When a couple decides to end their relationship, the result isn’t always a clean break. There’s often some degree of contact that persists and, sometimes, that includes sex. But what exactly are the psychological implications of continuing to have sex with a former partner? Is this necessarily a bad idea? Here’s a look at what the research has found.
In a 2012 study published in the Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, researchers examined a group of 137 adults who had recently gotten divorced. On average, participants had been married for 13 years, but separated about 4 months before the start of this study.
Participants were surveyed about whether they stayed in touch with their ex since the breakup occurred and also whether they’d had sex during this time. They were also asked to report on their current feelings of psychological distress, as well as how accepting they were of the fact that their marriage had ended.
The vast majority of participants (82.5%) remained in contact with their ex after the separation, and about one-fifth (21.9%) engaged in ex-sex. Thus, ex-sex seems to be a reasonably common phenomenon for recently-divorced folks.
So what were the psychological implications of ex-sex? That depended upon whether participants were accepting of the breakup or not. For those who had accepted it, reports of psychological distress did not differ between those who had ex-sex and those who did not.
However, among those who had not accepted the breakup, having ex-sex was actually linked to feeling less psychological distress. That’s right—for this group, ex-sex was linked to better outcomes, not worse.
These findings suggest that ex-sex isn’t detrimental, at least in terms of psychological well-being. In fact, for folks who aren’t quite over a divorce, it seems that ex-sex can potentially provide some psychological benefits. How so? Breakups leave us with unfulfilled attachment needs, so perhaps ex-sex is one way of at least partially fulfilling those needs.
This is not to suggest that ex-sex is always a good idea or that it can never have negative effects, though. For example, this study did not consider whether ex-sex prevents people from moving on and starting new relationships. To the extent that ex-sex makes it more difficult to let go of a former relationship and start something new, then it might not be worth it.
More research on this topic is warranted; however, these findings suggest that ex-sex is more common than you might think and that it’s not necessarily a bad thing for one’s psychological health.
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To learn more, see: 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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