It’s perhaps the most cliché piece of advice about dating: The best way to get over someone is to get under someone new. But while casual sex may help some people move forward, it’s not a cure-all. And for some people, it only serves to prolong the emotional upheaval caused by the breakup.
The human body and mind go through a lot after the end of a long-term relationship. Older research shows that the pain of a broken heart can manifest physically—tightening in the chest, sore muscles, loss of appetite, even acne—and lead to depression-like symptoms and a crisis of self-confidence.
“I like to compare a breakup to a process of grief,” said Jessica Moloney, a licensed mental health counselor in New York. “In a sense we’ve lost something, whether it’s the relationship itself, the person or something that maybe we were holding onto that helped define who we were."
While a breakup may cause one person to feel sick at the thought of kissing someone that’s not their ex, someone else may get the immediate urge to jump into bed with someone new. Others may feel confused and bounce between both perspectives.
How people react to a breakup is often dictated by “the nature of what the relationship has been like,” how we perceive the breakup, and our personalities, said Marie Murphy, a San Francisco-based relationship coach. “If the relationship had been kind of dead or stagnant for a while or the person hadn’t really been that engaged in the relationship for a while, the breakup may feel freeing. Sometimes people can’t get out of bed; they want to withdraw and cocoon themselves. Both of those responses can be totally healthy.”
Wherever you fall on the broad spectrum of post-breakup blues, the root of your decisions during this period is often deflection. "We are all to one degree or another trying to avoid a discomfort in our lives," Murphy said "It’s an evolutionary thing, but we’re also conditioned to do it." In other words, crying over a bottle of wine and a rom-com or immediately signing up for a dating app are both ways of numbing or sidestepping the pain.
Moloney compared quickly jumping into bed with someone new to stepping out of a pool into the cold air: You start shivering and want to jump back in where it’s comfortable. “Sometimes we do that because we don’t want to go through that grief process,” she said. “We cling onto another person or an idea of a relationship with another person to get us through the past relationship.”
The key throughout the rebuilding process is to maintain perspective on what is serving you, while also acknowledging and working through the emotional aspects of the breakup. “When we’re distracted, we’re not helping ourselves,” Moloney said. “If you want to go jump in bed and do your thing, do what you need to do. But don’t do it in a way that’s saying this is going to help me be all better.”
There may be some benefits to a certain amount of distraction, though. A small 2014 study by researchers at Queens College, City University of New York and University of Illinois found that rebound relationships—defined as “a relationship that is initiated shortly after a romantic breakup”—can come with perks (beyond mere sexual gratification).
“Specifically, people who started a new relationship quickly had higher well-being and a better opinion of themselves compared to those who waited longer to begin their subsequent relationship,” the study noted. Researchers determined that rebound daters were more likely to profess “confidence in their desirability” and less likely to “report having residual feelings for their ex-partner.”
These findings may seem at odds with the idea of taking the time to learn from your recently ended relationship, but Murphy said it’s all about figuring out what’s best for you. “There's no ‘right way’ to get over a breakup,” she said. “And it is incredibly helpful to give yourself permission to be wherever you are in terms of your desire for sex, dating, hookups, etc.”