Thinking About Having Sex With Your Ex?
Breakup sex can feel good—really good. And it makes sense: having sex with your ex after breaking up lets you reconnect with someone you miss and who you’re attracted to, and it comes with the added thrill of doing something torrid.
But often “one last time” opens a Pandora’s box that makes it more difficult to disentangle yourself from another person, said Natalia Juarez, a Toronto-based relationship coach. Even more likely: The person initiating the sex is hoping a romp (or three) between the sheets will drive them and their ex back together. When that doesn’t happen, the eager partner will likely fall into an even deeper despair.
“They’re using this so often as a bargaining tool and they’re in denial,” Juarez said. “They’re hoping the other person will change their mind, and they are compromising themselves. They’re going to be hurt by it. They’re going to feel a lower sense of self-worth. And they’ll often regret it.”
Breakup sex seems logical, but the science is less certain. Though pop culture has, at times, glorified a final frolic as the way to get closure, research into the behavior is nascent.
Jimmy Moran, an evolutionary social psychologist and fourth-year Ph.D candidate at Tulane University in New Orleans, was curious about what motivates people to have breakup sex and how it makes them feel. “One camp says it’ll [bring] you closer. The other camp says it’ll totally ruin your self-esteem,” Moran said. “Neither has scientific backing.”
In July, Moran published his findings in Evolutionary Psychology. “Men tend to feel a bit better about themselves when they have breakup sex, but women feel better about the relationship,” Moran said in summary of what he found through his research. Women were also more likely to feel bad about themselves after the encounters.
Breakup sex seems logical, but the science is less certain.
As to why people have sex with their ex, the top three reasons were “relationship maintenance, hedonism, and ambivalence”—in lay terms, they still had feelings for their former partners, were simply in pursuit of pleasure or weren’t entirely sure why. Moran was surprised that closure didn’t crack the list, but he argued that maybe those surveyed didn't actually find closure through these encounters. (One limitation of these findings: Nearly all of the study participants identified as heterosexual and were primarily white.)
Moran is working on another study that evaluates perceptions of closure from breakup sex; the results have not yet been published.
In 2018, researchers at Wayne State University, Western University and the University of Toronto Mississauga attempted to uncover whether pursuing sex with an ex impacted breakup recovery. In short, the answer is no. While there was an increased sense of emotional attachment between partners on days when they had sexual encounters, the findings also suggested “pursuing sex with an ex may actually have positive outcomes in terms of boosts to positive affect during an otherwise trying period of time.”
But wait before you send that ex sext: The researchers also noted that “those having more trouble letting go of their ex-partner are those most likely to seek out sexual contact,” lending credence to relationship coach Juarez’s opinion that breakup sex can be a ruse to reconnect—one that can leave the person seeking closeness even more confused.
So, as is often the case with relationship advice, it comes back to being cognizant of and staying true to how you feel. Juarez emphasized that both partners bear responsibility in these situations. The one pursuing sex to maintain closeness needs to be honest with him- or herself about why they’re seeking out their ex. To help decipher your motivations, a good question to ask yourself is: Are you OK with your former partner dating other people and potentially having sex with other people? And if you’re just looking for casual fun and are not interested in restarting the relationship, you should step up to help maintain healthy boundaries.
That way you can both move on—and have great sex with someone new.