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Breakup sex: A disastrous idea or a safe bet?

Those who have sex to end a relationship or those who have sex with an ex-partner should be aware of the consequences of falling into the arms of nostalgia

Sexo de despedida con un ex
A still from the movie 'High Fidelity' (2000).Alamy Stock Photo

Is the so-called breakup sex — that is, sex that takes place after a relationship has run its course — as exciting as the movies make it out to be? Or is it a self-destructive disaster that makes closure impossible and awakens new emotions and traumas? Is sex with an ex-partner a bad idea or a safe bet?

A 2020 study — The psychology of breakup sex: Exploring the motivational factors and affective consequences of post-breakup sexual activity — aimed to understand why so many people decide to have sex with their former partners after a breakup and what the consequences are, as its authors believed that pop culture had over-romanticized this type of behavior. “Engaging in sexual contact with an ex-partner can have diverse consequences. The individuals in the ex-relationship could experience heartbreak and want to get back with one another. On the other hand, the members in the relationship could experience a positive situation where they rekindle their relationship,” the authors explain.

The authors of this study differentiate between breakup sex and sex with someone who has been an ex-partner for some time. The study noted that women tend to feel worse about themselves after both types of encounter, while men simply feel excited about having sex. “Results revealed that most breakup sex appears to be motivated by three factors: relationship maintenance, hedonism, and ambivalence. Men tended to support hedonistic and ambivalent reasons for having breakup sex more often than women. The two studies revealed that breakup sex may be differentially motivated (and may have different psychological consequences) for men and women and may not be as beneficial as the media suggests,” the authors warn.

The consequences of breakup sex

Regarding having sex with someone you have just left, Laura Morán, author of Perfectamente imperfectas, wants to clarify that the myth that anger can lead to wonderful sex is just that: a myth. “What research indicates is that women when we are in a negative affective mood (stress, sadness, anger), are less likely to engage in sexual encounters. It is true that men, while angry, may see makeup sex as a sexual encounter with which to measure the level of anger and have the opportunity to reconnect physically with the partner. They see it as a negotiating table for conflict, but for women, sex is a celebration,” she says.

Sex with a partner with whom we are in the process of ending the relationship or with an ex-partner with whom we have not been with for some time inevitably leads us to relive old feelings and may make us think that the relationship is not really over. “When we have contact with our ex-partner and a sexual encounter arises, it may be that one or both parties are carried away by the memories they share of beautiful moments they spent together, memories they want to repeat. The brain sometimes wants you to hold onto that good part to protect yourself and forget about the not so splendid moments or the ones that didn’t work out. But those bad memories that are ignored are precisely the reason they aren’t together anymore,” explains Rocío Moñino, psychologist and sexologist.

Sexologist Mariona Gabarra explains that having sex with an ex-partner or with someone who is going to be one after the sexual encounter can put a damper on future relationships. “When you start meeting new people, complicity in sex is not so easy, because sex has an emotional component. That connection is not easy. If while we are getting to know someone new, to whom we are not yet adapted because we’re carrying the [emotional] baggage of our previous relationship, we think that our ex was better, we will fall back into their claws and doubts will arise. Instead of valuing a new sexual experience with someone new, we are going to compare it. It’s not objective and it will confuse us... We will get confused and we will think that it might not work with the new person,” Gabarra warns.

Thus, having sex with an ex, although it may initially be understood as something casual, can cause one party to fall prey to nostalgia and remain anchored in the past.

Why we are obsessed with the past

We should analyze why sex with an ex or with someone who is going to be an ex is often so appetizing. “When we have an erotic encounter with another person, we are opening our trust, vulnerability, intimacy… In those instants, there are emotions and feelings, even if it is with someone you have just met. However, when it happens with a person who has shared your life, with someone who knows what stimulates you, etc., it can produce an intense sensation. But there are also reunions with ex-partners that are not so mind-blowing. We all know someone who has had this happen, so we cannot generalize this concept,” says Moñino.

According to Morán, the mistake lies in believing that we can prolong passion throughout a relationship. “Something is exciting when it is infrequent or new, and logically, there comes a point in a relationship when sex is no longer a novelty. Therefore, the emotions associated with falling in love cannot be repeated later on in relationships in which there is already an established commitment and a sense of trust and predictability. The novelty and uncertainty disappear,” she says.

So, is sex as a couple doomed to monotony? Should we forget about passion? Laura Morán stresses that passion tends to die both within a couple and when having sex with an ex because of the habituation effect. “When having sex with an ex, that encounter can be understood as a reconquest, you can have sex out of spite, it can serve to show or remind the other what has been lost... There can be many motivations that make that encounter something amazing, but if sex with an ex is repeated several times, it will become less and less amazing,” she points out. For this reason, Mariona Gabarra believes that the key lies in keeping the passion alive and reassures those who believe in monogamy above all else: “Sex with a partner could be just as passionate as sex with an ex-partner. We have to know that every day our partner chooses us and to value it,” she assures.

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