Sex With Your Ex: Is It Always A Bad Idea?
July 15, 2013 by Justin Lehmiller
Welcome to the wonderful world of ex sex. It’s hot, it’s naughty…oh yeah, and it’s a really stupid idea. – Cosmopolitan Magazine
Most articles I have seen on the topic of “ex-sex” (i.e., having sex with a former spouse or partner) categorize it as a universally stupid and unhealthy idea. The gist of these articles is that having sex with your ex can only make you feel worse because it will remind you of a failed relationship and make it harder for you to ever move on with your life. But is this true? Is ex-sex as psychologically damaging as the popular media suggests? Let’s take a look at what the research says.
In a recent study published in the Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, researchers examined a group of 137 adults who had recently divorced. On average, participants’ relationships had lasted 13 years and the separation occurred about four months prior to the study. All participants were asked whether they stayed in touch and/or had sexual relations with their partner since the breakup. Participants also completed a measure of psychological distress and reported on how accepting they were of the end of their marriage.
Results indicated that most participants (82.5%) remained in contact with their ex after the separation, and about one-fifth (21.9%) reported having ex-sex. So how did ex-sex relate to psychological distress? It depended upon how accepting the participant was of the breakup. Among those who were accepting of the breakup, there was no difference in psychological distress between those who had ex-sex and those who did not. Among those who were not accepting of the breakup, those who had ex-sex actually reported less psychological distress than those who had no sexual contact with their former partners.
These results tell us that ex-sex is common and that it doesn’t appear to be psychologically detrimental (at least based upon the measures used in this study). In fact, for people who are not quite over their relationship, ex-sex actually appeared to provide some psychological benefits. Why? Breakups can leave us with attachment needs that go unfulfilled, so perhaps sex with an ex helps to provide some sense of security and at least partial fulfillment of those needs.
Of course, this is not to suggest that ex-sex is always a good idea or that it never has any negative effects. It is important to keep in mind that this study only looked at psychological adjustment and did not consider whether ex-sex prevents or delays people from starting new relationships. If ex-sex ultimately makes it more difficult to let go of your former partner and start up with someone else, then it may not necessarily be worth it. More research on this topic is certainly warranted; however, these findings suggest that ex-sex may not be as psychologically unhealthy and problematic as some have made it out to be.
For more information on this study, please consult: Mason, A. E., Sbarra, D. A., Bryan, A. E., & Lee, L. A. (2012). Staying connected when coming apart: The psychological correlates of contact and sex with an ex-partner. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 31, 488-507.
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Dr. Justin LehmillerFounder & Owner of Sex and Psychology
Dr. Justin Lehmiller is a social psychologist and Research Fellow at The Kinsey Institute. He runs the Sex and Psychology blog and podcast and is author of the popular book Tell Me What You Want. Dr. Lehmiller is an award-winning educator, and a prolific researcher who has published more than 50 academic works.Read full bio >