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The Potential Perils of Staying in Touch With an Ex

The diagnosis: Not particularly healthy.

Key points

  • Thoughts about an ex-partner can be positive or negative, influenced in part by gender.
  • Contact with desirable "back burner" past relationships can create negative affect.
  • Continued in-person contact with an ex-spouse may create delayed emotional distress.
Foundry / Pixabay
Source: Foundry / Pixabay

Most people can relate to reminiscing about past romances. Many of us retain some level of contact with ex-partners, whether platonic, social, or professional. Some specifically view ex-flames as unfinished business, hoping to rekindle the spark. But when it comes to relationships, prolonged investment in relationships past can significantly complicate the present, through divided loyalties and divided attention.

And as a practical matter, is continued contact with a past paramour ever emotionally healthy to begin with? Research has some answers.

Positive Attitudes About Past Partners

Regarding contact with an ex-partner, thinking about them is the first step. Such thoughts can be positive or negative, influenced apparently in part by gender. Within heterosexual relationships, researchers (Ursula Athenstaedt et al., 2020) found that men tend to view their female ex-partners more favorably than women do their male exes.[i]

But the analysis heats up with actual contact.

Playing With Fire

John A. Banas et al. (2021) examined the dynamics of digital communication between ex-partners in a study aptly entitled “Simmering on the Back Burner or Playing with Fire?”[ii] They describe “back burners” as potential candidates for future romantic relationships. They studied a sample of noncollege adults involved in committed relationships to examine how a prior relationship with a desirable back burner impacted digital communication and sexual activity with back burners, as well as the negative affect of the study participant.

Banas et al. found that when a desirable back burner was also an ex, there was an increased amount of digital communication; that increased communication was associated with sexual activity with the back burner; and sexual activity was linked with participant negative affect. They further found that even without sexual activity, both increased communication and having an ex-partner as a “most-desired back burner” were linked with negative affect.

Why the negative thoughts? Banas et al. suggest that as compared with non-ex back burners, romantic past relationships may create rumination which produces negative memories. This might occur, for example, by reminding someone of the reason they ended the past relationship in the first place. Accordingly, particularly for those keeping an old flame alive out of fear of being single, contact with back burners can replace fear with other negative feelings.

Marital Separation and Continued Contact

Karey L. O’Hara et al. (2020) studied the impact of continuing contact with an ex-partner after marital separation on separation-related psychological distress (SRPD).[iii] Studying 122 recently divorced/separated adults, they found that more frequent in-person contact with an ex-partner led to a greater amount of SRPD two months later, separate from demographic and other relational variables. Contrary to expectations, however, they did not find in-person contact with an ex-partner to be a significant predictor of concurrent SRPD.

The bottom line appears to be that for many people, controlling for co-parenting and other relational entanglements, continuing contact with past partners is not a particularly healthy component of present relational functioning.

Facebook image: William Perugini/Shutterstock


[i] Athenstaedt, Ursula, Hilmar Brohmer, Jeffry A. Simpson, Sandra Müller, Nina Schindling, Adam Bacik, and Paul A. M. Van Lange. 2020. “Men View Their Ex-Partners More Favorably than Women Do.” Social Psychological and Personality Science 11 (4): 483–91. doi:10.1177/1948550619876633.

[ii] Banas, John A., Jayson L. Dibble, Elena Bessarabova, and Michelle Drouin. 2021. “Simmering on the Back Burner or Playing with Fire? Examining the Consequences of Back-Burner Digital Communication among Ex-Partners.” Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking, May. doi:10.1089/cyber.2020.0717.

[iii] O’Hara, Karey L., Austin M. Grinberg, Allison M. Tackman, Matthias R. Mehl, and David A. Sbarra. 2020. “Contact with an Ex-Partner Is Associated with Psychological Distress after Marital Separation.” Clinical Psychological Science 8 (3): 450–63. doi:10.1177/2167702620916454.