Personal Growth

Sleeping With Your Ex Doesn't Mean You're Getting Back Together

Going through a breakup is hard enough. The last thing you want to do is draw it out by succumbing to temptation and giving them a call when you're feeling lonely late at night. Everybody knows that sleeping with an ex is just the first step down an inevitable path toward getting back together, and that's (probably) just going to end up in heartache all over again. But let's look a little closer at that pattern — maybe it's not as true as people assume.

Related: How to Get Over a Breakup

Exes With Benefits

In 2015, Gurit Birnbaum and Eli Finkel described five stages a relationship might go through: unilateral awareness (you know of each other but nobody has made a move yet), surface contact (you agree to go on a casual coffee date), emerging relationship (you see each other multiple nights per week), established relationship (you make major life decisions together), and ... dun dun dun ... fiery limbo (you've broken up, but you still share feelings for each other). As you can probably guess, that last stage is the danger zone when it comes to hooking up with an ex — and people cross into it all the time. In a study of adults who had separated from their spouses somewhere around the past four months, researchers found that about 22 percent of those couples had had sex since going their separate ways. When looking at college students specifically, that pattern played out even more strongly: 27 percent of young adults reported sleeping with an ex within the past two years, and 14 percent said their most recent sexual partner had been an ex.

But what does it mean? Are all of those couples doomed to remain in fiery limbo forever, reigniting that flame without addressing the issues that drove them apart in the first place? The answer to that question is a bit complicated. But fortunately, according to Stephanie Spielmann from Wayne State University, the overall effect won't harm the ex-partners too much in the long run.

Breaking Up Is Hard to Do

To measure the effects of sleeping with your ex, Spielmann designed two experiments that focused on participants who had recently been through a breakup. In the first study, people in relationships were recruited via the Mechanical Turk and tracked on a weekly basis as some of those relationships, inevitably, broke up. Two months later, Spielmann and the team followed up with those poor unfortunate souls. In the end, some 113 of those recruits responded to the researchers, filling out a daily questionnaire designed to measure their emotional wellbeing, their feelings of attachment to their exes, and whether or not they had attempted to sleep with their exes again.

In the other study, Spielmann targeted people who had undergone a breakup within the last four months and sorted out those who had hooked up with their ex in some way, shape, or form (not only by having sex, but also kissing or making out) and those who had attempted to, but failed. She also gauged these two groups on how emotionally connected they felt to their former partners.

The picture that emerged from these studies confirmed common-sense beliefs in some ways but refuted them in others. Yes, hooking up with your ex will increase your sense of emotional attachment to them. However, that wasn't associated with any negative feelings overall. So much for being wracked with shame or guilt for hooking up with an ex. Most interestingly, it didn't actually seem to affect how easily or quickly the participants processed their feelings and got over the relationship. So if you find yourself feeling embarrassed over a booty call with a former partner, don't stress out about it too much — you're not necessarily sliding back into old habits.

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Still struggling? Try Susan Elliott's "Getting Past Your Breakup: How to Turn a Devastating Loss into the Best Thing That Ever Happened to You" (free with your trial membership to Audible). We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase through that link, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Reuben Westmaas November 27, 2018

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