The Emotional Impact of Having Sex With an Ex Isn't Always Bad
Hookups between former partners are surprisingly common, according to a new study.
Conventional wisdom says that you shouldn’t have sex with your ex. Article after article argues that it's a bad idea—not only will it make it harder for you to move on, these stories argue, but it can also be emotionally exhausting and traumatizing. Is that really the case, though? Maybe not, according to new research on the subject, which suggests that ex-sex might actually help us more than it hurts.
Before we get into the effects of having sex with an ex, it may surprise you to learn that this behavior is actually quite common. A study of married adults who were recently separated, for example, found that nearly one-quarter of people reported having sex with their ex-spouse. Other studies have found that rates of ex-sex are even higher among young adults who have recently ended non-marital relationships.
In terms of effects, a preliminary study published in 2012 of 137 separated partners found that ex-sex did not appear to be psychologically damaging. In fact, regardless of whether people had accepted the breakup, ex-sex was not linked to higher rates of psychological distress. Among those who hadn’t yet accepted the breakup, having ex-sex was actually linked to reports of lower—not higher—distress.
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A new set of studies builds on these results and finds further support for the idea that ex-sex isn’t inherently traumatizing. One study focused on data from 113 people aged 18 to 55, all of whom began the study while they were still in a relationship. The researchers followed-up with participants weekly and, among those who eventually experienced a breakup, they were invited to complete a couple of surveys about their experiences. This involved reporting on the sexual activities they might have engaged in with their ex, their current emotional state, how attached they felt to their ex, and how distressed they felt about the breakup itself.
Approximately one-quarter of participants (24.8 percent) reporting pursuing ex-sex at some point. Perhaps not surprisingly, those who pursued ex-sex felt more emotionally attached to their exes; importantly, however, ex-sex was not linked to feeling more distressed about the breakup. In fact, pursuing ex-sex actually appeared more beneficial than harmful—people reported more positive than negative emotions on days they pursued ex-sex. Furthermore, having ex-sex on one day did not predict reporting more distress the following day. Also, ex-sex neither helped nor hindered the process of emotionally decoupling from an ex.
As you might expect, those who were most likely to seek out ex-sex were the ones who reported the most trouble getting over their relationships. But even so, it didn’t seem to have negative effects on them.
A second study, which consisted of 372 people between the ages of 18 and 65, was very narrow in scope and looked primarily at whether people who pursued ex-sex were successful. Whenever people tried to initiate sex with an ex, it worked more often than not. Indeed, nearly 9 in 10 times that people pursued ex-sex, they ended up having it.
The results of these studies are limited in that they don’t tell us why people pursue ex-sex in the first place. People might want to have sex with an ex for any number of reasons, including sexual gratification, comfort and security, emotional closure, or because they secretly (or not so secretly) want to woo their ex back. We need more research to know which reasons are more or less common and, further, whether different reasons might be linked to different outcomes.
That said, these findings are important for several reasons: For one thing, they tell us that breakups aren’t always neat and clean and that it’s not uncommon for ex-partners to have some type of sexual relationship afterwards. More importantly, these studies challenge the popular notion that ex-sex is something that should necessarily be avoided, given that there was no clear evidence of psychological harm. If anything, ex-sex seemed to be linked to benefits more often than not.
This is not to suggest that ex-sex is always a good idea or that it can never have negative effects. People’s experiences with ex-sex may vary due to their own unique personalities and relationship histories, which means it’s quite possible that some people may benefit more than others.
Justin Lehmiller is a research fellow at The Kinsey Institute and author of the blog Sex and Psychology. His latest book is Tell Me What You Want: The Science of Sexual Desire and How It Can Help You Improve Your Sex Life. Follow him on Twitter @JustinLehmiller or Instagram @JustinJLehmiller.
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