How, Though? is a column devoted to helping you manage all the daunting complications of being alive.
So: You’ve recently gone through a breakup. Or, maybe it wasn’t recent, but you still have feelings, because making them go away is a giant enigma of a process (but you already know that). These feelings aren’t necessarily that you still love your ex and want to get back together, though they can be that. You may be feeling angry, lonely, sad, resentful—hell, you might be thrilled. The thing about the human spectrum of emotion is that almost every feeling gets along well with being horny. (Most of us know the plight of being sad and horny, angry and horny, happy and horny, hungry and horny—the list goes on.)
The art of a successful breakup is a mystery that we’ve devoted far too much time to figuring it out through books, podcasts, films, 2 AM conversations with our best friends, and even math. Through it all, there are few things that we can agree on, but one of them is that sleeping with your ex is not going to expedite getting over them or cutting them out of your life (if that’s what you’re going for).
We know this, but in times when we’re looking to satiate our cravings for sex, intimacy, or simply some familiar company, what we know is best for us and what we actually do can be two very different things. To help guide you through these moments of vulnerability, I’ve asked love and relationship therapist and coach Teresa Thomas M.S. for some help.
Before we get into it, Thomas reminds us that the notion that sleeping with your ex is bad isn’t set in stone. For some people, “one last time” can provide closure, or serve as a reminder that they really aren’t missing out on anything. That said, this advice is for those who’ve already decided that it’s best for them not to go there. Thomas also emphasizes that it is especially crucial not to go into any type of relations, physical or otherwise, with an ex that was abusive or otherwise toxic to your mental or physical health.
Things to Remember
Why it’s over
Avoiding a hook up with your ex is a game of mind over matter. As such, there are things you’re going to want to remind yourself of anytime your fingers start jonesing to send a “you up?” text. “What I do think is important to realize is, one, why that person is your ex,” says Thomas. “What were the circumstances around your breakup and what it is about that person or about you or even just your relationship that made it come to a close?” Maybe they lied to you, maybe they were just lazy, maybe they weren’t lazy enough, maybe you hated the way they chewed. Whatever it is, now is a good time to remember the things you didn’t like about both them and yourself when you were with them.
How hooking up with them will affect you
I know that your future is the last thing you want to be thinking about when it’s late and you’re horny and lonely, but you should. If you’re someone who gets more attached as the result of sexual intimacy, really think about how one night (realistically, more like 15 minutes) of hooking up is going to effect and potentially set back the emotional progress you’ve made in the time since the breakup.
Also consider the role (or lack thereof) that you’d now like your ex to fulfill in your life. “When you're trying to break ties with someone in a more permanent manner—you don't want to be friends with them, you're really feeling that their presence in your life is toxic— sleeping with them is definitely not a good idea,” says Thomas.
That your feelings are valid
“When your relationship is over, it doesn't necessarily mean that your emotional connection with that person is over,” she says. “Sometimes our heart has to catch up to our mind.” The fact that you may still have feelings for a person doesn’t inherently mean that the breakup was a mistake, but it does mean that you’re human. The truth is people often have sex with their exes for reasons that are far deeper than being horny. “When we've made up our minds to leave, a lot of the time, people will continue to be intimate with someone or have sex with someone because of that emotional connection that has not been healed,” says Thomas. She points out that, culturally, we assume a breakup means an end to these feelings, but that’s rarely the case. Give yourself the time to feel all your feelings, but remember that you don’t have to act on them (if you’ve decided that it’s not in your best interest).
If you slip up…
If you do end up having sex with your ex, all is not lost. “Number one, I would say, is to not feel like you have to be hard on yourself, to not quickly go into guilt mode or regret mode,” says Thomas. Neither guilt nor regret are productive. Instead, “find more ways to hold yourself accountable,” she says. Thomas suggests evaluating the circumstances that led to the hook up and using them to make sure it doesn’t happen again. Maybe you need to avoid a certain bar or coffee shop. Use this time to think pragmatically about your future instead of regrettably about your past.
Things to Do
Keep a journal
Sometimes thinking about things isn’t enough, so it can help to have a visual aid. "It's really good to write things down,” says Thomas. "Keep a journal or try to write down a list that focuses on the conclusions you came to when you made the decision [to not hook up with your ex].” She suggests keeping a list of reasons why you broke up, listing the positives and negatives of sleeping with your ex, or just simply writing down your feelings however feels best to you. Thinking on paper or out loud can put you in a position where you’re less likely to make a rash decision, like asking your ex if they want to come over and watch the finale of Sharp Objects knowing damn well you won’t be watching any of it.
Bring your ex into the conversation
I trust that anyone can be strong-willed if they set their mind to it, but avoiding sleeping with your ex is a lot harder when they won’t stay out of your DMs. Thomas says that setting boundaries with them is crucial, though what that looks like is up to you. Maybe you’re most tempted to hook up with them when they text you at night or send you a funny meme on Instagram. If that’s a position you don’t want to be in, you can ask that they don’t communicate with you on certain platforms or at certain times, or cut off all communication period for a set or open-ended amount of time. If your ex is making forward advances, you can be blunt. Try, “I am not going to hook up with you, and you need to stop hitting me up like this.” Blocking their number works, too.
Set boundaries for yourself
Getting over a breakup takes time and, “During that time you’re going to have to impose some strict boundaries for yourself,” says Thomas. Maybe you’re the one doing the tempting, maybe seeing your ex looking good on the ‘gram can send your whole day off course—whatever it is, self-imposed boundaries are great, if not necessary after a breakup. (Otherwise, you may find yourself checking your ex’s tagged photos for the third time today.) Blocking and unfriending aren’t always acts of animosity, sometimes they’re purely self-protection.
If you work or go to school with an ex, you might not have the luxury of choosing when you get to see them. Setting boundaries with yourself, like choosing not to flirt or opting out of study groups or shifts where they’ll be present, is one way to keep yourself out of compromising situations.
Satiate your sexual desire elsewhere
If you’re feeling tempted to hit your ex up in hopes of hooking up, try getting yourself off first, then reevaluating the situation. If it’s not so much orgasms, but intimacy that you crave, remember the world is full of other people who also like sex! However, you know yourself better than I do: If hooking up with new people makes you feel weird, then that may not be for you, and that’s chill, too.
The cool thing about a breakup (and there are cool things) is that you’re going to have a lot more time on your hands. Loving another person takes a lot of work and energy, and now you can put that work and energy into yourself, your health, your ambitions, and your happiness. As the meme goes, “Yeah sex is cool, but have you ever tried putting yourself first?”