Whether you’re thinking about doing it or already have, the prospect of sex with an ex can be an alluring Sliding Doors moment of wondering ‘what if?’ But is it ever a good idea? A clinical psychologist talks us through the pros, cons and grey areas.
This conundrum can be particularly potent if there are loose ends, unanswered questions or if simmering emotions remain.
Should you do it? Having sex with an ex can be tempting in a number of ways, but ultimately, the repercussions will vary from person to person, situation to situation. For some, moving on is easy. For others, much less so.
It’s important to think over the pro and cons before getting in bed with a former flame, so you’re prepared for all possible outcomes.
Why is it so tempting to have sex with an ex?
A 2020 study on the psychology of breakups uncovered three main reasons for having sex with an ex: relationship maintenance, ambivalence and hedonism. In other words, people who are trying to hold onto the relationship, those wondering whether it’s right or not to break up, and those who just enjoy the pleasure of the sex they used to have with their partner. If you haven’t yet found someone else, and this is easy, comfortable and familiar, you might think: why not?
This same study also showed, however, that men and women have break up sex for very different reasons. It states that for the most part, men tend to engage in break up sex for ambivalent and hedonistic reasons, while women are more likely to go back for reasons of relationship maintenance. That is, holding onto the nostalgia of their ex, even if the quality or value of the sex itself isn’t really there.
Does it mean you’ll get back together?
If one of you doesn’t want to break up, then ongoing sex could feel like a door is being kept open. However, this is emotionally risky. Without other signs of rekindling the relationship, you could start to feel used, even if you’re a willing participant.
You can test this by seeing how you feel if your ex starts dating others. That might be the moment you realise you’re stuck in limbo, rather than being on a path to getting back together.
Desire for connection, nostalgia, loneliness, and low self-esteem can be powerful drivers to have sex, but don’t say much about the quality of the sexual connection. They could lead to momentarily feeling better only to feel quite a lot worse later.
So, how can you differentiate between harmless fun with someone you have history, familiarity, and chemistry with, from a red-flag-covered-mistake waiting to happen?
The upside to sex with your ex
Temporarily rekindling a former flame can soothe any hard feelings you may have for the other person. Regardless of whether the relationship breakup was instigated by one person, or it was a mutual decision, there’s likely to be some sadness surrounding it. For some, the occasional and fun reconnection can ease the pain, reinforcing the warmth and fond feelings they had towards each other.
If the sex worked well between you and you haven’t yet moved on to anyone else, then calling on each other for sex might feel both safe and comfortable. If the breakup was amicable and mutually agreed upon, or in time comes to be, this could work to your mutual satisfaction.
Sex post-breakup might also change your view of why the relationship ended, showing that while that aspect worked well enough, you come to see why deeper involvement didn’t. This can mean the sex ultimately fizzles out too.
Sex can occur without a lot of emotional attachment, and that could be true for one of you at least – but this could be hurtful if the other person is still seeing it as more meaningful.
Engaging in sex after a relationship breakup can bring back the hurt and grief of the broken relationship, creating painful feelings of déjà vu. One person could be very vulnerable to being taken advantage of in these situations.
After a more involved relationship, a more casual sexual relationship can be very hard to negotiate. How often? When and where? Who gets to initiate? Is dating others part of the story? Does safe sex have to be rediscussed? And while some couples may reconcile after having sex, the odds are stacked against that probability.
Can sleeping with someone you cared about ever be healthy?
The reality is that post-relationship sex with an ex is often a band-aid solution that prevents people from completely moving on. Yes, it can be enjoyable. Yes, it can be fun and comforting and enable a sense of closure to something that most likely had elements of a wonderful connection.
However, much like breakups themselves, sex with an ex is very rarely clear-cut, and could be more about protecting one or both of you from the realities that the relationship is over.