I'm a 33-year-old man and I was previously with a woman for two years in our mid-20s. After we broke up, I moved away, but have recently moved back home. My ex and I have started chatting over social media and we ended up on a group night out together thanks to some mutual acquaintances. It's not that there was excessive flirting or anything concrete, but we got on great, there was no awkwardness and I still find her attractive. I know she's single and I'm wondering if it could be possible to start a "no-strings-attached" situation with her? I'm still adjusting to being back home and starting a new job so I'm not looking for a relationship right now, but is that possible with an ex? (This is all currently hypothetical because I don't know if she's interested, but I thought I should figure out what I want before ramping up the flirting etc.)
First of all, kudos on making the conscious decision to figure out your motivations before acting. All too often, people start actively flirting with, or even actively pursuing, someone before realising they’re not emotionally ready or interested, and while understandable and common, this thoughtless form of flirting can sometimes lead to confusion or hurt feelings.
The good news is that, for some people, sex with an ex can be a positive experience, and a far cry from the emotional turmoil-fuelled disaster that many handwringing and melodramatic sitcom storylines would have you believe.
Now – and please note that I said for some people, not all people – as with most good news, there are caveats.
A recent study by Stephanie Spielmann of Wayne State University and published in the Archives of Sexual Behaviour showed that most people who had sex with an ex after a breakup did not feel distressed or depressed, nor did it hinder their recovery from the relationship. Spielmann explains that the findings suggest that "societal handwringing regarding trying to have sex with an ex may not be warranted," and argues that we should focus our attention on the reasons people want to have sex with their exes, rather than the action itself.
The reasons for wanting to sleep with an ex can have merit - having good sex after a break-up can be a way of ending the interaction on a positive note; having mediocre sex can demystify or prevent any idealising of an ex and help you realise you’re not missing out on much (harsh but true); or it can just clarify any lingering confusion and provide closure.
While that sounds like a free pass to sleep with all your exes, Spielmann’s study - like all studies - needs to analysed to be truly understood. As it explored the feelings of those who had slept with an ex, it inherently focuses on people who did not write off sex with an ex as in inconceivable or truly terrible idea not worthy of exploring. It also means that the participants’ exes had also weighed up the risks or sleeping together and deemed it an experience worth trying, at least. So of course the result are going to skew more positive than if a random selection of exes had ignored their gut instincts and slept together in the name of science.
Which means we have to look at your situation, the reasons you want to have sex with your ex, and the possible risks.
You don’t go into details about the break-up, which is obviously going to be a major determining factor. If the break-up was complicated, or traumatic for your ex, or if you left her when she was still utterly in love with you, it’s far less likely that sex between you two will ever be truly casual. However, if the break-up was fairly mutual, decided by external factors such as you moving away, or just ended with a decent amount of shared respect for each other, you may well be in luck. The fact that you drifted apart after the break-up for a few fears also bodes well, as it’s more likely that you’ve both individually grown as people and achieved the emotional distance necessary to keep sex fairly uncomplicated. If exes remain close or have intertwining lives, it’s more likely that sex with reignite some nostalgia or emotion that could prove confusing.
But again, I have to rain on your parade here. All of this logic, and even Spielmann’s study, focuses on having a one-night-strand with an ex - not having the extended no-strings-attached situation you seem to want. But you had a serious relationship with this person. Those are strings, Pinocchio. As you also seem to have a shared social life in some capacity, the potential for emotional complications is much higher, as you could see each other more and the fall-out from any complications could be greater.
Given that you could be focusing your energy on finding a new person to have some causal fun with, someone who could offer a genuinely no-strings-attached situation, I have to wonder if you are being completely honest with yourself , and subconsciously do have a desire to rekindle something with your ex - out of desire, nostalgia, laziness, or maybe even some lingering resentment, in that you know this situation could end up hurting her in some way.
Pick someone else for some casual fun until you’re clearer on your feelings and hers. Sex with an ex can be good. Being a good, thoughtful, considerate and drama-free ex? Even better. Focus on that.
Roe McDermott is a writer and Fulbright scholar with an MA in sexuality studies from San Francisco State University. She is researching a PhD in gendered and sexual citizenship at the Open University and Oxford.
If you have a problem or query you would like her to answer, you can submit it anonymously at irishtimes.com/dearroe