Bad Advice: The Myth Of Doomed Rebound Relationships

With the exception of the minority whose choices are clearly always self-destructive, the best way to work on recovering from bad breakups, as the research above indicates, is by actively pursuing new relationships, not withdrawal.
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I am an online therapist, or counselor, as I prefer to think of myself, who has worked with over a 1000 clients from all over the world during the past six years. Most contact me because of relationships gone awry and, within that category, a sizeable portion are trying to recover from bad breakups and "move on."

The standard therapeutic intervention is to offer emotional support and empathy, while "processing" the breakup. Processing might involve discovering mistakes the client made: perhaps unwisely, if understandably, choosing the former partner; creating avoidable stress which doomed the relationship; coping poorly with problems originating with the partner or external events---all while keeping client self-blame to a minimum. Many therapists also attempt to explain the roots of missteps in plausible but generally unprovable narratives, traceable to the earlier life experiences of those seeking help. Very significantly, therapists typically believe that starting a new relationship before learning from the previous one dooms any chance of future success.

I am not a typical therapist. I entered this profession after decades as an academic sociologist. When clients don't have a clear psychiatric diagnosis, but are suffering from problems in relationships with romantic partners, friends, parents, siblings, or at work, I seek insight from relevant sociological research to guide my assessment of their problems and offer practical advice.

When it comes to bad breakups, a most important thing to recognize is that the vast majority of efforts to meet someone in the hopes of developing a long-lasting relationship fail. Most fail quickly, within minutes (e.g., the numerous painful first meetings originating from online dating connections), days, weeks or months. Some fail after years.

Many clients tell me they have experienced this pattern or simply don't believe they will ever meet anyone to replace their ex. Their pessimism, while understandable, is contradicted by the reality that, however many previous efforts failed, the majority of people who seek satisfying long-term relationships eventually succeed, often more than once. I ask these clients if they believed they would ever have met their former partner until they did. Or if they have evidence, apart from a deeply held conviction they can predict this one aspect of their future, they will never find love and companionship again.

When an unusually high rate of failure followed by eventual success is the norm, it is hard to accept intensive "processing" therapy as the best solution for bad breakups. Relationships involve two people with idiosyncratic pairings of personality traits, habits, values, interests and tastes. The failure of a past relationship would be predictive only of the failure of a future relationship involving clones of the same parties. The next partner will surely vary in numerous ways from the previous one and the protagonist is also likely to act differently in response to those distinctions. The lessons learned from examining previous relationships might well be irrelevant, even counter-productive, as it is with generals being only prepared for fighting the previous war.

In my view, the main impediment to finding a new relationship is avoiding or even delaying active efforts to seek one. If a therapeutic regimen was necessary for better success in establishing and maintaining a new long-term bond, one would predict a quick "rebound relationship" invariably fails in regard to quality and duration. Fortunately, excellent research exists proving that the perils of rebound relationships are mythical. In a study of 1200 women from the National Survey of Families and Households who had been married more than once, there was no relationship found between the length of the interval from divorce in the first marriage to re-marriage and the subsequent longevity of that second marriage. In other words, a person could meet and marry their next spouse a few months or many years after their divorce and the odds of the new marriage succeeding would be the same.

Some might question the significance of this finding because the decision to re-marry is generally made more carefully than one simply involving re-entering the world of dating. Perhaps taking a "sabbatical", with or without therapy, might be psychologically beneficial before starting any new relationship. This perspective, however, was not supported in a path-breaking study which followed university students over time who broke up with an original partner. Those who began dating reported feeling more desirable and had fewer residual feelings about their ex than those who abstained. Moreover, subjects who resumed dating sooner experienced higher levels of well-being, self-esteem and trust than those who waited longer. The researchers also established that dating produced these positive psychological benefits, not that those who experienced better mental health before their breakups began dating earlier.

In urging those who have experienced a painful end to a once fulfilling relationship to devote energy to meeting someone new I accept that some clients have problems---social anxiety, low-self-regard, fear of being hurt again--- which may hamper this effort. These obstacles should be addressed. So should patterns in which clients habitually made dreadful choices virtually guaranteed to produce misery, e.g., partners who are abusive or substance abusers. But, with the exception of the minority whose choices are clearly always self-destructive, the best way to work on recovering from bad breakups, as the research above indicates, is by actively pursuing new relationships, not withdrawal. When one avoids making an effort the only potent memories are of failure and pain. Positive experiences are not available to put those recollections in the rear view mirror.