When you break up with someone for rational reasons (they cheated on you, you don’t have the same values, that sort of thing) rather than emotional ones, the desire to keep seeing each other and sleeping together can be really overwhelming. It doesn’t help that breakup sex is often pretty outstanding, given that the kind of angsty, desperate love-making that you have when you know you may never be physically intimate again definitely beats the well-I-guess-there’s-nothing-better-to-do sex that you have when you’re out of shows on Netflix.
But society tells us that this kind of behavior is extremely unhealthy for your emotion. And if you tell you’re friends you’re sleeping with your ex, they’ll probably react as though you’re a person struggling with drug addiction just looking to score another hit.
Now, a new study published in the Archives of Sexual Behavior says that, actually, having sex with an ex doesn’t hinder the moving-on process, even when one party continues to pine for the other one.
Researchers analyzed the daily experiences of 113 people who had recently experienced a breakup, then followed up with them two months later to find out whether or not they had had physical contact with their ex, how they felt the following day if they ended up sleeping together, and how emotionally attached they still were. In another experiment, they asked 372 people to report their attempts at having sex with an ex, as well as their levels of emotional attachment.
In both experiments, the researchers found, surprisingly, that engaging in physical intimacy left people feeling more positive in everyday life and did not seem to hinder their ability to move on from the relationship.
“This research suggests that societal handwringing regarding trying to have sex with an ex may not be warranted,”“The fact that sex with an ex is found to be most eagerly pursued by those having difficulty moving on suggests that we should perhaps instead more critically evaluate people’s motivations behind pursuing sex with an ex.”
It’s an important finding, as the study notes that “approximately 27 percent of young adults ages 17–24 reported having sex with an ex within the past 2 years,” which means it’s by no means uncommon. The study also admits that “feelings of sexual desire for the ex-partner may be even stronger during this post-breakup stage than they were when the relationship was intact, due to increased levels of relational uncertainty and perhaps reduced sexual access to the ex-partner.” But their conclusion, based on the studies, is “that sex with an ex does not necessarily hinder breakup recovery, and may, at times, even be beneficial.”
To be sure, the study has several limitations, most notably the fact that the findings are self-reported, so the participants could very well have been saying what they wanted to be true instead of how they felt deep down. However, it does ultimately note that “while the present research does not necessarily advocate for pursuing sex with an ex following the breakup—and indeed, we do not know what the longer-term implications could be of continued sexual pursuit of ex-partners, particularly once one or both partners seek out new relationships or among those who continue to pine after ex-partners for an extended period of time—there may in fact be some benefits to continued sexual pursuit in the short-term.”
Of course, it’s hard to generalize when it comes to sex. And at the end of the day, you need to be honest with yourself about how you feel. If sleeping with your ex leaves you feeling heartbroken and rejected, then there’s no reason to torture yourself. If, however, it gives you closure, then go forth unto the breach, dear friend.