Are There Benefits To Sleeping With Your Ex?
Kelly Gonsalves is a sex educator, relationship coach, and journalist. She received her journalism degree from Northwestern University, and her writings on sex, relationships, identity, and wellness have appeared at The Cut, Vice, Teen Vogue, Cosmopolitan, and elsewhere.
Let's talk about ex sex.
Many of us have been there, and if you haven't, a friend certainly has. The feelings associated are usually quite a whirlwind: satisfaction (this felt good), familiarity (this felt right), confusion (what does this mean?), embarrassment (how could I let this happen?), guilt (wow, this was a bad idea), and depending on the exact circumstances, either a little bit of extra misery (why can't we be together?) or a cautious bit of optimism (maybe we can).
Anyone with a good head on their shoulders can understand why sleeping with a former partner sounds like a pretty bad idea—clearly it can clog up the moving-on process, it can stir up painful memories and longing for something that's gone, or worst of all, it can give one of the parties false hope for a reunion that's not shared by the other. There's so much risk for further heartache that most sensible people instinctively advise against these encounters, and when they happen, the instinct is to look down on them.
But a new study on these forbidden affairs suggests we might be overthinking them. They might even, in fact, have some benefits for people recovering from a breakup.
Researchers asked 113 people who'd just split up with their partner to keep a daily diary about their feelings and actions toward their ex for nearly a month following the breakup. They reported their emotional attachment to their ex, their amount of distress related to the breakup, intrusive thoughts about the past relationship during the day, general negative and positive emotions, and any contact they'd had with their ex. A month later, after this part of the experiment, the researchers checked up on the participants one more time to ask how emotionally attached they still felt to their ex, who they'd broken up with at least two months ago by then.
The results? People who'd slept with their exes did report being more emotionally attached to them, but that attachment had no relationship to the amount of breakup distress, intrusive thoughts, or negative emotions they had daily. On the day-to-day and after two months, having had sex with their ex had no meaningful effect on their overall breakup recovery. In fact, these people actually saw a bump in positive emotions in the days following the sexual episode.
The study wasn't designed to explain what's motivating people to get intimate with their former partners, nor could it directly say why people felt good after doing it. People who still yearned for their former partners were the most likely to attempt to have sex with their exes, suggesting the desire to feel close and connected again might be at the heart of their actions. The study authors had hypothesized that the need for connection might clash with their simultaneous need for closure to the relationship—another possible reason for wanting a post-breakup tryst. But considering the findings, it's possible that these two needs are not simultaneously being pursued for any given sexual encounter.
"Or perhaps [people] do not experience conflict between them," the authors write. "Perhaps those who opt to pursue sex with an ex are less motivated to obtain closure regarding the breakup and thus do not experience conflict with goals for connection. For these individuals, satisfying connectedness goals by pursuing sexual activity with an ex-partner may be a globally positive experience."
One former study conducted in 2012 might support this hypothesis: Researchers found that recently divorced people having the most difficulty accepting the end of their marriage showed better "psychological adjustment" when they kept having sex with their former spouse, compared to those who didn't. And for those divorcees who were able to accept the split more easily, there wasn't any difference between those sleeping with their ex-spouse and those who weren't as far as how well they were adjusting to post-divorce life.
So does that mean sleeping with your exes is actually good for you? The authors of the present study don't go so far as to say that, but they do believe these findings call into question a lot of the squeamish discomfort and judgment many people have around ex sex.
The take-away might simply be this: Life happens. The heart has desires, and trying to dictate what you "should" desire is a pretty fruitless endeavor. People who end up sleeping with a former partner don't need to panic or let themselves be consumed with shame—and they definitely don't need to assume this means they won't be able to move on properly now.
Exercising self-awareness and mindfulness can help us navigate these tricky breakup situations: Figure out why you're sleeping with your ex, and get radically honest with yourself about whether your needs will actually be met this way. Don't judge whatever the answer is. And just make sure you're also elevating compassion toward your former lover, now more than ever. Will this encounter serve them and their needs as well? Act with kindness in all circumstances—both to them and to yourself.
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