Q: How likely is it that a rebound relationship (one where your lover dumps you and then gets with someone else immediately) will last? Also, how likely is it for two people who were once lovers to get back together, particularly after seeing/being with other people?
Thank you for these two interesting questions! I’m going to answer them one at a time.
1. How likely is it that a rebound relationship will last?
That really depends on two factors: the quality of the rebound relationship, and the strength of the rebounder’s attachment to their ex. As I’ve touched on before in another post, rebound relationships can often help people stop missing their exes. When a person starts dating someone new, being able to find 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, which is a key step to getting over past relationships. And, if the rebound relationship is with a rewarding, high-quality partner, then the new partner can gradually replace the ex as that special someone 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 (and me and our collaborators) indicated that unrewarding 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, then they’re not going to be able to invest into their new relationship as fully, leading to a less rewarding new relationship. 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, in a nutshell… how long will it last? It depends on how good it is. I realize that may sound trite, but it really does depend on whether the rebound relationship is qualitatively better than the relationship that was left behind.
2. How likely is it for exes to get back together, particularly after seeing other people?
The answer to this is a bit more complicated. For one thing, people usually break up for a reason, and so the chances of getting back together depend on whether or not the issues that led to the breakup have been resolved. Indeed, research on on-again/off-again couples (couples who 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 dating experiences since the breakup might play a role, again, it really depends on how rewarding those dating experiences were. 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. For example, in the research with the 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 seem 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 (sounds familiar, eh?). Exciting new dating prospects can easily trump past worn-out relationships and help people get over their ex-partners, so that 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 really long for the familiarity of their exes, particularly if they found their exes to be deeply rewarding in the past. Under these circumstances, people sometimes do decide to give their old flame another go (assuming that the ex is also willing).
Assuming your question wasn’t simply a hypothetical, then what does 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 stuff from your former relationship. Remember, you want to look good next to your competition, and good sportsmanship is attractive.
1Spielmann, 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.
2Spielmann, 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.
3Dailey, 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.
Samantha Joel – Science of Relationships articles
Samantha’s research examines how people make decisions about their romantic relationships. For example, what sort of factors do people take into consideration when they try to decide whether to pursue a potential date, invest in a new relationship, or break up with a romantic partner?