Long Live The Post-Breakup Fling
Even the most impulsive rebound can teach you volumes about what you do and don't want in your next relationship.
There’s something exciting about new romance after a long-term relationship ends. (Think: Emily Ratajkowski posting surprise Valentine’s Day nudes with Eric André following her divorce; Taylor Swift potentially moving on from her breakup with her rumored old flame Matt Healy, who’s under fire for past racist and sexist comments; Phoebe Bridgers and Bo Burnham getting caught going to town on each other’s faces after her engagement ended.) The tradition of rebounding after a major split has long elicited raised eyebrows. But perhaps we shouldn’t be so quick to judge. Depending on who you choose, it turns out that there are plenty of benefits to jumping into a fling without an endgame in mind. So for those among us who have pivoted to our ex’s polar opposite, secured a new hookup with lightning speed, or made otherwise generally out-of-character dating choices following the end of a serious relationship, there are good reasons you’re embracing the chaos.
Why might we be primed to make impulsive decisions after a long-term relationship ends? Danielle Forshee, Psy.D., licensed clinical social worker and psychologist, explains that brain chemistry is to blame. After a breakup, it’s normal to feel lonely, sad, or depressed, and that’s because serotonin, the neurochemical that is responsible for happy feelings and good vibes, has plummeted. We then begin to crave a pick-me-up, like food or sex, to get our next rush. “We're more prone to going back to an ex, going out and letting loose, and doing things that maybe we wouldn't otherwise do, but feel really good, so that we can cope with the breakup,” Forshee says.
Beyond the comfort of realizing this is all exceedingly normal, there are actually lots of valuable lessons to take away from your rebound choices. For one, they can teach us a lot about ourselves and what we do and don’t want in more serious, future relationships, Forshee notes.
Take Melanie*, 41, from Chicago, who was dumped by her girlfriend of eight years via text. As her relationship with her then-fiancée was falling apart, Melanie had crossed paths with a woman on a subreddit dedicated to music. After the breakup, their correspondence graduated from emails to texting, with daily good morning and good night missives. Melanie confided in her about the split and was met with a sympathetic ear. Proving rebounds don’t have to be raunchy, her pen pal even sent Melanie candies on various holidays, with handwritten notes indicating which ones she thought she’d like the most. It was a tender, borderline flirtatious relationship and Melanie soon became emotionally invested, even though she knew things would likely never get physical — they lived over 1,500 miles apart.
Her friends urged her to “meet someone real,” someone she could have more of a future with, but for Melanie, the connection was instrumental. “I had been so ingrained to give, give, give, because that's what I do. I'm the nurturing one. And to have that returned to me knocked me off my feet. I knew I could go forward from that and have different expectations. I didn't always have to be the one who gave all of myself to make my partner happy,” she says. They texted for nearly a year but eventually their communication tapered off.
Another reason to celebrate the meandering rebound? Approaching dating with a no-f*cks-given mindset can be freeing. “I think some people feel they can be more themselves because there's no real endgame,” Forshee says. “And they can feel less pressure associated with having to put up that perfect façade.” Provided you have a fairly positive rebound, that can help you walk more confidently into future dating endeavors, she adds.
Shauna, 38, from Orange County, believes this was the case for her. She had been with her husband since high school, and when she discovered that he had cheated shortly after their wedding, she got a divorce. Complicating her troubles further was her self-esteem: she worried that potential suitors would be turned off by her marital history, and feared that she was to blame for her ex’s lack of interest in sex. Wanting to fill the void her divorce left but knowing it was unlikely she’d find a true connection so quickly, she jumped on the apps with an open-minded, “let’s see where things go” attitude. She matched with a handsome, suave man who showed her just how different things could be: she noticed how deeply he craved her, how affectionate and gentlemanly he was… and his Prince Albert penis piercing. She was confused — “What does this do for me?” — but interested. After being in a relationship with someone so withdrawn romantically, the concept of someone who had modified their body purely for pleasure was foreign.
Ultimately, neither the penis piercing nor the guy did it for her in the end. A couple months into things, Shauna expressed that the piercing hurt her and asked him to take it out, and he was pretty offended by the request. The fling ended not long after, but the confidence his desire gave her was empowering and sent her out, more relaxed, on a trajectory of serial dating that led to meeting her now-husband.
These chaotic little stories can help us feel we’ve lived a rich life and even stave off regrets.
Finally, these never-doing-something-like-this-again experiences are valuable simply because they can help you feel like you’ve lived life to the fullest. “You will [eventually] end up settling down, whether it's alone or with someone else,” Forshee says. These chaotic little stories can help us feel we’ve lived a rich life and even stave off regrets, she adds.
Take Danielle, 35, from Brooklyn. In her mid-20s, she dated a guy for three years with whom she wanted to get more serious, but who passive-aggressively rejected her efforts at nearly every turn. “He’d wash my socks and give them back to me,” she explains, rather than letting her leave even the most basic essentials at his apartment. When he rebuffed her request to take a vacation together, Danielle finally dumped him. About a month later, she met a guy with an irresistible Scottish accent at a bar on a night out with friends. They exchanged numbers and set in motion perhaps the most memorable chain of events in Danielle’s dating history. Upon the first hookup it became immediately apparent, by the way he was kissing her feet, that he had a foot fetish. (And the swiftness with which he moved her feet to his penis indicated he was well-practiced in these efforts.) Perhaps it was his confidence in putting his appetites out there, perhaps it was her newfound desire to try dating outside her comfort zone post-breakup, but she decided to go for it. Ultimately, though, the fetish wasn’t for her. “I was not a convert,” she says.
After a month, she realized that beyond the accent, there wasn’t much attraction there, and called him over to break up. She watched as his disappointment and sadness morphed into anger at her for ending things. Before he left, he asked to use her bathroom, which she of course permitted. After a few minutes, she heard the front door slam and realized he had left without saying goodbye. She went to use the bathroom herself and to her horror, she saw that he had left her toilet clogged with a particularly large bowel movement. Although Danielle assumes it was accidental, she’ll never truly know if this was a malicious clogging. (He lived close by and could have presumably just gone home if the need was dire.) He was the one who got dumped, but as Danielle says, “I had to plunge this toilet. I was the one left in the shit.” Now, nearly 10 years after the fact, she finds it hilarious and still thinks about it from time to time. Furthermore, she credits flings like this one with helping her trust her gut feeling of “this is it!” when she finally did meet her husband, because she’d made the effort to have a fully-explored dating life. The lesson? Never underestimate the power of a good story.
We may be prone to questionable rebounds after our formative relationships come to a close, but even the most dubious of choices can teach us what we want, shape how we date, and give us something to laugh at when our wild single days are behind us. So go ahead. Get a little messy.
*Name has been changed.
Danielle Forshee, Psy.D., licensed psychologist and LCSW