When a long and once-loving relationship ends, there are a few ways to respond to the aftermath of heartbreak: sinking into a depression induced by marathon viewings of The Notebook and An Affair to Remember; gaining a post-college version of the freshman fifteen by choosing to survive on cheesecake, Chipotle, and vodka alone; and driving your friends insane by rehashing every last conversations, email, and text with your ex over and over again.
Or, you can follow the old adage: the best way to get over somebody is to get under somebody else.
Rebound sex, which is loosely considered casual sex that helps you get through the pain of a breakup, is the more illicit post-relationship coping mechanism. If you choose hookups over hot fudge sundaes to get over a heartbreak (or, at least in addition to), the good news is you’re not alone.
Researchers at the University of Missouri have confirmed that rebound sex is a pervasive phenomenon. In a study of 170 undergrads, 35 percent engaged in rebound sex within four weeks of a breakup.
But while the study confirmed that people have sex in attempt to get over an ex (duh), it never fully answered whether rebound sex is actually helpful or damaging to the post-breakup healing process. Is rebound sex an emotional crutch, the relationship equivalent to junk food that tastes delicious but leaves you sluggish and sick?
The researchers at the University of Missouri implied it was, noting that undergrads who used sex to cope with a breakup were still sleeping with new partners eight months after the relationship’s end. To them, that “signified a lack of recovery and inability to move on.”
However, most experts do not think there is something inherently wrong about it.
“There are a lot of reasons people would want to have sex after a breakup, probably more positive than negative,” says Patricia Rich, a licensed clinical social worker and sex therapist. “Assuming it’s reasonably safe and consensual, it can certainly help in the healing process.”
“Why wouldn’t it be normal to use whatever we have at our finger tip to feel better or move on?” says Dr. Lisa Wade, chair of the sociology department at Occidental College in California. She notes that the study focused only on undergrads, which may skew the results because college tends to have a more pervasive hookup culture than the general population, thus encouraging rebound sex. Still, she says it’s important for people to realize that “it’s fine to have multiple motivations for having sex. Love isn’t the only one.”
Indeed, after the end of a relationships, there are many reasons to turn to sex to soften the blow.
“I wanted to feel wanted. I wanted to feel like I was needed in some way,” says Dior, adding that it may not have been an emotional feeling, but at least it was physical. The 26-year-old production manager from New York slept with someone a day after ending her relationship with her boyfriend of a year and a half.
(Dior, like most of the breakup sex-havers we spoke with for this story, requested we do not publish her last name.)
“You’re attempting to fill a void. It’s holding someone. It’s having that element of familiarity and comfort,” says Bryan, a 31-year-old lawyer in New York City, who also slept with someone the day after his girlfriend ended their relationship.
But although this makes rebound sex seem like an excuse for fast physical intimacy, that may not actually be a bad thing. “After a breakup, people feel withdrawal from being touched a lot in a relationship. It can be helpful and healing to be touched again,” says Rich.
The physical act of sex itself can also raise people’s spirits. “The sexual release releases different neurotransmitters that actually improve our mood,” says Rich. Endorphins are released during sex, just as they are during a strenuous workout. However, as sex educator and columnist Twanna A. Hines told The Daily Beast, “You can go for a jog, you can eat healthy, you can do other wonderful things to stimulate the good feelings in your body, but they can’t give you an orgasm the way sex can.”
Rebound sex can also be a great opportunity to make up for what someone lacked when they were with their ex. A person “may not have had a good quality of sex in that relationship,” says Rich. As a result, he or she “ may feel more freedom afterward.”
Prior to her breakup with her college boyfriend, Talia, a 24-year-old editor in New York, says she was “anxious” about having only had sexual relationships with one person. She ultimately felt like “it was time to sow my wild oats.” Within a week she was hooking up with new people. “It made me feel sexually excited in a way I hadn’t been during my long-term relationship,” she says.
Even when sexual dissatisfaction or curiosity isn’t behind a breakup, the chance to have sex with new people can be a silver lining, even a small one, when devastated by a breakup. Bryan says even when he missed his ex and still hoped they would get back together, “I was somewhat excited about new body parts. If you eat Fruit Loops every day and then you have Lucky Charms, even if you don’t like Lucky Charms, it’s nice to have something different.”
Of course, despite the benefits and comforts of rebound sex, many of us know from experience that it is not a panacea for all the pain of a heartbreak. Rebound sex sometimes serves as “a way to avoid looking at the tough truth of the relationship and letting yourself go through the grieving and emotions,” says Rich.
“When a relationship has ended that there’s this moment that you’re used to being in daily contact and seeing a text. It’s something so regular and suddenly it stops. It’s like an actual representation that you’re no longer with this person and they are no longer checking in with you,” Dior adds. She has opted for rebound sex so that she can avoid that “moment when I looked at the phone when you see no text, I didn’t want that emptiness.”
Rebound sex can be more about distracting your heart than entertaining your body. As a result, it can be far more mental and emotional than a matter of sexual gratification.
“The main thing I felt was a distraction,” says Bryan. “I felt as long as I was lying in bed with this person, I would not think as much about my ex and my lost love situation and instead live in the moment—and the moment was brief.” However, he knew it was always temporary. “It was helpful in the same way as watching a movie or playing a sports game. It’s just in the short while.”
While most experts interviewed for this story agree that rebound sex can be a healthy part of the post-breakup recover, it runs the risk of adding to the pain when people do not realize that rebound sex is generally temporary.
Dr. Leslie Bell, a psychotherapist who is the author of Hard to Get: 20-Something Women and the Paradox of Sexual Freedom, says it’s important for it to be “clear ito the person what they can and can’t get out the rebound sex.” When someone is “super vulnerable or feels rejected” and is looking to rebound “to rebuild their sense of self,” that’s when it “can end up feeling unfortunately unsatisfying like it doesn’t fulfill all those needs.”
Just a week after her breakup, Dior also knows her expectations for rebound sex and potentially cause more hurt. “I am running the risk of caring about him, as much as if I were in a relationship,” says Dior of the friend she has been sleeping with. “I keep thinking I don’t want to go through this again.”
Because it can be hard to disentangle the many emotions of rebound sex—a desire for a distraction, to feel needed, to feel sexy—it can be easy to feel a quick emotional attachment to a partner.
Yet, even when rebound sex can add in the short-term to the heartbreak, it may actually have long-term benefits.
Talia recalled feeling “emotionally fraught” after rebound sex with someone who didn’t reciprocate her feelings. It was painful, but in the end, her overall experiences with rebound sex was a necessary component to ultimately reconciling with her boyfriend, who she is still with today. Because the rebound sex was “liberating and made me feel attractive and confident and empowered,” she says “it helped me feel okay about going back to my relationship.”
Even if rebound sex doesn’t ultimately lead one back to a former love-and usually, it doesn’t-fears that it will hinder the post-relationship healing process. Hines says that after a breakup, we shouldn’t be worried about what is the right or wrong behavior, but figuring out what feels right for ourselves as individual.
“At the end of the day every relationship is created by the individuals that participate in it. There may be wide shooting trends that help us understand rebound sex in the general context, but only the person(s) knows that they need most,” she says.
“If ripping off your boxers and panties after a hard breakup makes you feel better, sometimes you need to go through it.”