Should You Have Sex With an Ex? Here’s What Happened When Real Women Did It
Sometimes, it’s okay to sleep with your ex—as long as you know what you’re getting into.
May 23, 2020
Having sex with an ex can seem like a huge decision or just another weekend, depending on your situation. While well-meaning friends might urge you to never sleep with an ex, one 2018 study in the journal Archives of Sexual Behavior suggests that it doesn’t actually hinder your ability to move on (though very little research has been done on the topic otherwise).
Regardless of how it might go, you’re not alone if you’re considering a tempting offer right now. Out of 1,000 adults, 44% admitted they’d slept with an ex, per a 2015 survey by the sex toy company Adam & Eve.
“In an honest scenario with clear boundaries and communication, sex with an ex can be safe, satisfying, and may provide some closure,” says Marcela Coto, a sexuality coach and founder of Los Angeles Sex Therapy Centers. That said, there are still risks to consider before you go for it. Even if you both have the best intentions, having sex could open up old wounds or surprise you when you feel more attached to them than you thought you would, especially if you cuddle up together afterward (you can blame the hormone oxytocin for that).
So, should you take the plunge? Read on for five common reasons people go back to their ex and what could happen after a hookup, with insight from relationship psychologists and real women who did it.
1. The sex was awesome.
“If you’re missing the best sex you ever had, that can be difficult to give up, and you don’t need to have common interests or goals in life for a hookup to be pleasurable,” says Teresa Johnson, Ph.D., a licensed psychologist and certified sex therapist based in Portsmouth, NH.
Before you dive in, though, ask yourself: Would you and your ex be satisfied with no-strings-attached-sex at this point, or would one of you have to compromise too much to give the other person what they want? Are the reasons for your breakup going to bubble up again, or are you down to get together as consenting adults without digging up old conflicts?
The bad side of great sex with an ex is that it may be easier to get sucked back into a relationship that isn’t healthy, won’t work, or both, says Rachel Needle, Ph.D., a licensed psychologist in West Palm Beach, FL and co-director of Modern Sex Therapy Institutes, a continuing education company that trains sex therapists around the world. In this case, remember: You will find great sex again—and in the meantime, there are always sex toys.
“My ex and I always had amazing chemistry, even after we were divorced. When we started having sex again, I thought maybe this meant we would get back together. I even told him that I was falling in love with him all over again. For a while, he did all of the ‘good things’ he did when we were married. Eventually, though, he went back to his old ways, and I realized there was no going back. Recently, I finally started saying ‘no’ to sex with him.” —Cornelia G., 57
2. You’re drunk and looking for a hookup.
That’s a no-no, relationship experts agree. “Adding drugs or alcohol into the mix will likely only make things messier. It may impair your judgment or make a much-needed quick exit that much harder,” says Coto.
If you tend to reach out to your ex when you’ve had a little too much to drink, check in with a trusted friend. They can remind you to keep your distance until you’re clear-headed again or help you come up with a smart exit strategy if you go for it and then decide you want out, advises Johnson.
“My high school boyfriend and I dated for a year and a half. After we broke up, we ended up going to the same college and becoming friends. I got drunk one night and hooked up with him. It was awful! I woke up to him gone and never saw him again. My takeaway: Don’t drink or sleep with an ex.” —Lindsay M., 25
3. Your ex is familiar, and you’re in need of some comfort.
In uncertain times, it makes sense that you might reach out to an ex if you’re feeling lonely, says Johnson. If you’re still emotionally attached to them and tired of the whole process of looking for someone new, your ex could serve as a welcome dose of familiarity and a break from dating app frustrations.
Keep in mind, though, if sex with your ex means more than “just sex with an ex” on an emotional level, you may be setting yourself up to feel worse when it’s over, warns Jared Grant, Psy.D., an L.A.-based licensed psychologist. Think of your ex like an old smoking habit: You quit, have one cigarette in a weak moment, and then have to quit all over again—and it may be even harder now, he says.
“My high school boyfriend and first love called me up one night to tell me he and his wife had split up and he’d been thinking about me. I’d just ended a long-term relationship, and I was tired of bad first and second dates. My ex and I first learned to have sex with each other so we knew everything we liked and didn’t. It was easy to jump straight back into that. Over the next month or so, we hooked up a few times. I knew it wouldn’t last, but I wanted it to. Then one night, he never showed and I never heard from him again. When it was over again, I felt weirdly glad to have had those moments again, but equally sad to have lost him all over again, too.” —Katie B., age 30
4. You want to feel in control.
If you find yourself trying to reel your ex back in to prove you’re “still what they want” or to “show them what they’re missing,” you might want to stop right now. “I would not recommend sleeping with an ex to feel desirable or regain control because doing so is allowing the situation and your ex to define your self-worth,” says Coto.
When you’ve been in an unhealthy or abusive relationship, it’s easy to get stuck in a pattern of going back to your ex, especially if your sense of self-worth has been broken down by them, says Grant. However, you’re better off talking it out with a nonjudgmental mental health professional rather than putting yourself back in a potentially harmful situation, he says.
“When I slept with my ex-husband, I did it because I wanted to feel in control and show him what he was missing. I knew he missed me and I missed him, but I also knew that his behavior was unacceptable. During our marriage, we’d had physical fights and he’d seriously hurt me. The last time we had sex, when I left his house, I felt empty and disappointed in myself. Was I so desperate for love that I’d keep going back to him? No. I had to recognize my self-worth, respect myself, and work on healing. I cut off contact from then on.” —Delores J., 49
5. You miss your ex.
Hung up on a former lover? Having sex again after you’ve taken off your rose-colored glasses could confirm that breaking up was the right decision and give you a helpful sense of closure, says Grant. On the other hand, in some cases, sex could bring you back together.
Either way, to avoid heartbreak, have a genuine conversation with your ex about what you both want from the experience and make sure you’re going in with the same expectations. If there’s even a little piece of you that’s hoping something will be reignited (and your ex may not feel the same way), then you probably shouldn’t have sex. Instead, remind yourself of why you broke up in the first place, advises Needle.
“I’d been seeing a guy named Phil for a few months when he told me he didn’t want to be in a relationship. Disappointed and looking for a distraction, I reconnected with an old crush named Jacob. It felt good to be wanted by someone else, but I couldn’t stop thinking about a text Phil had sent me: ‘I know we haven’t seen each other in a while, but if you’re still open to it, there is a rooftop and a bottle of wine with your name on it. I’d really like a chance to talk.’ With Jacob drifting to sleep beside me, I replied, ‘I miss you.’ I knew opening up to an ex went against all the advice I’d ever heard, but I trusted what I felt. The next week, I met Phil for a long conversation that started with, ‘I’m sorry.’ Phil and I have been deeply intertwined and happy ever since. Honestly, I can’t imagine what my life would look like had I followed any other voice than my own. We have been together for nearly four years and were engaged last summer.” —Kristin S., 29
“After I got out of a toxic relationship, I ended up sleeping with my first love again. I thought that maybe we’d been together at the wrong time. Reconnecting with him was revitalizing and freeing. I also realized I wasn’t in love with him like I thought I was going to be. We just felt like humans connecting. Ultimately, the experience helped me realize that chapter of my life was over. I still liked my ex, but not romantically. Ever since, we’ve been great friends.” —Gabby M., 30
Bottom line: No matter the scenario, it helps to know what you want before you decide to sleep with an ex.
If necessary, communicate these feelings clearly with your potential sex partner. There’s nothing wrong with having sex with an ex to satisfy your sexual needs, emotional needs, or both, but you don’t want to go into the situation blindly and end up confused or hurt, says Grant. And, if you do hook up, make sure to practice safe sex since you’re both open to other partners now, says Coto.