On the rebound

You’re dating another man soon after Mr. Not-So-Right took a hike — despite friends’ warnings that rebound relationships don’t work.

Anne Wilson

Anne Wilson

You’re dating another man soon after Mr. Not-So-Right took a hike — despite friends’ warnings that rebound relationships don’t work.

Don’t be in such a rush. Take some time before jumping into the fish pond again.

Who’s right? Is it you, the one stepping out? Or is it your all-wise and ever-helpful friends?

Social psychologist Anne Wilson loves questions like this.

An associate psychology professor at Wilfrid Laurier University, she delves into questions about self-identity, about memory and about people’s perceptions and relationships.

“Fascinated by life,” she looks at the kind of issues we face daily and tries to understand them better. “I look at popular wisdom and see if it’s true,” she says.

Wilson, along with her former honours student Stephanie Spielmann and relationships researcher Geoff MacDonald of University of Toronto, has looked at rebound relationships. Spielmann, now a University of Toronto graduate, is the primary investigator on their research paper — which appeared late last year in a social psychology publication.

To rebound or not is a real-life question that preoccupies most of us at one time or another, she says.

If you don’t think so, consider the excitement in the blogosphere after the research was published.

Bloggers and podcasters had a field day discussing the findings.

“I was surprised,” says Wilson, a 37-year-old researcher at WLU who received a Premier’s Research Excellence Award in 2002 and now holds a Tier 2 Canada Research Chair in Social Psychology.

“It’s interesting to see all the interpretations. … Some are quite funny.”

The researchers’ work challenges the assumption that rebound relationships are never a good thing.

They found that for some people, rebounding might actually give “the necessary nudge to let go of their ex,” Wilson says.

That’s not usually mom’s advice.

“Your best friend, your mother and most relationship self-help gurus seem to share a common opinion: if you jump into a new relationship ’on the rebound’ — not long after a previous romance has ended — it will never work,” Wilson wrote in a research synopsis.

“The prevailing wisdom is that you need time to get over the ex before even considering someone new.”

While exploring how people coped with romantic breakups, Spielmann, Wilson and MacDonald discovered examples of what they call the “anxiously attached” person among the 162 undergraduates they questioned for their study — individuals who were hung up on a past relationship.

“They describe old flames as burning bright,” Wilson said. “There’s this type of person who’s always going back to the same ex who you know is bad for them.”

They worry about the likelihood of finding love and acceptance again. They’re often clingy or needy in their relationships and they constantly seek reassurance.

When the romance is over, and it’s time to throw out the ex-partner’s toothbrush, anxiously attached people have more trouble letting go. They pine and obsess.

“They’re left floundering, ” Wilson said.

And in extreme cases, they may even stalk their ex.

In the study, the researchers found both anxiously attached people who were single and anxiously attached people who had started new “rebound” relationships.

Those in rebound relationships, they discovered, were less preoccupied with their ex-partners. Rebound relationships had helped to reassure them that they were worthwhile partners.

“So we suggest that getting into a new relationship allows you to get over the ex,” she said. “We thought the rebound relationship might be an antidote. … You tell yourself, ‘I found someone, so it tells me I’m still worthwhile.”’

The researchers wondered if they could help anxiously attached people feel more optimistic about finding another partner.

So this is what they did. They asked single anxiously attached individuals to read a phoney magazine article about relationships. One group read an article that was designed to lead them to believe it was very easy to find a new partner. Another group read an article about how difficult it was.

Just so you know, the researchers “debriefed” everyone later, telling the people in both groups that the articles they had read were bogus so that they weren’t sent away with false beliefs.

And the findings? Those people who were encouraged by the article to feel optimistic about finding a main squeeze were less likely to pine for their ex-partner.

To test the feelings of optimism and pessimism further, the researchers asked one group to imagine a couple of potential relationship partners among the people they knew. That was easy enough for them to do — and those people felt more optimistic about their prospects and less hung up on their exes.

But when the other group was asked to imagine 10 potential partners, it proved much more difficult and they were more pessimistic about their romantic futures. They were more obsessed with their ex, Wilson said.

“They felt, ‘I had the perfect person and I want to rekindle it.”’

So what should anxious people in broken relationships do? Buy a bunch of self-help books?

“I’m a bit of a skeptic around pop psychology literature,” Wilson says.

Wilson says she and her fellow researchers have shown that rebound relationships aren’t always bad. They can help anxiously attached people get over an ex.

But Wilson — she is married with two small children to a biochemist, by the way, making rebounding a totally academic subject — isn’t about to hand out prescriptions for rebounding.

Not like one blogger who concluded from her research that people should “take one rebound and call me in the morning.”

Or like another blogger who said the answer is to fantasize about two and only two people we’d like to date, resulting in hope springing eternal.

Rebound relationships can be a Band-Aid solution for your insecurity about being alone, Wilson says.

But in the long term, maybe it would be better for anxiously attached people to find ways to deal with their relationship fears, find ways to feel more secure about their worth — whether they’re in a relationship or not.

“If you’re a friend of an anxiously attached person, should you say, ‘Go out and find a new romance?”’ Wilson says. Or should you help that person believe that, “You’re a great person and there are other fish in the sea” — before he or she embarks on a new romance?

Help your friend feel more secure and accepted, Wilson suggests.

“People who are secure don’t need to have a romantic relationship” to feel that way, she says.

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