I feel sharing my insecurities and hopes and dreams with my partner? If I don’t feel comfortable, how come? When I share how I really feel, am and act, is there acceptance or upset if a fantasy gets challenged? How genuine is their interest and where did it come from? In short, are there any signs that my partner sees us as, “Love the one you’re with” instead of ‘Love me because we are a uniquely suited match?'”
What last advice would you like to leave for someone who has rebounded from one relationship to another?
“The reason so many of us can fall for the rebound is that, unfortunately, limerence in a healthy relationship feels very, very similar to being the shining hope for someone who is desperate not to feel alone. And, when we are desperate not to be alone, we can be accepting of almost anything in another. So what is the answer? In my opinion, honest, vulnerable and connecting conversation with your partner will help. Get real. If you have doubts and fears, name them and check them out with your partner. Explore them together.”
But how can they explore together?
“If you begin to feel worried that your partner is on a rebound, take the risk to talk about your fears with them. Not to accuse them of something, but to talk about what you are concerned about, how you feel. If you do this well, and your partner can hear you, that in and of itself sets the stage for a healthy relationship. If they freak out, or you do, then either your communication didn’t come through to them the way that you meant it, or it struck too close to home. Miscommunications are normal. However, learning to work those sorts of disconnects out early on can be the defining thing that turns a relationship that started out on the rebound into a healthy, positive and collaborative one.”
Thank you Jay for the interview on rebound relationships. For more information on Jay Seiff-Haron you can check out his website on http://www.familytherapysf.com or http://www.iceeft.com/whatis.htm for more information about EFT.
Spielmann, S., MacDonald, G., & Wilson, A. (2009). On the rebound: Focusing on someone new helps anxiously attached individuals let go of ex-partners. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 35(10), 1382-1394.
Wolfinger, N. (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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