“I don’t think he/she is ready to date yet.”
“Are you sure you want to date someone who just ended a relationship?”
“You should wait at least three months before getting into a new relationship.”
These and other statements reflect common beliefs about so-called “rebound relationships” in our culture.
But here’s a radical thought: What if there is no such thing?
Human beings are hardwired for intimacy and connection. It’s natural to want connection after a failed relationship. Does this mean that every relationship turns into a long-lasting one? Not necessarily. But do we learn and grow from every single human interaction, every time we try, sometimes sloppily, to open our hearts to others? Yes.
The concept of a rebound relationship arises from an insinuation that one person is unaware of the other person’s vulnerable state. The trope is that one party just wants sex or a quick fix for their broken heart. They might use the other unconsciously so that they can feel better or distract themselves from their pain.
But here’s the thing: we are always grieving something. We never truly get over someone. Ever. And it’s a dangerous idea to think so.
I met my current partner less than a month after he exited a three-year relationship. The breakup was shocking, unexpected, and traumatic for him, and I could see that he was clearly still grieving. Yet, I also saw a person who was well-versed in the realms of relationship and intimacy. Who had had his heart broken more than once before. And who was able to share that pain with me openly over time.
I chose to not be wary of his pain because I also knew pain and heartbreak. I knew that, sometimes, the pain of loss isn’t just about the other person, but about our expectations of how we thought things would go.
It’s the loss of a trajectory. The trajectory that many of us strive for in life: one of certainty, togetherness, and security in knowing we will be loved.
One way or another, we are all grieving the loss of how we thought things would go in life. Whether that’s a failed relationship or loss of a loved one, a career that never quite made it, or travels to exotic places that haven’t come to pass, at some point in life we are confronted with failed expectations. It doesn’t mean we should ever give up on our dreams. But our dreams are meant to always interact with the present reality.
If we are stuck on a past dream, we may never open to the magic that’s right in front of us. Magic exists in reality, not in dreams.
Though my mother died five years ago, the grief from that experience often comes up when I try to open my heart to another in intimate relationships. It doesn’t matter if the losses we carry happened recently or a long time ago; what matters in intimate relationships is the ability to do our grief work and to communicate our true feelings.
Rather than trying to recreate what once was, what can never truly be again, we can try to open our hearts to the present moment and to the new person in front of us.
We are made new after the losses that shape us. What served in the past won’t work going forward.
Something else I have realized lately is that no relationship is the same. Comparing one person to another only brings pain and disappointment. That’s because we often view the past with nostalgia, remembering the better parts of a person, rather than the parts that possibly led to the demise of that relationship.
I find the pain of past relationships often comes up at significant times. Perhaps we are avoiding working on something that isn’t working in our current relationship. It’s always a scary moment when you realize your partner isn’t perfect and that every single relationship is going to take work, communication, and dedication.
We always have a choice to aspire for deeper connection in our current relationship or else to fantasize, procrastinate, or wishfully think that someone else could provide us with our needs. Our minds also have the annoying habit of preferring the past or future to the present, even if the present is pretty damn great.
I’m not going to lie, it can feel awkward and tender to be grieving or missing a past lover in a new relationship. But we should never shame ourselves for doing so. The thing is, being in love is a beautiful state of presence that we dip in and out of. Like any feeling, it arises, peaks, and falls.
In long-term relationships, we feel that intensity of love at times, and other times we don’t. Our minds are often free to wander, to integrate and ruminate over the past or think about the future.
It’s natural for memories to come up. Don’t feel bad about it.
Integration takes time. It has a timeline of its own.
As someone who normally cries behind closed doors, part of my exploration with grief the last few years has been how to openly grieve with others. It requires a certain level of trust with another person to share with them your unhappiness. Especially in relationships, we often feel unhappiness or grief as a threat when it can actually be a catalyst for greater connection.
Though there is a part of grief work that wants to be tended to alone (and one we should be especially aware of if we are entering into a relationship with someone who has just recently ended another), another part desperately yearns to be witnessed.
Can we openly grieve for a past lover and fall in love at the same time? I think we can. We don’t give our hearts enough credit when we tell them we can’t. Hearts are meant to bend and expand in a variety of ways. They are meant to carry the depths of sorrow and the heights of love.
The amazing revelation about our hearts is that they are made to love. That is literally their purpose.
So next time you are on either end of the rebound relationship trope, ask yourself if those assumptions are really true. Perhaps you are both more ready than you think you are. Perhaps you actually feel confident in your ability to let go and take a new step together.
Walking into the future, you may realize you are always doing both.