“Dating an ex is the equivalent of failing a test you already had the answers to.” —Kendrick Cole
“Failed relationships can be described as so much wasted make-up.” —Marian Keyes
Searching for your ex-lover is easier these days than ever before. Should this search be encouraged? The answer is different for the short and long term.
The impact of the past on our romantic life is expressed in the search to reignite a relationship with a past lover. Thus, research has found that nearly half of adult daters and cohabiters report a reconciliation (a breakup followed by reunion), and over half of those who break up continue their sexual relationship together (Halpern-Meekin et al., 2013).
The lure of sex with an ex depends on many factors. Here, I’ll consider timing.
Sex with an ex in the post-breakup stage
“All discarded lovers should be given a second chance, but with somebody else.” —Mae West
“I feel so miserable without you; it’s almost like having you here.” —Stephen Bishop
Romantic breakups are typically traumatic. The potential harm of pursuing sex with an ex for a breakup recovery is legendary. As the reasoning goes, sexual activities promote closeness, and such sex sends contradictory signals that may hinder the acceptance of the breakup.
However, sex with an ex may have another result—a feeling that despite the breakup, the partners still have warm, sexual attitudes toward each other. As one woman said, “I continued having sex with my ex-husband after our divorce, and while none had another partner. We both knew that it would not lead to remarriage, but the pleasant sex helped us realize that we are not enemies.”
Viewing a breakup from this perspective can reduce some of its negative aspects, and, hence, not harm breakup recovery.
Stephanie Spielmann and colleagues (2019) found that sex with an ex is typically not associated with the negative aspects of breakup recovery, such as distress, intrusive thoughts, and negative affect. It seems that, in the short, post-breakup stage, having sex with your ex is not injurious to your well-being.
Ex-partners can continue to experience sexual desire toward each other, which may even be stronger than that which prevailed when the relationship was intact, due to an increased level of uncertainty and greater levels of excitement and novelty following time apart (Birnbaum, 2018).
The main concern in the post-breakup stage is coping with the pain of separation and rejection. Indeed, sex with an ex is most eagerly pursued by those having difficulty moving on (Spielmann, et al., 2019).
Here are a few random answers that men provided concerning the value of having sex with their ex (AskReddit):
- “It honestly just made everything worse. Do not recommend.”
- “Made me realize that my ex should just stay my ex. Don’t need to add anything onto it.”
- “I have sex with every ex, except one. It made me realize that I didn't miss them, I missed the sex. We break up for a reason; sex is why we stayed together as long as we did.”
- “The only difficult part of having sex with my ex, which I do every weekend, is that I don’t want to go out and look for a new lover because of how much I love my ex’s body.”
In the post-breakup stage of a relationship, maintaining one’s self-esteem is paramount. Sex with an ex can facilitate this healthy stance by enhancing the feeling that the breakup has more to do with incompatibility than inferiority.
The value of sex with an ex in the post-breakup stage depends, then, on timing and frequency. If such sex takes place regularly, the relation becomes an ongoing one, quite different from the intended expectation of (at least) one of the partners.
Yearning for sex with an ex
“You're still my person, even if I'm not yours.” —Grey's Anatomy
“I am very discreet. The only reason I told my ex-lover about my current lover is that I wanted him to see that his chances are zero (at the moment). I am not sure it has worked.” —A married woman
In the long term, the main concern of an ex-partner is not a previous breakup, but rather one’s current relationship. Here, sex with an ex often has a negative impact on one’s current relationship.
Indeed, the decline in relationship quality with one’s current partner promotes increased emotional attachment to an ex-partner (Spielmann, et al., 2019). Sex with the ex in the post-breakup stage is taken more lightly, as reminiscences of the immediate past.
Sex with the ex in the long term often takes place when at least one of the partners is in a different relationship; the sex here has a greater, typically negative, impact on this relationship.
The appeal of the ex-lover, which reflects considerable instability and uncertainty in adult, intimate relationships, has a substantial effect on increasing romantic compromises. The current partner might be considered as a romantic compromise not merely because of future available opportunities, but also because the romantic past, which is highly emotional, is not dead—as it is possible to revive old loves. The ability to be happy with your romantic lot becomes more complex with every touch of the screen.
The renewed searches for past lovers are driven by two factors, a substantial one and a technical one. The substantial factor relates to the value of nostalgia, of which idealization of the past is an essential element. The technical factor is that the information superhighway has made it rather simple to track down ex-lovers.
Nostalgia is a wistful, sentimental longing for the past, often in an idealized form. The term “nostalgia” also has a medical meaning, referring to a form of melancholy. Nostalgia often embroiders upon “the good old days,” which become idealized in the current circumstances.
It is a longing for circumstances that no longer exist or might never have existed. Nostalgia is a bittersweet longing that combines the pleasurable feeling of the past with the pain of the experience that is now absent. Its content is very positive, but its absence, in reality, generates pain.
The idealization of the past has two opposing consequences. On the one hand, we might feel like we are in an inferior situation compared to our previous one, and idealizing it can leave us feeling sad. On the other hand, we might feel that we have done something meaningful in our life, and this puts us in a better situation.
Ex-lovers are popular search subjects these days on the internet and social networks. In a sense, many ex-lovers never disappear from view. It is hard to forget your ex-lover when he or she is visible on your screen. Indeed, many people have tried to locate an ex-lover in the hopes of rekindling their romantic sentiments.
From the distance of time, our memory can enhance our love for our exes, making the relationship seem better than it probably was. We thus feel justified in our romantic search and optimistic about its success. Being familiar with the person for whom we are searching gives the search greater legitimacy and provides us with a kind of cushion in case our current relationship should fail. However, this cushion often prevents us from being happy with the love we already have.
The idealization of the past and the comfort of approaching a familiar person make the notion of reconnecting with previous lovers appealing. Nevertheless, after the excitement of reunion, the past difficulties can resurface. Change comes hard to us, and the flaws of the past are likely to reemerge in the future.
It seems that if the two people were just friends in their youth, the chances of them engaging in a successful romantic relationship in the present are greater. If they shared a committed, romantic relationship and separated after not being able to make it work, either because of a lack of love or personal incompatibility, the likelihood that they will succeed this time is small.
Nonetheless, being older and having gained further romantic experience might change the present circumstances to the extent that a renewed relationship with someone from the past proves more successful than before. Sometimes, the failure of the past relationship was not due to lack of love or to incompatibility, but to external circumstances that no longer exist.
People find it easier to have a sexual relationship with an ex-lover than with someone new, as familiarity and shared history facilitate such activity. In addition, given their previous sexual intimacy, they might perceive it as a more legitimate activity and a lesser sin.
In this sense, ex-lovers do indeed constitute a threat and thus often generate greater romantic jealousy in a current partner than someone new on the scene. Reviving past romantic experiences can have a devastating effect on our current relationships.
Sometimes, sex with an ex aims for pleasant closure for what has been, to thank each other for the love that was—but to indicate that the relationship has reached its end, not necessarily because love has ended, but because the love is inappropriate now. This leaves the door open for friendship, but closes it to more intimate, sexual interactions, while not ghosting each other.
“Never get jealous when you see your ex with someone else because our parents taught us to give our used toys to the less fortunate.” —Unknown
“It may seem like the hardest thing in the world, but you have to forget the guy who forgot about you.” —The Notebook
We do have an obligation not to forget various meaningful, negative events. Do we have the same obligation concerning our previous lovers? We should not try to erase them altogether if we had pleasant and meaningful experiences with them that shaped who we are.
When it comes to knowing what to do with these pleasant memories, things get messier. Trying to use them to revive previous love often fails and generates problems in our current relationship.
We do not need to completely forget the past, upon which much of our personalities have been built, but we can establish a thrilling present and future without being immersed in the mud of the past. Past time can be treasured without having direct implications on the present. Not everything that we cherish from the remove of time ought to be touched today.
This post is partly based on my new book, The Arc of Love: How Our Romantic Lives Change over Time (2019).
Ben-Ze’ev, A. (2019). The Arc of Love: How Our Romantic Lives Change over Time. University of Chicago Press.
Birnbaum, G. E. (2018). The fragile spell of desire: A functional perspective on changes in sexual desire across relationship development. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 22, 101–127
Halpern-Meekin, S. Manning, W. D., Giordano, P. C., & Longmore, M. A. (2013). Relationship churning in emerging adulthood: On/Off relationships and sex with an ex. Journal of Adolescent Research, 28, 166-188.
Spielmann, S. S., Joel, S., & Impett, E. A. (2019). Pursuing Sex with an Ex: Does It Hinder Breakup Recovery? Archives of sexual behavior, 48, 691-702.