Why sex with the ex may not always be a terrible idea

Sex with the ex may not always be a bad idea
Sex with the ex may not always be a bad idea Photo: SHUTTERSTOCK

Jumping back into bed with your ex after a break up is always a bad idea, right? Not necessarily, according to new research.

"Conventional wisdom suggests that people should avoid pursuing sexual activity with ex-partners following a breakup," the study authors write, adding that popular media outlets, blogs, and advice columns regularly offer this advice. " A common theme in these recommendations is that pursuing sex with an ex will make it more difficult to recover from a breakup."

But is this advice correct?

That's the question a group of researchers set out to explore in a paper published in the journal Archives of Sexual Behaviour, arguing that while sex with the ex does happen (one study put the figure up at 22 per cent), there's little research about the impact of jumping into bed with a former flame.

That said, researchers do have a theory around why it happens. Following a break up, they note, ex partners enter the "fiery limbo" stage of their relationship. Yep - that's the technical term: fiery limbo. In this stage a pair may continue to experience sexual desire for one another despite no longer being in a relationship. In fact, sexual desire may be stronger during this phase than it was during the relationship, "due to increased levels of relational uncertainty and perhaps reduced sexual access to the ex-partner." 

To explore this "fiery limbo", lead author Stephanie Spielmann of Wayne State University in the US and her colleagues conducted two different studies. In the first, researchers recruited 113 participants who had recently experienced a break up. On average, participants had broken up 8.55 days earlier, placing them in what the team called the "critical window of recovery".

Two months later, they answered questions about whether they had tried to have any physical contact with their former partners, how emotionally attached they still were, and how they felt after each day. In the second study, 372 participants reported on their actual and attempted sexual engagement with their ex-partner, as well as whether they were still emotionally tied to them.

And the results were surprising.

The team found no evidence that pursuing sex with an ex impacts recovery from a breakup. "In fact," they explain, "the results showed that for those experiencing a breakup, pursuing sex with an ex may actually have positive outcomes in terms of boosts to positive affect during an otherwise trying period of time." Pursuing sex with an ex was not associated with negative emotions or intrusive thoughts and those having more trouble letting go were most likely to seek out sexual contact.

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While the authors acknowledge that the findings are preliminary, they believe they have important implications.

"This research suggests that societal handwringing regarding trying to have sex with an ex may not be warranted," says Ms Spielmann. "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."

Couples therapist and Sexologist Isiah McKimmie, agrees that having ex-sex isn't always a bad idea. "We've often shared a lot with someone and can still have feelings of love for them," she says. "Sometimes having sex with an ex can be a way of reminding each other how much you meant to each other and ending on good terms."

Ms McKimmie adds that we all have sexual needs and in the "break up limbo stage",  we may still want to have these needs met, but not be ready to move on to someone new. 

When making a decision however, Ms McKimmie notes that one thing is key: "It is important for it to feel okay for you - and that it isn't stirring up difficult emotions," she says. In addition, it's crucial that both parties are on the same page and "understand what it means".

But jumping back into bed with your ex won't always be the right thing to do.

"It becomes problematic if one partner is still hoping to continue the relationship and may be engaging in sex for that reason," Ms Mckimmie says, adding that she would not recommend sex after a breakup in situations where there has been abuse or manipulation, "as it may maintain unhealthy attachments".