Does sex with an ex make breaking up harder? A new study examines the old 'no contact' rule

Here's why that might be a myth, but why you'll want to check your motives anyway.

Here's why that might be a myth, but why you'll want to check your motives anyway

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Getting over an ex is never an easy task. No matter what the circumstances, it's always an adjustment to part ways with someone you have been physically and emotionally intimate with. In the quest to move on, many suggested strategies present themselves, from leaning into your feels to blocking all your ex's social media so you can forget them as soon as possible. One caution that seemed universally held was that you should never sleep with your ex — getting back into bed with your former flame would only complicate and prolong the already difficult breakup cycle. But a pair of new studies challenge what seemed like a no-brainer rule.

The research, from authors at Wayne State, Western and the University Of Toronto, aimed to dive into the minds of recently-single individuals and their breakup recovery, based on whether or not they hooked up with their exes. The first study consisted of 113 participants, ages 18 to 55, who completed an initial survey post-breakup, daily surveys for 27 days and then a two-month follow up, all serving to track their attempts at physical sexual contact with their exes as well as their emotional states in the recovery process. The second study of 372 participants was structured similarly, but tracked both attempts and actual engagement in sexual activity with ex partners.

The results of both studies suggested that pursuing (and having) sex with a former partner does not hinder or prolong the process of getting over them in both the short and long term. The majority of attempts did lead to actual sexual relations and while participants who wanted to have sex showed greater emotional attachment to their exes before having it — suggesting those who pursue ex-sex may initially have a hard time letting go — actually having ex-sex did not hinder moving on from the break up at all. No noticeable increase of intrusive thoughts, negative feelings or distress were detected. There was also no notable difference in breakup recovery experiences between those who just attempted to have, and those who actually had, ex-sex.  

Though the results are preliminary, they put the old "no contact rule" into question as a best practice for getting over a relationship. The researchers suggest the next steps would be to explore the motivations for pursuing ex-sex. For example, are individuals seeking closeness/sex/intimacy with that particular ex, or just in general? One possible theory is that pursuants are not seeking closure at all, so they don't experience any dissonance in engaging with their partners. A 2012 study revealed that those struggling with their divorces actually found emotional benefits in sleeping with their exes. Another 2018 study posited that the sudden time away from a former partner in the aftermath of a breakup increases their novelty and thus, your sexual interest in them.

While these studies offer some new insight into the complexities of the breakup process, there are endless dynamics that can make sexual reunions inadvisable. Therapist Dr. Mike Dow recommends going "love sober" for 30 days in order to dissolve the neurological bond your brain has formed and recently suggested other forms of replacement therapy to CBC Life as a means for providing the supply of chemicals our brains crave in the absence of an ex. So, if you're thinking of hooking after breaking up, you might want to take the researchers' follow up suggestions to a personal level and really examine your motivations in order to assess the risks involved for you and your former partner.


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