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“During My Marriage, My Only Affairs Were with My Exes”

Why are people attracted to their exes?

Why are people attracted to their exes? Is renewal of romantic bonds for sexual satisfaction a good idea?

“During my marriage, my only affairs were with my exes; sex with exes is extremely exciting. The sex with my husband has never been so.”—Iris

"Dating an ex is the equivalent of failing a test you already had the answers to.” —Kendrick Cole

Nostalgia, a mixture of fond feelings for past events and sadness concerning their absence, is a bittersweet longing for a past, perceived as better than it really was. In such idealization, we remember only the positive aspects of our experience since focusing on negative past events is more painful. Idealization of the past can nevertheless be harmful—for instance, when people return to abusive relationships, dismissing or underestimating their negative and dangerous past impact.

Our goal-oriented society prefers an intellectual approach to nostalgia; in assuming “what’s done is done,” it does not give much weight to past events. One might argue it is irrational to invest in the past (as in the case of trying to save a soured love) and we should rather focus on present and future goals.

This disregards, however, that the past is meaningful for emotional and romantic reasons. William Faulkner went so far as to say, “the past isn’t dead. It’s not even past.” Sometimes we should cry over spilled milk; how would we otherwise learn to value milk and to avoid spilling it again? Events from the past will always be part of us, but should not consume us.

Sometimes, it is truly best not to cry over spilled milk. When a loving relationship ends, there is no reason to continue living in the past. The best route is in establishing a new relationship. The demise of one’s love does not mean the death of one’s life—even not one’s love life. However, our lives would be shallow if we were to blot out the past.

The morning after

Here are several answers provided to the question, “How did you feel after sex with an ex?

  • “I am sleeping with my exes until I meet a new partner. The sex is an emotional turmoil including regret the morning after.”
  • “It’s honestly just made everything worse. I do not recommend it.”
  • “I slept with my ex just once. I am not attracted to my exes as each one belongs to a different period of my life where I was in a different developmental phase.”
  • “I usually do not enjoy sex with an ex. I am more excited by sex with my partner, who makes me feel like I’m at home, despite our many differences.”
  • “It made me realize that my ex should stay my ex.”
  • “The only difficult part of having sex with my ex, which I do every weekend, is that I don’t want to go out and look for a new lover because I love my ex’s body.”
  • “I continued having sex with my ex-husband after our divorce, and while neither of us had another partner. We both knew that it would not lead to remarriage, but the pleasant sex helped us realize that we were not enemies.”
  • “It is a mistake to go back to the past and an ex. I did it once, and I regret it.”

We often have sex with an ex during two periods—directly after the breakup and a long time after it. Immediately after a breakup, we focus on maintaining our self-esteem and sex with an ex, with the right timing and frequency, matches each partner’s expectations and can moderate the decrease in self-esteem. In the long term, a yearning for excitement and intimacy is central and expectations are typically different. In both cases, having sex for long periods of time may damage efforts to let go and find new love.

Yearning for exes

“Like my brother, Yuval, I’ve also had many girlfriends, but his have continued to love him since their breakups, and mine just hate me. I do not understand it. I must ask his girlfriends what they found in him that I lack.”—Avinoam Ben-Ze’ev

“My biggest dream, before I die, is to have sex with my ex.”—A married woman

Major reasons for the revival of previous romantic relationships are varied: love was profound at separation; the separation resulted from external circumstances that no longer exist, and the lovers are not happy in their current relationship. In these circumstances, the chances of revival are high. Research has found that nearly half of young daters and cohabiters report a reconciliation (a breakup followed by reunion), and over half of those who break up continue their sexual relationship (Halpern-Meekin et al., 2013).

In sexual encounters with an ex, there is less uncertainty: they have had sex before, they are familiar with each other and in their first sexual encounter, they can continue from where they left off. It is easier and safer to return to exes than to find someone new. Given their previous sexual intimacy, people perceive sex with exes as more legitimate and a “lesser sin.” Thus, ex-lovers constitute a threat and generate greater jealousy than anyone else to the current partners.

Sex with the ex typically creates ambivalent feelings. During sex, excitement is high, but following, lovers tend to regret the experience. Even if the overall feeling is positive, it is often illusory. There is a reason why this person is our ex, and it has not disappeared. Sex with an ex typically involves opposite expectations between the partner who is still in love and the other who terminated the relationship, but still wants sex.

We return to past lovers because of substantial reasons, such as idealizing the past, and technical ones, such as the ease of tracking exes on the internet and social media. Exes never disappear from view: we continue “living beside” them, seeing how they look, with whom they meet and where they spend their time. People love to hear that their exes long for them since knowing that we are still desired is flattering.

Romantic closure

“The art of losing isn't too hard to master, though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.” —Elizabeth Bishop

“I did not have sex with my ex for 10 years, despite his constant attempts to reconnect. Before he left the country, we met to say goodbye. I achieved closure that evening as he ravished me in his hot bed for hours. He asked me to stay open to him always, but closure is sweet in allowing the heart to release and love again. Years later, he asked to see me again. His erotic text made my heart skip a beat at the thought of seeing him again. For hours, I visualized him making love to me, finally forcing away the idea in my current lover’s arms. The difference between the two lovers is that one loves me and wants to marry me, while the other only offers an afternoon of sensual pleasure and then emotionally disappears. It seems that my closure has not been 100% bullet-proof, but is still strong enough that my sexual fantasies with my ex haven’t materialized.”—Rebeca

Yearning for exes is enhanced in times of social isolation, as in Covid-19. However, continued positive feelings toward an ex-partner may lead to increased feelings of distress and unhappiness impairing our ability to establish new relationships. Overcoming such feelings is best done by finding a new partner (see here).

In cases of separation, caused not because of a lack of love, but because of feeling incomplete, unfulfilled, and unsettled, yearning for the ex can endure even when we love our current partner. Open-ended breakups and unfulfilled feelings can awaken the bond, whereas romantic closure is facilitated by letting go.

A new partner excites us more than a familiar one, but a familiar partner enables a deeper calmness. The meeting with a profound ex also involves an exciting calmness (Ben-Ze’ev, 2019). Being with the ex, which has a flavor of good old wine, does not provide complete novelty, rather renewal involving development—the reunion of our parts that were deposited in the ex’s heart.

This post is partly based on my book, The Arc of Love: How Our Romantic Lives Change Over Time.

Facebook image: Zoom Team/Shutterstock

References

Ben-Ze’ev, A. (2019). The arc of love: How our romantic lives change over time. University of Chicago Press.

Halpern-Meekin, S. Manning, W. D., Giordano, P. C., & Longmore, M. A. (2013). Relationship churning in emerging adulthood: On/Off relationships and sex with an ex. Journal of Adolescent Research, 28, 166-188.

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