Break-ups are stressful. It is no surprise that they are associated with a decrease in psychological wellbeing. And your well-meaning friends – hoping to protect you from further heartbreak – will warn you not to rush into a new relationship, particularly if that person resembles your ex.
There is a stigma associated with moving on quickly. But the evidence suggests that this might actually be the best thing for us. So why does the stigma persist? How should we navigate a rebound relationship? And what are the risks of finding someone similar to a lost love?
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“People who start new relationships quickly have better romantic life feelings,” says Claudia Brumbaugh, a psychologist who studies adult attachment at City University of New York, describing a study where she assessed the psychological well-being of people who had recently broken up. “They felt more confident, desirable, loveable. Possibly because they had proven it to themselves. They had more feelings of personal growth and independence. They were more over their ex, they felt more secure. There were no cases where people who were single were better off.”
Brumbaugh says on average people think you should wait five months before entering a new relationship and that rebound relationships will not last long – but this is just what people think, not what the data says is best for us. In a survey of people whose relationships had recently ended, people who quickly found new partners reported higher self-esteem and wellbeing, and feeling less anxious. Their relatively uninterrupted relationship status allows their lifestyle to flow smoothly as they transition from one partner to another.
"Growing" between relationships might be an illusion (Credit: Getty Images)
However, quick rebounders also tend to be people who had issues with insecurity in their previous relationship. It might sound contradictory that people who feel insecure also have higher self-esteem. But it could be a result of measuring feelings of insecurity in a relationship which is coming to an end (which is logical if you can sense that things are not going well) and then measuring subsequent growth in self-esteem after finding a new partner.
Growing up after breaking up
One reason given for taking time to enter a new relationship is that we need to heal and grow before meeting someone new. There is some logic to this. After breaking up, on average people report five ways in which they have grown in some way. These are commonly things like “I feel more confident” or “I am more independent”.
A break up might hurt your self esteem, but if you tell yourself you are more independent it counter balances that – Ty Tashiro
But, experiments like this rely on self-reported measures of growth, which means something slightly more complicated could be happening. I might say that I feel more confident, but am I objectively more confident? Studies looking at how people report personal growth after a traumatic event often show that there is in fact no change. We tell ourselves that we have grown because of a cognitive bias called positive illusions.
“People sometimes inflate these evaluations to buffer their self-esteem,” says Ty Tashiro, a psychologist and author of The Science of Happily Ever After. “A break up might hurt your self esteem. But if you tell yourself you are more independent it counter balances that. You might not actually be more independent but you feel better about the fact that you’ve been dumped.”
People who quickly found new partners reported higher self-esteem and wellbeing (Credit: Getty Images)
Tashiro’s studies while working at the University of Maryland show that finding a new partner and the time since breaking up had no effect on growth scores. So, taking your time to get back into the dating scene is not necessarily going to leave you better off in terms of your self-improvement – and you might be tricking yourself into thinking you have grown anyway. (Read more about the surprising benefits of being blinded by love.)
Where you place the blame for your break-up does have an effect on your personal growth, however. Was it your fault? Their fault? Some external factor? People who blame an environmental reason, like work or how they get on with family members, also reported more personal growth afterwards. The people who saw the least growth blamed themselves for their break up.
Whether or not someone has meaningfully grown from the experience may depend on the lessons they have learnt. People who came up with more specific ways they had developed after the break-up are more likely to enter later relationships with greater wisdom. Tashiro says his favourite response was from a man who had learned to say “I’m sorry”.
“I love that one because there is a specificity to it,” he says. “It sounded very real. I can imagine the place that it was coming from. Saying sorry is going to help that guy in all his relationships down the road.”
How we rely on others for emotional support can be described, in part, by our attachment style. Broadly, how we seek the support of others is influenced by feelings of security, anxiety or avoidance.
Where you place the blame for your break-up effects your personal growth (Credit: Getty Images)
People who feel securely attached in their relationships were probably raised with consistent treatment from their parents. They tend to be trusting of others and look to their close friends or family for emotional support.
Attachment theory gets more complicated when we look at people in insecure relationships. People who were insecurely attached in their past relationships tend to begin their next one more quickly than secure individuals, but for different reasons. Attachment-related anxiety is associated with being hung up on your ex and responding to hurt feelings with vengeful behaviour. These people also experience more physical and emotional distress and might go to extremes to attempt to restart the past relationship. People who display attachment-related avoidance, on the other hand, are more self-reliant, so might not be thinking about their ex at all when they move on.
Having parents that are not warm does not necessarily mean that you will be avoidant forever
“Anxious people are always worried and jealous or are clingy for attention but don’t give it back,” says Brumbaugh. “Avoidant people detach themselves from intimacy and are not trusting and [would] rather get into work. They don’t like intimacy but they still have relationships.”
How your parents treated you in childhood you can impact your attachment style in adulthood, but is it changeable. Having parents that are not warm does not necessarily mean that you will be avoidant forever. A warm partner can shift your attachment style back towards security. However, there is also some evidence that these styles are hereditary, so there might be a limit to how much they are influenced by other people. (Read about the dark side of beliving in true love.)
Seeing your ex in your new partner
Generally, people transfer their attachment styles from one partner to the next, but do so to a greater degree when the new partner resembles their ex. They then transfer some of their beliefs about their old partner to their new one.
“Humans like consistency,” says Brumbaugh. “By finding a new partner who resembles a past partner you get consistency. People who rebounded more quickly did perceive more similarities between their ex and new partner. We can’t say that those similarities objectively existed, because they were self-reporting, but they saw a similarity.”
People transfer their attachment styles from one partner to the next (Credit: Getty Images)
Couples have overlapping “self-concepts”, meaning they see themselves as part of each other. They share friendships and hobbies. This intertwining of selves might leave them feeling vulnerable after a break up. Suddenly, they have lost a part of their identity, or someone with whom they share an interest. Finding someone who can replace many of those needs makes moving on easier.
Seeing similarities where they might not exist has its upsides and downsides. “If my ex is Sam and then I meet Bob and something about Bob reminds me of Sam I assume more than I should about Bob,” says Brumbaugh. “Maybe if Sam was a good cook and very romantic I assume it of Bob, too. It could create problems because of incorrect assumptions. I want him to be as romantic as Sam, and every time he is not it challenges my expectations, it might be disappointing, even though Bob might be quite romantic.”
Clearly, a rebound relationship is not going to be the perfect cure for a broken heart. But it is not the disaster your friends might lead you to believe either, and might come with some psychological benefits. Break-ups are often traumatic, and it seems it is never too early to let a little love back into your life.
William Park is @williamhpark on Twitter.
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