I am an online psychotherapist who has worked with over 1000 clients from all over the world during the past eight years. Most contact me because relationships have gone awry. Among these clients, many are trying to recover from bad breakups and “move on.”
The standard therapeutic intervention for those distraught after a breakup is to offer emotional support and empathy, while “processing” what has transpired. Processing might involve discovering mistakes the client made: perhaps unwisely, if understandably, choosing the former partner; creating avoidable stress which doomed the relationship; coping poorly with problems originating with the partner or external events—-while keeping client self-blame to a minimum.
Many therapists also attempt to explain the roots of missteps in plausible but generally unprovable narratives, traceable to earlier life experiences. Most significantly, therapists typically discourage beginning a “rebound relationship,” which they believe is doomed to failure if the appropriate processing of the breakup has not occurred.
Those in despair after a relationship fails often don’t imagine they will ever meet anyone to replace their ex and avoid trying to. Pessimism, while understandable, is contradicted by the reality that, however many previous efforts failed, the majority of people who seek satisfying long-term relationships eventually succeed. I ask these clients if they believed they would ever have met their former partner until they did. Or if they have evidence, apart from a deeply held conviction they can predict this one aspect of their future, they will never find love and companionship again.
When an unusually high rate of failure followed by eventual success is the norm, it is hard to accept intensive “processing” therapy as the best solution for bad breakups. Relationships involve two people with idiosyncratic pairings of personality traits, habits, values, interests and tastes. The failure of a past relationship would be predictive only of the failure of a future relationship involving clones of the same parties. The next partner will undoubtedly vary in numerous ways from the previous one, and the protagonist is also likely to act differently in response to those distinctions. The lessons learned from examining past relationships might well be irrelevant, even counter-productive, as it is with generals being only prepared for fighting the previous war.
In my view, the main impediment to finding a new relationship is resisting or even delaying active efforts to seek one. If a therapeutic regimen were necessary for better success in establishing and maintaining a new long-term bond, one would predict a rebound relationship invariably fails regarding quality and duration. Fortunately, excellent research exists proving that the perils of rebound relationships are mythical. In a 2006 study of 1200 women from the National Survey of Families and Households who had been married more than once, there was no relationship found between the length of the interval from divorce in the first marriage to re-marriage and the subsequent longevity of that second marriage. In other words, a person could meet and marry their next spouse a few months or many years after their divorce, and the odds of the new marriage succeeding would be the same.
Some might question the significance of this finding because the decision to re-marry is generally made more carefully than one merely involving re-entering the world of dating. Perhaps taking a “sabbatical,” with or without therapy, might be psychologically beneficial before starting any new relationship. This perspective, however, was not supported in research from 2015 which followed university students over a seven month period after a break-up with an original partner. Those who began dating reported feeling more desirable and had fewer residual feelings about their ex than those who abstained. Moreover, subjects who resumed dating sooner experienced higher levels of well-being, self-esteem, and trust than those who waited longer. The researchers also established that dating produced these positive psychological benefits, not that those who experienced better mental health before their breakups began dating earlier.
In urging those who have experienced a painful end to a once fulfilling relationship to devote energy to meeting someone new I accept that some clients have problems—-social anxiety, low-self-regard, fear of being hurt again—- which may hamper this effort. These obstacles should be addressed. So should patterns in which clients habitually made terrible choices virtually guaranteed to produce misery, e.g., partners who are abusive or substance abusers. But, except for the minority whose decisions are always self-destructive, the best way to work on recovering from bad breakups, as the research above indicates, is by actively pursuing new relationships, not withdrawal. Only then can new positive experiences put painful flashbacks in the rearview mirror.
Originally published at www.huffingtonpost.com