‘To get over someone else, get under someone new.’
This advice seems as old as dating itself, passed around over glasses of beer and wine, tubs of ice cream and boxes of tissues. But is it truly advisable to sex the pain away?
I have been through three great breakups in my life: my first, a middle and high school boyfriend who according to the rumour mill left me for my best friend when I moved to the UK. My second was my first girlfriend, who was closeted with a sprinkle of emotional abuse. The third was a lockdown lover who was beautiful and had as many demons inside her as there are in the bowels of hell.
My first breakup I was too young to go scouting for some stranger and my second found me trying to balance a master’s degree, mental health and a particularly gloomy Cape Town winter, so being in the streets was not really an option. However, during my third I decided that I would try it, sadly to no avail. I am a brilliant flirt but lousy at the follow through. I also rarely have crushes, which greatly limits my potential for coitus.
Eventually I did find someone I liked and what ensued was a delicious interaction with my own personal pain creeping up at inopportune moments. Take too long to reply to a message? I worried I had been ghosted again. Ask a question with the wrong emphasis on the wrong syllable? The start of age-old arguments. Everything was a potential red flag.
But there are also the good parts of having something new. For example, I quickly felt less like I was chopped liver and more like I was filet mignon. One of the toughest parts of going through a breakup is the feeling of not being worthy or good enough. Getting under someone new can help with that. It is real-time confirmation that you are still desirable in some way, shape or form.
But is it any good?
According to science, rebound sex or relationshipping is very much a breakup tool. One study conducted in the US asked 176 heterosexual undergrads to chronicle their post breakup feelings in weekly reports that outlined both distress and self-esteem. The researchers looked at several factors, including how the relationship ended, and found that the person who was dumped was more likely to engage in revenge or rebound sex than the person who was doing the dumping.
However, according to the study, at around the five-month mark post breakup, people who were dumped were no more likely to use sex to cope as people who did the dumping. Findings showed that generally “participants’ distress decreased and then levelled off” and was “lowest at around 25 to 28 weeks after the breakup”.
Another interesting finding was that those who reported having rebound sex were more likely to keep having sex with strangers or a rotation of new partners in the future, possibly speaking to the age-old adage of “when you fall off that horse you get right back on”. However, researchers suggested that the fact that those who reported higher levels of rebound sex may be having trouble getting over the breakup or establishing a new relationship.
This could come off as a little slut-shamey, but could also potentially speak to levels of distress and sadness felt by the person. They feel the need to keep the pain at bay by keeping someone in their bed. As one clinical psychologist says, it can be “a way to avoid looking at the tough truth of the relationship and letting yourself go through the grieving and emotions”.
Is rebound sex any good? The jury is still out.
The science at this point is anecdotal at best. On the one hand there is the feeling of catharsis of shagging after a breakup, with the sex helping a person to deal with feelings of distress, loneliness and self-esteem. On the other hand, the past sits in our bones and crops up in strange, whimsical and sometimes toxic ways.
Rebound sex could actually be a sign that you aren’t dealing too well with all this. Not to mention the fact that the literature around this does not even begin to cover the potentials, possibilities and pitfalls within non-monogamous relationships (my personal last breakup happened alongside a very stable and happy 11-year relationship). What happens then when you already have other people you are sleeping with?
One thing that is for sure in all this is that, healthy coping mechanism or not, healing is never linear. So at any given point, do what you feel works for you.