It’s a universally observed rule that having sex with an ex is not allowed. Though many of us have broken that rule once or twice (or a bunch of times) before, the general view on this topic is that falling back into bed with an old flame leads to complicated feelings, messy exchanges, and probably a whole lot of hurt too.
But while your friends and mine will advise strongly against this ex sex, experts on the matter have a different view. The opposite, in fact.
What does science tell us about sex with your ex?
In a study published in the Archives of Sexual Behaviour, researchers made an effort to establish why it is we all think having sex with an ex is definitively bad.
There’s no scientific evidence to verify our cultural belief that ex sex keeps you from getting over them or moving on to someone else. It’s just common sense. But common sense often doesn’t hold up to scientific inquiry.
The data actually comes from two different studies. In the first, they analysed the daily experiences of 113 participants who had each recently experienced a breakup. Then two months later, they had these same participants fill out an online survey asking if they attempted to have any “physical contact” with their exes. It also asked how emotionally attached they still felt towards that ex on a daily basis.
In the second study, they had 372 participants report their “actual and attempted sexual engagement” with their ex, and asked about their emotional attachment to them. They discovered that most people who tried to hook up with an ex succeeded (shocking). However, even those people who had sex with an ex seemed to recover from the end of the relationship as normal. In the meantime, sex made them feel generally more positive about life, even if it was with someone they’d broken up with.
“This research suggests that societal handwringing regarding trying to have sex with an ex may not be warranted,” said Spielmann, who believes that the findings challenge common beliefs.
“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.”
The results aren’t definitive, but the researchers think it’s a good glimpse into how people move on from breakups and their general mental health. It might make you feel better but maybe you’ll remember why you broke up in the first place if the sex is bad or the connection is gone. It might also award some people a sense of closure and a way to physically say goodbye.
Still, continually sleeping with someone you’re supposed to be done with may just extend the breaking-up period. That isn’t in the study, just a personal observation.
If you must indulge, be aware of when you’ve crossed the line back into dating again. Or when it’s distracting you from new, better people to have sex with. Sometimes the only way to move on is to actually move on.
This article has been updated since its original publish date.