When You’re Most Likely to Long for Sex With Your Ex
Social distance may spur feelings of sexual nostalgia for previous partners.
Posted Aug 28, 2020 | Reviewed by Devon Frye
Reminiscing about previous positive sexual encounters with ex-partners is called sexual nostalgia (Muise et al., 2020). As we navigate through a long-lasting pandemic which may cause feelings of social isolation, we may find ourselves more likely to feel sexual nostalgia for our past relationship partners. According to the authors, “feelings of social disconnection and loneliness” can trigger nostalgic thoughts about our ex-partners. Those nostalgic thoughts and feelings may help to “restore positive self-perceptions in response to social threats or disconnection.” Below I review some of the factors which influence our feelings of sexual nostalgia for an ex-partner.
Loneliness or an Unfulfilling Relationship
In the research project conducted by Muise et al. (2020), participants of diverse sexual orientations (although the majority were heterosexual) responded to surveys conducted as part of three different studies which involved either one or both members of couples and took place either at one time point or over a period of four weeks. The respondents noted that they felt more sexual nostalgia when they felt lonely or when they were unsatisfied with their current relationships. Individuals who rated their relationships as lower-quality or who reported reduced sexual satisfaction also felt more sexual nostalgia. People who indicated that they were single rather than in a current relationship were also more likely to say they felt sexually nostalgic for an ex-partner.
Our attachment styles may influence our likelihood of feeling sexually nostalgic for an ex-partner as well. Attachment styles can be conceptualized along the dimensions of anxiety and avoidance. In secure relationships, individuals experience low levels of both anxiety and avoidance. In insecure relationships, either attachment anxiety, attachment avoidance, or both may be high. In the current study, the authors found that attachment avoidance was linked with feelings of sexual nostalgia in a complex fashion.
Although individuals with high attachment avoidance felt sexual nostalgia for their exes, high avoidance was not linked to the tendency to feel sexual nostalgia in response to loneliness or relationship dissatisfaction. Avoidant individuals seemed to feel sexual nostalgia regardless of their levels of loneliness or relationship dissatisfaction. However, people low in avoidance, or open to emotional closeness, reported stronger feelings of sexual nostalgia when they were less sexually or emotionally satisfied with their current relationships.
The authors suggest that people high in avoidance may not view relationship partners as responsive to their needs and therefore may not draw on past relationship experiences when feeling unfulfilled. Furthermore, the authors noted that avoidant individuals “draw on sexual nostalgia even when they are satisfied in a current relationship, possibly suggesting a more chronic need to distance themselves from closeness and intimacy in relationships.” People low in avoidance (or comfortable with closeness), however, “did not draw on sexual nostalgia, possibly as a cognitive strategy to avoid reflecting on alternatives to their current relationship.”
Effects of Sexual Nostalgia
Although nostalgia may help to restore self-esteem and positive self-perceptions, ruminating about past sexual partners on a regular basis may have detrimental effects over the long-term. According to the authors “sexual nostalgia occurs in response to unmet sexual or relational needs, but it is also possible that sexual nostalgia might lead to feeling dissatisfied or unfulfilled” in our relationships, noting that “declines in satisfaction over time were linked to longing for an ex-partner but also, that longing for an ex-partner detracted from satisfaction in a current relationship.” Indulging in feelings of sexual nostalgia over the long-term may reflect a circular cycle which may damage our close relationships over time.
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Muise, A., Kim, J. J., Debrot, A., Impett, E. A., & MacDonald, G. (2020). Sexual nostalgia as a response to unmet sexual and relational needs: The role of attachment avoidance. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 0146167220907468. https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0146167220907468