It’s hard to let go of a lover. We fall hard, break up, and get lonely — and then comes the ex-sex. It starts with the old flame texting, “What are you up to tonight?” or an alcohol-fueled message that reads, “I miss you.” Before we know it, we’re naked in bed, unofficially rekindled with our ex. Old habits, especially in the bedroom, die hard.
“Going back to an ex is a forever phenomenon,” relationship expert Audrey Hope told Medical Daily. “You don’t have to be in the same room with a former lover or spouse to still feel the bonding.”
We may miss our partner, especially if the relationship was a long one. The decision to initiate intimacy depends on our motives: Both parties have to ask what they really want from sex, and how it may affect them.
Sex with an ex comes with plenty of risks, but can it bring back old romance for good? Can it help past intimate partners unite, and be more in love than they once were? Can you have sex one last time (or a few more times), or should that fantasy stay in your head, and out of your bedroom?
Sex After A Breakup: “It’s Complicated”
We all have exes who make us feel repulsive, even when they’re not there. Then there are the ones we remember fondly. Getting back together with an ex isn’t easy; after all, we broke up for a reason. Yet a majority of us do, even if it’s just for one night.
In the movie It’s Complicated, divorcees, played by Meryl Streep and Alec Baldwin, begin to have an affair after seeing each other at their son’s graduation. The two engage in copious ex-sex, but try to keep it secret from their kids and significant others. Eventually, everyone finds out, including the kids, who are not happy about their parents getting back together because they’re still recovering from the divorce. Streep and Baldwin’s characters agree to end the affair amicably, suggesting they got the physical closure they needed to finally move on.
April Masini, relationship expert and author, suggests sometimes sex is closure.
“People tend to be able to feel that what needed to be expressed, and wasn’t in words, was in sex with an ex,” she told Medical Daily.
A 2012 study in the Journal of Family Issues found ex-sex among divorcees is a way to offset the feeling of distance from an ex, and have a more gradual emotional breakup after a harsh and abrupt split. Researchers at the University of Arizona analyzed a group of 137 recently divorced adults, and asked how many had “breakup sex” after they signed their divorce papers. Most divorcees (82.5 percent) kept in touch with their ex after the separation, and about one-fifth (21.9 percent) had sex. Partners who hadn’t accepted the breakup found sex to help lessen the pain of divorce, or psychological distress.
Relationship experts believe breakups can leave us with attachment needs that are unfulfilled after the relationship, and in this case, it’s sex. Patrick Wanis, human behavior and relationship expert, says people may be drawn to having sex with someone from the past because it’s safe, or perceived to be safe.
“This person is familiar. Familiarity can create security,” he told Medical Daily.
Our attempts at romantic reconciliation are linked to lingering feelings: Some partners are uncertain if there’s been a clear split; others don’t enjoy their new single status.
These on-again off-again relationships occur when couples think they have a chance of fixing what went wrong. Similarly, people who mourn the ending of a relationship feel there is hope when they have sex with an ex.
A 2013 study in the Journal of Adolescent Research found two relationship patterns common among older teenagers (ages 17 to 24): reconciliation with an ex, or breaking up and getting back together, and ex-sex. About half of these teenagers who had been in a romantic relationship for the past two years had at least one reconciliation with an ex, and over half of this group reported ex-sex.
The researchers emphasize the possible implications of reconciliations with our past, such as cycling through relationship formation, where there appears to be no clear end. In addition, ex-sex can be problematic if former partners have difficulty moving on from an old relationship, or showing intimacy in new relationships.
“Ex-sex continues the relationship on a different plane and leaves the door to reconciliation open,” says Masini, which is exactly the outcome many hope for.
Feelings of loneliness start to surface after a breakup. We may not feel fully equipped to handle being single. However, we see ex-sex as a way to feel connected, and even hopeful about the situation.
Robert Weiss, digital-age intimacy and relationship expert, and author of “Out of the Doghouse: A Step-by-Step Relationship Saving Guide for Men Caught Cheating,” believes some of us might return to sex with our ex because we think being with that person will take our loneliness away, temporarily.
“Your longing for connection, physical touch, and sexual contact could also lead to ex-sex,” he told Medical Daily.
He added: When you’re “feeling less-than, meaning that when you’re alone and particularly needful, you can easily imagine that no one else is ever going to come along, so maybe you’d better take what I can get.”
A 2013 study in the journal Archives of Sexual Behavior found people have rebound sex to cope with a breakup. Researchers at the University of Missouri noted undergraduates tend to use sex as a way to deal with distress, or get back at their ex immediately following the breakup. In other words, the probability of having sex right after the end of a relationship is higher.
People “on the rebound” are emotionally vulnerable due to feelings of distress, anger, and loss and lowered self-esteem linked to a breakup with a former partner. Therefore, they’re more likely to either seek attention from their ex, or try to find it in other ways, like having sex with new partners over time. Couples who choose to be sexual for a while after calling it quits find this creates a slower, less painful slide into relationship closure. However, Weiss warns the opposite can also occur, with continued sex leading to more pain and/or a tougher time moving on.
Why Ex-Sex Feels So Good
Most of us know revisiting our relationship past isn’t always a good idea. Sex with our ex is something everyone warns us about, yet a few texts, dinner, and drinks later, we’re unable to resist the carnal temptation. We are overwhelmed by the surge of endorphins released during sex, which is what stimulates good feelings throughout the body.
Neuroscientists at Northwestern University suggest orgasms feel so good because sexual stimulation sends the brain into an altered state of consciousness; it blocks everything else, and allows us to solely focus on the sensation. Sex releases neurochemicals that forge emotions, feelings of attachment, and even love, according to Psychology Today. The level of pleasure we feel is connected to the release of the chemicals, which can be used to measure the intensity of our orgasm.
Oxytocin, a hormone secreted by the pituitary gland which also acts as a neurochemical in the brain, promotes bonding.
During sex, “oxytocin will be released; this will make you feel much more connected, and create a bond,” said Wanis.
Ex-Sex: Who’s Likely To Do It More
Women produce more oxytocin than men (although it’s not clear why), which increases their sensitivity to the “feel good” effects of ex-sex. This means they’re more likely to let their guard down, and develop strong emotions after sex than men.
Wanis suggests, “women may be more attracted to sex in the past if they think, ‘hey I feel very safe here, I want love, I need love, I need nurturing, and this man doesn’t want anything else from me.’”
This need to be held, and to have another human body next to them, could be brought on by a woman’s natural surge of bonding via oxytocin. A 2015 survey by sex toy company Adam and Eve found about half of 1,000 participants admitted to sleeping with someone post-breakup, with more than half of those who had ex-sex being women. This suggests ex-sex is more common among women, but also risky when women go into it with unrealistic expectations.
Meanwhile, when a man has an orgasm, he releases the pleasure hormone dopamine. This makes it more likely he will focus on the pleasure aspect of “ex-sex” than closure, reconciliation, or loneliness.
“Men may be more allured to sex with an ex if they believe if it’s just going to be sex, and not rekindle the whole relationship,” according to Wanis.
Is It Ever OK To Have Ex-Sex?
Getting back with our ex for a quick rendezvous in the boudoir may sound enticing, but it’s risky. In most cases, this can delay the inevitable ending, and even impede us from trying to form new, healthy relationships. We have to be considerate, and ask ourselves how it will affect the other person. Are we helping ourselves and hurting them?
“It could be dangerous to see your ex if you do not discuss what the hell is going on,” said Hope.
She added: “Speak up and be clear, and then you are in a safe zone.”
A 2009 study in the journal Personal Relationships found partners who stay broken up were more likely to report greater clarity in their lives than those who hook up with their exes. The researchers at Kansas State University noted couples in a cyclical relationship tended to be more impulsive about relationship shifts, like moving in together, buying a pet together, or having children together, compared to their counterparts.
These couples were also less satisfied with their partner, had poor communication, were more likely to make decisions that negatively impacted the relationship, had lower self-esteem, and a higher uncertainty about a future with their partner. Because these pairs are not making commitments to the relationship, they’re less likely to show pro-relationship behaviors, the theory goes. In other words, cyclical couples tend to be more ambiguous about the end of their relationship when they break up because they have trouble with clarity in general.
“We tend to go to the past because we tend to think of the past as being better because it’s already written. We know how it happened, we know what happened, and how it ended. We believe it’s certain; we think we’ll gain stability or intimacy,” said Wanis.
If we’re going to visit the past, we should be very careful. We’re not going to change it, and rewrite it to be something new, according to Wanis. But, if we can’t seem to move on, or stop thinking and talking about our ex, it seems like we need closure.
Hope advises we should take the precious time to heal ourselves, and know what we want, and hope for in the relationship.
“Be alone and let the time heal and enlighten you,” she said.
The right time is when we’re mentally and emotionally stable, and both people are still interested in each other. We have to make sure we go back for the right reasons — we love them, and can’t think of going through life without them. We have to remind ourselves to listen and learn how to have a new beginning.
Just remember, not everyone deserves a second chance. If we’re able to walk away from something toxic, it’s okay to blast Taylor Swift, and sing to our ex: “We are never ever ever getting back together.”