Is It Ever a Good Idea to Have Sex With an Ex?

Lacey Johnson
The Oprah Magazine
Photo credit: IMDB
Photo credit: IMDB

From Oprah Magazine

Exes typically fall into one of two categories: the kind we block on social media and cross the street to avoid, and the kind we dream about landing in our DMs and running into on a good hair day—perhaps fanning a flame that never went all the way out. But what about the exes we maintain contact with—you know, the kind who make our phones light up at 2 a.m.? Is it ever a good idea to sleep with them?

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Some might argue that a tryst with an ex-partner is an ideal arrangement. They already know your most intimate curves and crevices, and you get to avoid the first-time awkwardness of sharing your naked body with someone new. Because, at the end of the day (or night), even if they once made a mess of your heart, sex with a former plus-one is just a harmless rendezvous in native territory—right? Maybe…or maybe not.

If you’re tempted to get horizontal with one of your exes, read on. We turned to some relationship experts to comb through the pleasures and pitfalls of slipping back under familiar sheets, along with some new and improved rules to play by. But keep this close to your heart and mind: it isn’t always wise to have sex with an ex.

To begin, get radically honest with yourself about why you want to do it.

Is there a spark of hope that a night of hot sex might resuscitate months or years of lost love? Are you lonely and aching for physical touch, and your ex’s warm body is one of predictable convenience? Are you trying to pacify pain by seeking a false, perhaps toxic, sense of comfort? Whatever is fueling your motivation, no matter how simple or complex, be clear about it.

Let’s say you’re struggling with some body image issues, and you aren’t in a place where you feel comfortable peeling off your clothes and being vulnerable with someone new. With your ex, even if they once aroused your most rampant insecurities, at least you know what to expect. You already know the annoying comments, subtle digs or lifeless feedback they may or may not toss your way. So, in that sense, it’s safe—right?

Rhonda Richards-Smith, psychotherapist and relationship expert, says it is oftentimes the piece of not knowing what the future might bring that keeps us bolted to exes—even in seemingly innocent ways. So getting honest about where you’re at does not involve judging yourself for wanting to have sex with your ex, but being compassionate with yourself. “Before you agree to share your body with that person again, stop and think about it. The relationship ended for a reason, so why are you considering going back to the sex?” she says.

Because thrilling as a spontaneous hook-up may be, every action carries consequences we have to live out later on. Those consequences may prove to be harmless and fun, but what if they aren’t?

Richards-Smith says that, in her practice, she has found that the number one reason people have regret is because they act impulsively. “If you make a habit of pausing and being totally honest with yourself, considering what will come after the decision is made, you might be surprised by your decision,” she says.

Because sex with an ex isnt always as simple as a harmless romp in familiar territory.

We get it—it’s tempting to reach back for more of a pleasurable thing. Your plan may be to give them access to your erogenous zones while keeping a padlock over your heart, but even the most masterful plans sometimes go awry.

Of course there are the obvious dangers, like the resurgence of lingering feelings, or the possibility that one of you is housing fantasies of rekindling the relationship, while the other may not share in the same desire. But could dipping your toes back into familiar waters threaten to drown your future in more obscure ways?

Richards-Smith says she has counseled many clients who exist in a revolving door between a few ex-lovers. She warns that this can keep them and the other person emotionally stuck for months or years.

“If you were hurt in previous relationships, it may be easy to rationalize being intimate with one or more of your exes, telling yourself, ‘Well, I want to be single and unattached because I can’t let myself be hurt by someone new. I can let those people break my heart again, because they’ve done it before, so I know what to expect. But I can’t let my heart get broken another way,’” says Richards-Smith.

Much of the time, it’s the idea of stepping into the unknown and the fear of being vulnerable all over again that feels dicey and overwhelming—causing you to race back to familiar arms.

Scratching the itch might delay the healing process—for you or them.

If you’re still carrying a torch for your ex, and find yourself burning up with questions of what might have been, engaging in a romp with that person may disrupt your healing. In fact, Richards-Smith says that if thoughts of an ex still ding a tuning fork in your heart, any contact with them at all—from social media interaction to text communication—may cripple your ability to evolve beyond it. But the kind of contact that has you rolling out of their bed and tip-toeing to their toilet at 4 a.m.? That could make your recovery slow to an agonizing speed.

Richards-Smith says it may inhibit your ability to see the relationship—and the individual—through a fresh lens. “One of the issues of having sex with an ex is that every former partner sort of has a placeholder in your life. So if you’re engaging in sex with that person, it delays the ability to gain any semblance of resolve, as well as exploring partners who could satisfy you in all areas.”

Let’s say you’re venturing out on the town every weekend, trying to meet a new partner IRL. Or, maybe you’re experimenting with various dating apps—entertaining the thought of securing a new plus-one. But if you’re engaging in steamy sex with your ex in secret? That could create an emotional barrier between you and the possibility of newfound love. “You may think that you’re open and actively searching, but depending upon the situation, you could be tricking yourself and stirring up feelings that you badly need to process and release,” says Richards-Smith.

Or, maybe you were the one to declare the breakup—severing the commitment and never again gazing through the same emotional filter. But what if your ex is reading from an entirely different book—secretly hoping you'll get back together? If so, welcoming them into your bedroom could cause them to remain trapped inside of a story that isn’t real.

“It can get really sticky and complicated to have sex with someone you’re actively trying to get over, or who may be trying to get over you. Mixed signals could be exchanged during the act, leaving one or both of you confused. Because a moment of passion can cause people to think they feel things that they actually don’t feel at all. In reality, one of you could hope there's potential, but the other could be simply getting their physical needs met,” says Richards-Smith.

Though some research shows that ex sex may help you move on more quickly

Dr. Stephanie Spielmann of Wayne State University published a 2018 study in Springer’s Archives of Sexual Behavior, determining that sleeping with an ex had no negative effects in the majority of cases. In fact, after devising two separate studies, Spielmann determined that exchanging orgasms with an ex welcomed some positive effects for both involved. Whether the subjects benefited from moving on slowly, as opposed to a sudden disconnect, or were tenderly comforted by the lingering interaction, the exploratory findings were fairly clear: even in instances where someone was crying into their pillow and pining for their ex-partner indefinitely, sex did nothing to hinder their recovery.

Dr. Venus Nicolino MA, PhD, a doctor in clinical psychology, host of WeTV’s Marriage Bootcamp and bestselling author of Bad Advice, (aka Dr. V), says that studies of that kind are “just a drop in the bucket when it comes to understanding ex sex,” and that the decision to do it (or not) is nuanced and unique to each person. Most significantly, she isn’t a fan of the stigma that often swirls around the notion of hooking up with someone you once loved. Her stance is: if you feel you want to do it, that’s a decision you get to make and own. Just be sure to explore your reasons why and check in with your feelings above all else. But definitely don’t beat yourself up about it.

“We’ve been reprimanded—even had fear instilled—at the mere thought of having sex with an ex. We hear, ‘Resist ex sex at all costs!’ If you’re trying to get over someone, I wouldn’t recommend it, but research shows that it isn’t as harmful as once believed,” says Dr. V.

While rare, some exes find it to be an easy, low-risk arrangement...

It typically depends upon a couple of factors: one—the foundation of your relationship with your ex, and two—if you have compatible goals within the arrangement. That could mean exploring the possibility of rekindling what once was, or a conscious plan to enjoy meeting each other’s sexual needs without inviting the messiness of expectations to return phone calls or explain your whereabouts.

“I have seen instances where sex with an ex can absolutely work for a time, where there was an established, casual friendship aside from the romantic relationship, and where there was mutual respect with no lingering emotions,” says Richards-Smith. “But this is not something that typically works well for multiple years, at least in a mutually beneficial way. Eventually, someone either finds that they never lost their sense of attachment or that they re-established that attachment.”

So if youre going to accept your exs sexy proposition, here are rules for protecting your hearts.

First, the state of the relationship (or lack thereof) must be blatantly clear. Because disconnects happen more often than you might think—the kind that lead to tearful, jealous accusations. “I work with many clients who live off of the assumption that they are still in a relationship, even after their partner made it clear that the relationship was over. So it is essential to be deliberate in clarifying the boundary,” says Richards-Smith.

Second, Richards-Smith advises to be clear with yourself about a timeline. How long do you plan on doing this—until one of you meets someone you want to commit to, or is it just a one-off? If it’s something you plan to continue for a while, when sticky situations pop up—say, having a chance encounter with them at one of your former hang-outs, perhaps getting a front-row seat at them canoodling with their new suitor—how and when will you know it’s time to call it off? “You need to be realistic about knowing that sex with an ex is not a long-term thing in the majority of situations,” says Richards-Smith.

Third, have a conversation beforehand—preferably while clothed. “You need to be transparent. Are you struggling to move on? Are you having casual sex with other partners as well? Whatever the details, be candid, and then be open to hearing their feedback,” says Richards-Smith.

Be sure to have an open conversation first (preferably while clothed) and create transparent boundaries.

In other words, staggering out of a bar after four rounds of shots is probably not the most responsible time to consider getting naked with a person who once ripped your heart from your chest. Which is also to say that it’s best to avoid joining an ex in the bedroom without having a mature conversation first—before any pants drop to the floor. “This isn’t the sexiest way to go about it, but you put your heart, or someone’s else’s, at risk when you impulsively give into your physical needs," says Richards-Smith.

Prepare for plot twists.

So you and your ex have an agenda in place—you know what your intentions are, you’ve established the ground rules, and you have both sworn to never freak out in the event that one of you spots evidence of another lover. But emotions can be a clever screenwriter, taking you to a cliffhanger just when you think you know what’s coming next.

Richards-Smiths says it’s essential to toss some specific scenarios around in advance. “You may think it won’t get dramatic and messy, but you could be in for a rude awakening if you let yourself get too comfortable.”

Richards-Smith says it’s also ideal to lay out your hopes and dreams for the future. “If you’re seeking a commitment like marriage within the next few years, that should be communicated because there may be an assumption that you both want to be single for a long time, and that the sex might continue.”

Make a commitment to check in on the arrangement periodically—outside of the bedroom.

Don’t assume that what works for you or your partner today will work six months from now—emotionally or physically. Your desires and perspectives—or theirs—could shift dramatically. So could your standards and priorities for your love life. It’s easy to underestimate how much you might change in a year’s time, so give yourself permission to evolve. And be sure to check in with yourself and your ex as you progress.

“What felt good to you a year ago, or even two months ago, may no longer fit into your life today. You’re not exactly the same person you were last month. So, considering this, have a plan ahead of time that says, ‘If either of us catches feelings or feels upset by something we discover or hear, we’re going to discuss it, or take a breather, or cut off contact altogether,’” says Richards-Smith.

Be cautious to not let words spoken in a moment of passion worm their way back to your heart.

Our bodies and minds may fall into patterns that trigger old habits, especially when stimulated by a person who is well-versed on how to send our nerve endings into a frenzy of pleasure. “My biggest recommendation to all of my clients, when discussing the status of a relationship and its boundaries, is to never talk about it in bed. Your mind can go so many different directions, even to places that are no longer real, out of habit,” says Richards-Smith.

No serious conversation should happen in the bedroom.

Unless you are clear where you stand with that person when you are outside of the bedroom, don't take anything said while in bed—no matter how poetically unpacked—to heart. And if words are spoken that have you up late at night, pacing the floor and staring at your phone screen, sharing drafts of text messages with your girlfriends? Don’t let it go unaddressed. “Definitely revisit whatever was said and ask for clarification at a later, less passionate time,” says Richards-Smith.

If youre going to share your body with an ex, make sure it doesnt taint how you feel about yourself.

Richards-Smith says that ex-partner sabotage is common. Just as they have likely memorized your erogenous zone, they know your emotional hot buttons as well. “I’ve counseled clients with ex-partners who were famous for saying things to keep them stuck so that they would stay available for sexual encounters. So if you’re going to share yourself with an ex physically, they may be planting seeds in you, sometimes even subconsciously, to keep you from attracting someone new.”

We have to be careful how we filter information from others—especially those who know how to activate our most titillating regions. The people we share space with are leaving impressions on us with every energy exchange. We impact one another in ways both blatant and subliminal. “Anyone you allow to be in close proximity to you has the ability to plant seeds, so it’s important to be mindful of whether those are good or bad ones,” says Richards-Smith. “Make sure that any truth they created about you doesn’t become your truth.”

And remember: your past no longer needs you, but your future does.

“If you’re truly seeking to find a loving, healthy partnership with somebody eventually, you have to be willing to be uncomfortable and move into the unfamiliar in order to get it. There is no skipping over that step,” says Richards-Smith. “That’s the piece people often don’t want to admit to themselves.”

Richards-Smith warns that vulnerability avoidance is why it can get tricky when thinking about exes—because familiarity can be a hallucinogen. Depending upon the nuances of the relationship and the reason for breaking up, it can cause you to be intoxicated by a past that you need to move away from. There could be an extraordinary opportunity a room away, down the hall of your office building, or across the bar, sipping cocktails and plotting how to catch your eye. But if your eyes are locked to your phone screen, awaiting a red light from an ex-partner, you may be oblivious to an opportunity that could color your future in a more vivid way. “People often underestimate how not fully severing ties with a previous relationship that didn't work serves to blind them from future relationships—or even just fun ways they could focus on improving themselves as a single person,” she says.

So if you genuinely desire to have sex with an ex, you have every freedom to enjoy yourself. But if doing so tampers with your confidence, brings your value into question or mutes your vision of the future? It may be time to take your heart—along with all of your clothes—and run. While letting go and embracing the unknown can feel daunting, it’s necessary for the realization of the person you are trying to become. Because your past no longer needs you like your future does.

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