Contemplating Sex With an Ex? What Experts Want You to Consider First

Contemplating Sex With an Ex? What Experts Want You to Consider First

By Nandini Maharaj

Breakup sex is one interesting way to approach closure. There are various reasons behind any breakup, but if sex isn’t one of them, it can be hard to resist the temptation for one final hookup. Camila Cabello, for example, recently admitted to being a proponent of breakup sex in a “Call Her Daddy” interview. “I don’t believe in the forbidden fruit,” she says on the podcast. “If you want it, do it. Kinda like ‘date him until you hate him’ vibe. I don’t actually hate anybody but I’m saying do it until it’s out of your system.”

Cabello acknowledges, however, that there can be a downside to breakup sex, especially when it keeps you from finding someone whose relationship goals align with yours. So, if you keep going back to an ex, there’s probably a reason for it. Her advice is to do the “inner work” and know why you want to have breakup sex and what you’ll get out of it.

You might be wondering what this inner work entails exactly. We asked two relationship experts for advice on how to navigate sex with an ex.

What to Consider Before Having Breakup Sex

In general, breakup sex means having sex with an ex-partner with whom you had been in a committed relationship. Maybe you’re having sex for pleasure or trying to distract yourself from feelings of loss and rejection. It could also be that you’re genuinely trying to reignite an old flame.

Whatever your reasons, it’s worth exploring what you’re hoping to gain from having breakup sex, says Benu Lahiry, LMFT, the chief clinical officer at Ours. Here are four questions to help you assess whether breakup sex is right for you.

1. What Led to the Breakup?

Reflecting on what prompted the breakup can give you insight into why you might be thinking about breakup sex. If the relationship ended amicably or because one of you moved away, breakup sex might be a mature and healthy way to express your feelings for one another.

Conversely, if you broke up because the relationship was harmful to your mental health, breakup sex can “actually be a form of self-betrayal,” says Elizabeth Fedrick, PhD, mental health therapist and founder of Evolve Counseling. “That’s because you are putting yourself in a position that keeps you hooked, attached, and connected to something you know isn’t good for you.”

Because sex involves a high level of intimacy and vulnerability, you need to feel empowered when making this decision, Lahiry says. She suggests exploring why breakup sex is important to you and what you find attractive about your former partner.

2. Are You Hoping to Find Closure?

Breakup sex can be a spur-of-the-moment decision, or you could be broken up and continuing to consistently have sex. Whether a one-time or repeat event, Dr. Fedrick says, “There is a lot of risk that comes along with breakup sex because of the number of neurochemicals that are released from sex.”

These mood-boosting neurochemicals include dopamine and serotonin, along with the hormone oxytocin, which is responsible for promoting love and attachment, according to a 2022 report in Comprehensive Psychoneuroendocrinology. When you’re trying to get over an ex and you’re continuing to “engage in an activity that releases hormones and neurochemicals, it doesn’t lead to the closure that a lot of people are hoping for,” Dr. Fedrick explains. Instead, it can lead to a heightened desire for that individual.

Lahiry agrees, explaining that breakup sex tends to be an emotional decision. Sometimes people think that sex with an ex is “inconsequential and are often surprised at how they are impacted,” she says. For instance, they might not be prepared for their ex to start dating other people or they might think sex will entice their ex to recommit to the relationship.

3. Who Initiated the Breakup?

Breakup sex tends to be fraught with emotions, partly because of the power difference between the person initiating the breakup and their ex, Lahiry says. The person who feels jilted might find it difficult to move on if they’re receiving mixed messages from their ex.

Dr. Fedrick describes this dynamic as a “toxic cycle” because their words tell you that they don’t want to be with you, but their actions leave you holding out hope for a reconciliation. Likewise, pursuing an ex who no longer wants to be in a relationship may be a sign that you’re feeling insecure or inadequate. So, you might use breakup sex to stay connected even if you realize it’s not healthy for you.

Another reason why you might be holding onto an ex is the comfort and familiarity of being with them. Casual sex with an old flame may be less daunting than trying to meet someone new. As humans, “we are designed for connection,” Dr. Fedrick says. “This is still a deep desire even if you’re not in a committed relationship.”

4. Are You and Your Ex on the Same Page?

Having different expectations concerning breakup sex can create a lot of pain and discomfort for you and your ex. For example, one person might agree to a sexual relationship because they’re expecting their ex to recommit. When this commitment doesn’t materialize, they’re likely to feel hurt or resentful.

So, if you’re contemplating breakup sex, ruminating about it isn’t as helpful as having a conversation with your ex about your boundaries and expectations, Dr. Fedrick says. An example of a boundary is saying, “I don’t think that we should get back into a committed relationship, but I’m open to having sex.”

Lahiry also emphasizes the importance of communication. “The successful way to have breakup sex is to be completely on the same page about what the intention is,” she says. Breakup sex isn’t healthy when one person has a hidden agenda like stringing their ex along to satisfy a need for sex. “You both need to be aligned with what breakup sex means to you,” she adds.

Casual or Not, Relationships Need Boundaries

Sometimes people will justify unhealthy breakup sex by saying that it’s casual or they’re not in a committed relationship. Deciding to keep things casual doesn’t mean you can ignore each other’s boundaries, Dr. Fedrick says. If regular hookups aren’t working for you anymore, this is something you need to communicate to your ex.

“Abandoning an ex or ghosting them is actually one of the most painful things you can do to somebody,” Dr. Fedrick adds. However, this doesn’t mean you need to have a conversation in person or over the phone. It can be as simple as saying, “This situation is no longer working for me and doesn’t feel safe to me.”

Or you can say, “I’ve decided that I need to move on. I’m no longer going to reach out or I’m going to remove myself from social media.” Once you’ve made your intentions clear, you don’t need to engage in a back-and-forth with your ex. If your ex is getting defensive or you find yourself overexplaining your decision, “know that you’ve done the mature and kind thing by communicating your feelings,” Dr. Fedrick says.

Breakup Sex Can Be Fun Until It Isn’t

Both experts agree that breakup sex is unique to each individual and relationship, meaning it’s not uniformly a good or bad decision. Breakup sex can, however, become “an unhealthy rumination when you’re not able to move on from this person,” Lahiry says. And if your goal is to find a long-term partner, breakup sex without a commitment can undermine your self-worth or self-esteem.

If you’ve had breakup sex, it’s worth exploring how it could be affecting your mental health. Dr. Fedrick suggests asking yourself the following questions:

  • Do you find yourself obsessing over your ex?
  • Are you overanalyzing the situation?
  • Are you checking your phone constantly to see if they messaged you?
  • Are you consumed by the relationship after deciding to keep things casual?
  • Is your ex dating or having sex with other people and how do you feel about this?

If breakup sex is “taking a toll on you as if you were in a relationship, that’s a pretty good sign it’s time to move on,” she says. Another telltale sign is when one ex is actively dating, and the other is holding out hope for a reunion. Ultimately, you need to consider whether breakup sex is going to move you any closer to feeling good about yourself and feeling safe moving on in the way you need to.