Who Needs Skin? The Virtual Rebound As Breakup Therapy

Photo: Bobby Doherty/New York Magazine

My last breakup was a multiday affair, the kind so exhausting that you think maybe you should stay together, anything to make this horrible dissolution stop. We finished breaking up on a Sunday morning. That night, frustrated and stir-crazy from a weekend in which I did nothing but get dumped, I went out. A male acquaintance who would be leaving New York the next morning seemed like he wanted to kiss me. The perfect rebound fling, I thought. And then: I am so not ready for this.

So I waited 24 hours, until he was three time zones away, then sexted him. For the next month, we sexted continuously. I was having a virtual rebound. Which, it turns out, is the best kind: distraction, affirmation, and a sexual palate cleanser, all without needing to wash the trails of mascara from my face, or disrupt my busy post-breakup schedule of restorative Pilates classes, attended while reeking of booze from the night before. “Or the disappointment of actually seeing a real person’s body,” a female friend offered over Pilates-destroying beers. When she went to the bathroom a few minutes later, I saw that my virtual fling had texted a graphic description of what he’d do if he were here. Thank God he’s not, I thought. I’ve let my bikini wax go.

You don’t have to sext to have a virtual rebound. There’s also hyperactivity on OKCupid,, Grindr, or Tinder. It’s part of the standard “get your groove back” protocol. Just as a Seder requires a child to recite “The Four Questions,” the modern breakup requires a supportive best friend to ask three: “What happened?”; “Are you okay?”; and “Have you turned Tinder back on?” Sometimes the last answer suffices for all three: “I never turned it off,” a newly single man once confessed.

Rebound sex may get a bad rap, but it happens for a reason — it’s exactly what you need after a breakup, an almost paint-by-numbers method for getting over your ex and back on your feet. (Or flat on your back.) “Even if it’s sort of superficial,” Queens College psychology professor Claudia Brumbaugh said of virtual-rebound flirtations, “you’re getting attention from numerous people, which is going to make you feel good about yourself and how desirable you are. That can increase your sense of well-being.” Brumbaugh is currently analyzing her third study on the psychology of rebounds. (Science’s need for replicable research seems to force academics into a state of perpetual intellectual rebound.) Her first study measured the self-­esteem and happiness of individuals within couples: After a split, the longer a subject had waited to date again, the worse he or she generally felt. And a study by the University of Toronto found that singles enjoyed a measurable drop in ex obsession when researchers manipulated them to believe new romantic partners were readily available. Subjects who could easily name people they’d next like to date dwelled less on their ex — the equivalent of browsing Tinder and, before you even go on a date, taking comfort in the knowledge that those possibilities exist.

Of course, actually going on the date means making yourself vulnerable to judgment, disappointment, and emotional entanglement when you need them least. Virtual rebounds, by contrast, are as low-risk and low-commitment as they come — you don’t even need to commit to eye contact. I first joined Tinder at my friend Holly’s behest, after a different breakup more than a year ago. “You don’t have to talk to anyone,” she advised. “Just look. You need to see what’s out there. There are so many people you haven’t met yet.” A few years earlier, she would have been forced to show up at my apartment, put me in a dress, and drag me out on the town to prove that point. But racking up matches on Tinder is even better than that, Holly argued in a Gchat. “Flirting in person isn’t fun at first, because you’re like MEN = PAIN. You forget that on the whole, they boost your ego and think you’re amazing.” Plus, online dating is a targeted strike: Everyone in a dating app is there to flirt. Everyone is looking for someone to call amazing.

Though virtual romances may be less gratifying than, you know, actual sex, they are optimized on-demand distraction and ludicrous idealization. It’s abstract enough to provide escapism, real enough to be engrossing. As thrilling as pure fantasy may be, there is no romantic thrill greater than spontaneous interactions with a person you desire who also desires you — even if you know the desire is fleeting or even staged. As my virtual rebound described increasingly intense sex acts that I may be physically incapable of performing, I joked that I had become a sort of magical apparition to him. “Sex genie,” he said. “Rub iPhone and a naked girl pops out,” I replied. By then he had sent half a dozen dick pics; his return to New York was imminent.

That magic-genie element is precisely what makes virtual rebounds so appealing — stimulation on demand, without any emotional investment or compromise. (That is, the things that made your breakup so painful.) When Brumbaugh asked her subjects to define “rebound relationship,” the word selfish came up a lot. Rebounders are thought to be motivated by their emotional baggage and not real connections with their new partners. “A lot of people think the new partner gets screwed over. Like the person choosing the new partner is using them for sex or whatever else.”

“Whatever else” may refer to emotional neediness or practical needs. (The boyfriend tall enough to change your lightbulbs; the girlfriend who knows the dirty talk you like to hear in bed. Pity the man who says “Tell me how big it is” and gets an earnest reply.) After a breakup, there is a communicative vacuum — who are you supposed to text with ten times a day? Even when we’re alone, our romantic partners are with us every time we reach for our phones, and just as a newly single person must train himself to stop reaching for the ghost of his partner on the other side of his bed, so, too, must he train himself to stop reaching for that name in his phone, email, instant messages, and texts. Often the easiest way is to redirect that energy: Earlier this year, Facebook’s Data Science team discovered that entering a relationship is associated with a steep decline in the frequency with which a user posts on Facebook — and the end of a relationship may have the opposite effect. “As soon as I feel rejected or something doesn’t work out, I reach for my phone for someone on the back burner,” another friend admitted. “It’s not flattering, but it is effective.” Still, she worries that the distraction hampers her ability to “be present and process grief over something ending. Or just notice that the guys I’m dating are individuals and not just, like, humans fulfilling my emotional needs.”

Lowering her voice, my pro-Tinder friend Holly told me about a man who, after a breakup, was so overwhelmed by the multitude of desirable, available women on OKCupid that he had a crisis of faith. “He was like, ‘They’re all so good, how can I choose?’” Since he was unable to reconcile his long-held belief in the One with the many desirable ones on the screen, the paradox of choice threw him into a romantic paralysis so severe he decided to stop dating entirely. “He wanted time to ‘work on himself.’” But this, too, was a sort of rebound. He was resetting his emotional attachments to make himself available to whatever joys, mysteries, thrills, and tragedies the future had in store. Crippling self-doubt can be part of that process.

As my interactions with the man who dumped me tapered, my sexting episodes with my virtual rebound expanded. One night, after a particularly lewd episode, I noticed my phone was hot to the touch. Scrolling back, I realized we’d been sexting for one and a half hours — enough time to have actually gone on a date. “Do you like that we’ve already moved on to textual pillow talk?” my sexting partner asked as he told me about his childhood. “It’s like a whole relationship cycle via text.” I wondered if it was time for a textual breakup. Which emoji best communicates “It’s not you, it’s me”?

*This article appears in the November 3, 2014 issue of New York Magazine.

The Virtual Rebound As Breakup Therapy