Having sex with your ex can mean anything depending on your personality, former relationship, and present goals. But, often, it’s linked to a need for comfort, fear of moving on, or unresolved feelings.
If you’re thinking about having sex with an ex (or already did), knowing why you — or your former partner — want to explore this physical experience again can help determine if it’s the right decision for you.
Having sex with an ex isn’t a bad or a good thing in itself. It may depend on the mental and physical consequences it has on you and the other person.
Only you can determine if sleeping with your ex is the best course of action. Being clear and honest with yourself and them is key in making the decision.
It’s indeed possible for exes to have sexual intimacy for pleasure only. So, having sex with your ex could mean that’s the only or most important thing remaining between you two and you don’t want to let it go.
“I know plenty of folks who did not work well as partners in one way, but then they transitioned to lovers and developed a whole new agreement and relationship that worked much better,” says Nicoletta Heidegger, a licensed marriage and family therapist and sexologist from Los Angeles.
Mutual consent is key and this involves both people knowing the goal of the encounter.
But pleasure might not be the only reason for having sex with an ex. Exploring all the possibilities might help you determine if you’re just having harmless fun or if it’s possible you might be putting yourself or them in a tricky position.
A need for comfort
It may feel easier, for example, to have sex with your ex rather than start the process of meeting other people.
How to manage
You might want to revisit the reasons why the romantic bond didn’t work out. Consider giving yourself the chance to meet other people who can be there for you in more aspects than one.
Meeting new people at places of shared interest (book clubs, fitness classes, hobby events) can make you feel safer when establishing a new friendship.
Hope for closure or rekindling
Do you still have feelings for your ex? Are you hoping to get back together? These may be valid questions to ask yourself. Whatever the answer, you may also want to explore if your ex-partner is on the same page.
You might feel sex is a way to earn a second chance, for example. Or you may believe that making the relationship only about sex will help you get over your ex.
“If both people had feelings, though, they probably wouldn’t be exes,” says Leeth.
How to manage
Clear communication about where the relationship stands can help you accept when or if it’s time to move on. If your sexual partner isn’t on the same page, having sex with your ex might lead to emotional pain or disappointment.
Having a hard time coping
Maybe you’re sad or grieving after the breakup and haven’t been able to cope. Maybe you have other difficulties in your life that cause you distress.
When you feel distressed but have exhausted or don’t have coping strategies, going back to your ex for a moment of fun might feel like a quick fix. However, it might become an avoidant behavior or it could lead you to experience more stress if things get complicated with your ex again.
How to manage
Distractions, hobbies, and relaxation techniques like deep breathing may help you cope with difficult times. Leaning on your friends and family could also help you feel supported.
If you believe you can’t do better, you may settle for having sex with an ex.
Heidegger says this can happen when you worry you’ll never meet someone else or someone like your ex.
However, getting intimate with a person who may not love or respect you might impact your self-esteem even more.
How to manage
Underlying mental health challenges
Sometimes having sex with an ex isn’t about your ex at all. It may have to do with thought or behavioral patterns that have become second nature to you.
For example, sleeping with an ex who’s no longer available, insists on sleeping with you again, or may not take your needs into consideration, could be a sign of:
- obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) with a fear of harming others (responsibility OCD)
- dependent personality disorder
- insecure attachment style
- compulsive sexual behavior disorder (CSBD)
Speaking with a mental health professional may help address any underlying challenges that could be leading you to have sex with an ex.
Professional guidance can also help you develop coping skills, manage self-esteem, and find ways to move forward from lingering feelings.
Sexual vs. emotional intimacy with an ex
Sexual intimacy is the physical act of sex partnered with trust. It can be the part of having sex with an ex that’s familiar and brings a level of comfort.
Emotional intimacy doesn’t require physical touching; it’s a deep emotional connection that can let you be vulnerable around another person.
Sexual intimacy doesn’t necessarily lead to emotional intimacy. If you’re looking for the latter, you may want to explore your connection from a different perspective.
Having sex with an ex may be a bad idea if:
- it prevents or interferes with other significant relationships
- it leads to couple-like fights, even though you aren’t a couple
- one or both of you are already in a new committed relationship
- you feel empty, sad, lonely, or anxious afterward
- it’s only pleasurable for one person
- you want to stay away but feel compelled to be with your ex when they come around
- you feel confused about where you stand emotionally with your ex
- you’re still grieving the relationship
Leeth indicates that having unreciprocated feelings might be the biggest red flag in this situation.
“This leads to feelings of being used,” he says. “Eventually, a person becomes frustrated with their ex, and that’s when the problem really starts to manifest. The person with feelings now truly feels used and diminished, perhaps even manipulated.”
Having sex with your ex should be a personal decision. If you’re walking into it willfully and clear about what you want, sleeping with them might be just fun.
But if you’re in this situation because they pressure or manipulate you, or because you may want to get back together even though they don’t, having sex with an ex might hurt your feelings in the long run.
If sleeping with your ex is causing you distress, or if you’re not clear why you do it, consider seeking the help of a mental health professional. They can help you explore the reasons as well as how to better manage the situation to protect your emotional and physical well-being.