Should You Hook Up With Your Ex?

New research suggests post-breakup intimacy might not be so bad after all.

Posted Oct 29, 2018

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I’ve never been a fan of those long, drawn out, "It’s complicated" type of relationships where your romantic status is murky at best and non-existent at worst. These situations, I’ve found, tend to emerge during the demise of a relationship — notably when one party still harbors feelings for the other.

In my experience, however, acting on these feelings can lead to treacherous consequences — “being unable to move on” being at the top of the list.

This is exactly what happened with one ex. After he ended our three-year relationship, we continued to be intimate (mostly at my urging) for almost two years. It was only when I learned he was enthusiastically pursuing other people that I realized that only one of us had actually moved on. While I thought sleeping together meant we were eventually getting back together, he clearly did not.

I still cringe when I think of how I behaved during those two years — referring to him as my boyfriend, organizing dates, making plans for our future. At one point, I went on a few dates with another guy, but ultimately ended things because I felt like I was cheating. . . on my ex.

Given the opportunity to relive that period, there is no doubt I would cut off communication with him the moment our relationship officially ended. How much time and energy I wasted trying to convince myself that we were getting back together. . .

This is all to say, hooking up with your ex does not help you move on—unless, apparently, you were one of the participants in a recent study published in the Archives of Sexual Behavior, which found that pursuing sex with an ex does not necessarily hinder a person’s recovery from a breakup.

Researchers at Wayne State University conducted two studies on participants of all ages and relationship types who had recently gone through a breakup. In the first, they surveyed 113 individuals on whether they had any physical contact with their former partners and how it made them feel afterward. For the second experiment, 372 participants self-reported their (attempted) sexual encounters and emotional attachment to their ex over the course of two months.

The results were unexpected: The majority of the participants who pursued physical intimacy did end up sleeping with their ex, “but this did not influence how someone managed to get over the end of their relationship.” Even those who were still pining after their former flames did not feel “distressed or depressed” after hooking up: “In fact, it left them feeling more positive in everyday life.”

Lead researcher Stephanie Spielmann concludes, "This research suggests that societal handwringing regarding trying to have sex with an ex may not be warranted.”

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Now, before we all rush to text “the one that got away,” here are a few things to consider:

  • Spielmann’s study only analyzes the first two months after a breakup. I would argue that this time period is the most vulnerable for the heartbroken — meaning individuals are far more likely to mistake physical intimacy for actual love. Of course, those who are pining for love would feel most “positive” about having sex with an ex. If the researchers checked back in on people who are still sleeping with their exes six months, nine months, or two years later, would the results still be the same?
  • Yo-yo-ing relationships are actually bad for your health. A recent study from the University of Missouri finds that “boomerang relationships” can cause depression and anxiety. Researchers analyzed 545 individuals in relationships and noted that those in on-again, off-again relationships also reported more abuse, less commitment, and poorer communication. While this scenario isn’t exactly apples-to-apples with regularly sleeping with an ex, it does wade into dangerous territory for someone who pines to get back with them.
  • The best way to get over a breakup is to see your ex partner in a negative light, according to a study published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology. By placing electrodes on an individual’s scalp, researchers were able to measure their emotional responses to an ex’s photo. The readings found that only seeing an ex unfavorably (e.g., thinking about an annoying habit or something that bothered them) led to a “decrease in feelings of love.” How healthy can it be to sleep with an ex, yet simultaneously think poorly of them?

While hooking up with an ex sounds tempting, it may not be the best solution to get over them. Still, only you know yourself best — and what will likely work or not work for you.

Struggling to get over an ex? Here are some more science-backed, human-tested tips.