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Rebound relationships: How to recognize signs and stages

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When your relationship or marriage ends, it’s natural to crave the companionship (and sex) you recently lost and to want to fill that void. Sometimes a fun affair, friend with benefits, or hookup is just what the heart needs.

However, when you’re simultaneously healing from a broken relationship, your judgment may not be 100% sound. You might be more likely to quickly develop feelings for someone before you really get to know them, just because it feels good to be with someone new.

This is called a rebound relationship.

Rebound relationships often get a bad rap, but they don’t have to be a bad thing, as long as you recognize them for what they are (or can be) — a way to get back in the dating game and shake off some of the lingering feelings of your past relationship.

Here's what you should know about rebound relationships:

What is a rebound relationship?

A rebound relationship is one where people start dating quickly after the end of a previous relationship. Typically, it is understood that a rebound relationship is not built for the long-term.

Kevin Coleman, a marriage and family therapist and owner of Connected Therapy in Columbia, S.C., says people usually jump into a rebound relationship without taking time to discern whether they're ready for another relationship.

“Usually, they are still in the middle of processing and grieving their previous relationship, but they turn to their rebound relationship to distract themselves from their last relationship,” Coleman says. 

Is the first relationship after divorce always a rebound?

Rebound relationships are a real, and necessary thing. There has to be a first for everything — including a post-divorce relationship!

I think what you're asking is: Is the first relationship after a divorce doomed to end? Can the first relationship after divorce work? Will my new relationship after my divorce last forever and ever?

Technically, the first relationship after your divorce is, in fact, a rebound relationship. Some rebound relationships end in flames, while others last for eternity.

How do I know if it’s a rebound relationship?

If you were in a relationship that ended relatively recently, or the person has not dated since the divorce or breakup, it is likely a rebound relationship. If the connection is white-hot and insane, it is definitely a rebound relationship.

Lots of stories about rebound relationships after divorce in movies and TV shows.

What are the stages of a rebound relationship?

Generally, there are two main phases of a rebound relationship:

1. Elation and infatuation.

In this first phase of rebound relationships, you likely feel so damned happy to feel a connection, be touched, have sex and be cared for. You had felt like you would never feel that spark, or that anyone would be attracted to you — and now both are actually happening! It is amazing! You were wrong about all the bad things and this gives you hope for everything you could ever imagine!

The glee can be so intense you feel like it is love. It could turn into love eventually — but it absolutely is not love right now. Trust me on this. You are not in love.

2. Constant comparison to your ex and your previous relationship — good and bad both.

Imagine that you ate rice and beans every single day for your whole life. The only food memory you have is of rice and beans, and because everyone you ever knew only ate R&B, and the only food available in your universe was rice and beans, to you, food was rice and beans. Maybe you loved rice and beans and were cool with this, but maybe you hated rice and beans and craved something else.

And then one day you eat a cantaloupe. All you would do was drool in wonder over this cantaloupe. Compare cantaloupe to rice and beans. Your mind is fucking blown. Cantaloupe, cantaloupe, cantaloupe. Sweet, juicy, pretty color, creamy texture.

But you’d also start to wonder if you were going to die because cantaloupe doesn’t have protein and you sorta missed rice and beans. It’s complicated. They’re both good. You like both (though cantaloupe is better) bit you get confused sometimes. Sometimes you are sure that your life is 1,000X better now that you have cantaloupe. But sometimes a bowl of R&B would be good — for old times. Rice and beans wasn’t so bad, right? Then you remember that one time with rice and beans and you’re not really sure.

3. Devastating heartbreak that feels like it will never fucking end.

Or, you stay together more or less happily with your new dude — though relationships are usually complicated, especially at this late stage now that everyone is so wounded.

4. Eventually, you get over the heartbreak and move on. It might seem impossible now, but you will feel better.

How to comfort someone: 9 things to text or say

Learn more about how to tell if you are in a toxic relationship.

What are the characteristics of rebound relationships?

Dragomir says rebound relationships often have some or all of the following characteristics:

  • Start quickly after the end of a previous relationship
  • Involve two people who may not be emotionally ready to be in a relationship
  • Often based on physical attraction and infatuation, rather than true love or trust
  • Often involve intense emotions and can be turbulent and short-lived
  • Can be painful when they end abruptly

These are some things you should know about rebound relationships: 

Being the new girlfriend after divorce

If you are the first person your man dated after (or during!) his divorce, here are some unique challenges you may face:

  • Jealousy from his crazy-ass ex-wife
  • Jealousy from his understandably hurt ex-wife
  • Adjustments from his kids
  • Adjustments from his friends and extended family
  • Managing his own grief and baggage
  • Your own understandable insecurity — Is he on the rebound? Are you being used? Does he still love his wife? Will the kids hate you — and result in you being dumped?

Check out these Reddit threads about being the new girlfriend after divorce: 

Being the new boyfriend after divorce

If you are dating a woman who has recently divorced, these are some things you may experience:

  • Emotional fallout and baggage from the divorce
  • Jealousy from her ex spouse
  • Struggles of single motherhood (according to the U.S. Census Bureau, 5 of 6 single moms have primary custody of their children), including co-parenting drama
  • Her intense feelings early on

These Reddit threads discuss being the new boyfriend after divorce: 

Why do rebound relationships feel like love?

When you are in a breakup, you feel an intense romantic connection to your ex — but the energy is negative. You hate your ex.

When you find a rebound relationship, you also feel an intense romantic connection to your new lover — and the energy is so positive! In our culture, we describe an intense, positive romantic energy as love.

That is a fallacy.

Are rebound relationships good or bad?

Rebound relationships are necessary — someone has to be your first relationship and sex after a breakup or divorce, right?

Just don’t fuck up your life for this person, at least not for a good 3 years. Practice:

  • Birth control
  • Separate residences
  • No marriages or commingling finances
  • STD checks

Do rebound relationships actually work? 

100% absolutely people fall in real love, marry or otherwise spend many happy decades together with a rebound relationship — or even an affair partner. But there is no reason to jump there. This may be a friend with benefits, short-term lover, hook-up or boyfriend for a few years.

No need to rush.

Can you fall in love after a divorce?

When you are in a breakup, you feel an intense romantic connection to your ex — but the energy is negative. You hate your ex. 

When you find a rebound relationship, you also feel an intense romantic connection to your new lover — and the energy is so positive! In our culture, we describe an intense, positive romantic energy as love.

That is a fallacy.

It can be confusing to determine the difference between love and lust after divorce.

Many marriages that end in divorce were sexless and without emotional bond for years — so a newfound connection and hot sex can muddy the emotional waters in an especially profound way after divorce.

Why rebound relationships fail

Rebound relationships fail because one of you is a hot mess from the previous relationship, not healed, but hungry for emotional connection and likely sex. The new boyfriend or girlfriend got wrapped up by proxy in the intensity of that breakup, confusing it for a future, when instead it was just that: An intense romance.

How long do rebound relationships last after divorce? What the statistics show

A research study published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships followed people who recently broke up with a partner. Those that started a new relationship during the study were together for an average of 2 months.

Signs a rebound relationship is ending

First sign: Did you find this article by Googling, “Warning signs it is a rebound relationship?”

Other red flags in relationships:

  • Your new partner just broke up from a long-term or intense relationship
  • The newly broken up partner stalks his or her ex on social media
  • Lots of mentions of the previous relationship
  • No real physical intimacy like holding hands, cuddling and connection during sex
  • Conversation is light and fun, but not about personal stories, or big goals or efforts to share or understand each other’s worldview
  • Bananas-crazy chemistry despite having little in common
  • You worry this is a rebound

If you are the person “rebounding” from a relationship, Coleman says these are some signs to look for within yourself: 

  • You start noticing the red flags you used to ignore in the new relationship
  • You catch yourself thinking about your ex more often than you did at the beginning of the relationship
  • You aren’t excited when you picture your relationship in the long term (or you can’t picture it at all)

“The realization phase is when the rebounder can no longer deny that they aren't actually a good fit with their new partner, and they know that they don't want to be with their new partner,” Coleman says.

Emma’s personal experience — how I understood my rebound relationship and got over it

Divorcing people are forced to face the loss of dreams of family life, and what the rest of their life will be like. And there is a ton of fear about all of it.

All this upheaval and stress can leave little room to deal with simple loss of love. When you are contending with a 360-degree life barf, there is scant space to sit quietly and feel the weighty grief of no longer spending nights with a person who you at least once — likely still — loved very much. Not just the absence of somebody. The absence of him.

Which is where the rebound breakup and all its gory hurt come in. If you’re like me, that relationship was just that. Someone who I cared very much about, knew my kids, but was a lover — no more. He was not my partner. We were emotionally, intellectually, sexually intertwined. But our lives were completely separate. We owned nothing together (though I’m still kind of annoyed with myself for never retrieving that La Perla nighty from his apartment, but I’ll live), and did not even share friends. When we broke up, there was nothing to contend with but grief.

Which is another reason why we do not mourn the love for our husbands immediately after divorce. Divorce often comes after months and years of a really unhappy relationship. By the time the four-way lawyers meetings start, you’ve forgotten about the emotional, intellectual and sexual connection you once shared with that man. It was likely missing for a very long time — which is exactly why it is so intoxicating when we find that connection again in a rebound. And, if you’re like me, you consciously appreciate those mutual feelings so very much more — which only adds to the scythe bludgeoning once it falls.

So I called my best friend. I’ve known Kirsten for 20 years, and even though she lives on the other side of the country, we remain very close and she knows all my shit. Kirsten did what a good friend does: she listened. As I talked and sobbed and blubbered and talked some more, it all came out.

Besides the end of my relationship, my mom has been unwell. My mom, who adores my kids second only to their parents. As my children and their needs as people grow, it seems that our circle of people shrinks — and the pressures of being a single mother mount. I am just one person responsible for two human beings. It feels like too much.

“We’ve all watched you over the past few years be so strong and amazing,” Kirsten said. “But I said to myself, ‘I hope this girl can find time to process it all. Because sooner or later, it will catch up with her.’”

It has caught up with me. When my marriage ended years ago, I slipped into survival mode: I jutted my jaw, made sure the kids and my business and the money and the divorce and the house were all in order. Trust me, there were plenty of late night crying fits and trips to therapists and a wonderful support group for loved ones of brain injury victims. But I’m not sure I fully felt the gravity of my loss – our loss. The loss my whole family suffered.

Finally, I recognized that three years’ worth of grief had come knocking. For months after that conversation, I gave myself permission to mourn. Those sad Sundays were committed to indulging the emotion and grief and healing that had eluded me.

Funny thing, how empathy blooms. At bedtime after coming home from her dad’s on Sunday, I laid next to my then-4-year-old daughter in her twin bed. She was riled up after the transition, which is not unusual, but it spiraled into something else. “Why can’t our family be like other families?” she cried. 

I worry I dismiss the grief my kids might feel over the divorce. After all, Lucas wasn’t even born when we separated – Helena not yet 2. “It’s always Helena, Lucas, Daddy — and Mommy separate. Or Helena, Lucas, Mommy — Daddy separate. I want us to be like Eleanor’s family.”

I wasn’t sure what to say. So I held her head in the crook of my neck and listened and let her cry and cry. “Thank you for telling me how you feel,” I said. “It’s important to get it out. Because sooner or later it will catch up with you.”

Life after divorce — 3 things you can do now to move on

How about you? How did you get over your post-divorce rebound? What did you learn from the experience? Share in the comments!

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