Breakup Sex: Are There Emotional Benefits?

Breakup sex: a pathway to closure or emotional turmoil? Research explains the science behind why we have breakup sex, and experts share when it may be a good idea—and when it definitely isn't.

No matter the reason for your split, breakups are confusing. Your emotions go into freefall as you find ways to navigate new daily routines without your partner’s presence—and experts say it’s no surprise that some physical connection makes its way into the tangled web of uncertainty. Turns out, breakup sex is pretty common, according to Tiffany Lewis, MSW, RSW, a therapist with wellbe family wellness.

Studies show about one-quarter of couples have one last tussle in the sheets (defining it as sexual activity occurring within two weeks of a breakup). “It’s romanticized as something exceptional, other-worldly when accompanying a breakup,” Lewis says. “It could be the lack of inhibitions we feel after disconnecting from our partner, or even the last hurrah at a goodbye.” For some couples, breakup sex can be a good thing—but there are potential drawbacks, as well.

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Why do people have breakup sex?

In 2020, a team of psychologists looked into what motivates people to jump back in the sack after a split. Their findings, published in the journal Evolutionary Psychology, honed in on a relatively simple top answer: Sex is fun. The days and weeks following a breakup are generally not a great time, and for some, breakup sex is a quick way to feel better—if only briefly. “When we have sex, our bodies release dopamine, endorphins, and oxytocin, the brain chemicals that make us feel good,” says Noelle Benach, LCPC, CST, owner of Noelle Benach Counseling & Consulting. “The closeness and connectivity created through breakup sex may provide exes with temporary relief from the stress and sadness they’re experiencing related to the breakup.”

The second huge reason for breakup sex, according to the research, is that people just miss it. And having sex with your ex “allows for some familiarity or comfort in already knowing the person and what to expect, taking away all of the fluff of asking for what you want and leaving your sexual encounter to chance,” Lewis says.

From there, the rationales get a little more complicated:

  • You want to get back together
  • You still have feelings for them
  • You want to show them what they are going to be missing
  • You fill an emotional void
  • You want to test the waters to see if there still are feelings.

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Is breakup sex a good idea?

For some people, breakup sex can offer a sense of closure, Benach says. “They may enjoy going through the motions of having sex with someone familiar—we are creatures of habit, after all.”

And relationships don’t always end because of sexual incompatibility, Lewis adds. Breakups often trigger stages of grief, and for some, the act of having sex is a final goodbye that can help them move through some of the complex emotions surrounding the end of the relationship.

Breakup sex also has the potential to validate parts of the relationship that did work well. This can help us view the breakup from a more balanced perspective, acknowledging the importance and good parts of the relationship while acknowledging the things that didn’t make it work through a new lens.

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When is breakup sex a bad idea?

While there can be benefits to breakup sex, the research and the experts emphasize that it comes down to your motivations. The Evolutionary Psychology research says that generally speaking, men tend to feel better after breakup sex because they approach it with more “hedonistic or ambivalent reasons,” like wanting to feel better or missing sex. Some women, on the other hand, might tend to engage in breakup sex for emotional reasons—and more often feel worse about themselves after the fact.

This data is based on general trends, however. In practice, the experts say that breakup sex as a “good” or “bad” thing comes down to individual couples—particularly whether or not they’re on the same page. “For example, if one person is attempting to utilize sex as a way to rekindle the relationship, while the other partner is simply looking for sexual gratification—this type of misalignment can cause a lot of hurt and confusion,” Benach says.

She explains that if you’re on the fence about having sex with an ask, consider:

  • What am I hoping to get out of this experience?
  • Is there a reason I’m pursuing my ex instead of someone new?
  • Does my ex understand my intentions and feel similarly?

Above all, listen to yourself and your body. “While there isn’t a right or a wrong when it comes to sex with our exes, if we are experiencing emotional adversity and aren’t really listening to ourselves and what is best for us, then anything that makes us feel negatively is a bad idea,” Lewis adds.

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Sources

People:

Tiffany Lewis, MSW, RSW, a therapist with wellbe family wellness

Noelle Benach, LCPC, CST, owner of Noelle Benach Counseling & Consulting

Journals:

Evolutionary Psychology: "The psychology of breakup sex: Exploring the motivational factors and affective consequences of post-breakup sexual activity"

Leslie Finlay
In addition to The Healthy, Leslie has written for outlets such as WebMd.com, Fodors.com, LiveFit.com, and more, specializing in content related to healthcare, nutrition, mental health and wellness, and environmental conservation and sustainability. She holds a master's degree in Public Policy focused on the intersection between public health and environmental conservation, and an undergraduate degree in journalism. Leslie is based in Thailand, where she is a marine conservation and scuba diving instructor. In her spare time you'll find her up in the air on the flying trapeze or underwater, diving coral reefs.