Picture this: you’re in the middle of a heated breakup with bae. Both of you are upset, tears have been shed, and you’ve been talking in circles for an hour. As tough as this is, though, you know it’s the right move to end your relationship. Just as the conversation seems to be nearing a close, your (now ex-)partner leans in close and… boom. You’re making out. All of a sudden, things are majorly heating up between you, and before you know it, you’re getting it on. As confusing as it can be, the psychology behind breakup sex reveals why this questionable decision can feel super hot and awesome in the moment.
You’ve probably had friends tell you breakup sex is a horrible idea, point blank. There are always people who’ve had terrible experiences with it, and they have no qualms about shouting to the world that it’s a bad decision. But then you'll also encounter the opposite — there's always that pal who narrates in detail at the squad brunch about her super hot breakup sex with her on-again off-again lover. Everyone seems to have an opinion about it, one way or another. What's the right move here? Is breakup sex setting you up for confusion, or is it a great way to end things on a high note?
If you really think about it, breakup sex is kind of a strange concept. You’ve literally just ended a relationship with someone, there might be hurt feelings in the mix, and all you probably want to do is take some space to grieve. But instead, you end up in bed together. Why do some couples tend to do this? I reached out to Dr. John D. Moore, licensed psychotherapist and cognitive behavior specialist, to learn more about what goes on in our brains during breakup sex.
Moore explains breakup sex as one facet in the drawn-out process of ending a relationship. “Most people think relational collapses are an immediate event when in fact, they aren’t,” he says. “Instead, breaking up is part of an ongoing process.” And having sex one last time can be an important part of letting go of that person. In fact, Moore argues that sometimes it helps couples find closure in a healthy way.
The reason breakup sex feels so hot in the moment has to do with our lateral orbitofrontal cortex — the part of our brain responsible for making logical decisions. Moore explains that after a breakup, our feelings are in a heightened state, which leads to an intense emotional connection. Psychosexual and relationship psychotherapist Kate Moyle elaborates by saying that breakup sex allows us to be bolder than we might usually be in bed. “For many couples … it can allow them to let go of their inhibitions in some way, as they are emotionally detaching from their partner,” she explains. “Sometimes a bit of distance can promote us being more sexually explorative or adventurous, as we don't fear the sense of rejection as strongly.” Essentially, because the relationship has already ended, you might not be feeling the same level of nervousness or pressure to perform. As a result, you can have whatever sex makes you feel most satisfied and connected.
Contrary to some common wisdom that says breakup sex is bad, Moore believes it can be part of the healing process. “Breakup sex helps a couple move past feelings of sadness and literally feel better,” he says. “[It] can be healing because it has the power to validate certain parts of the relationship that may have once worked well. An example might be the shared physical connection two people have in the bedroom.” If you two had mind-blowing chemistry, breakup sex is a great way to remember how awesome things were. It pulls you out of the sadness of the moment to bring you back together for one last shared experience of pleasure.
All this being said, though, breakup sex is likely to be pretty confusing as well. Especially if you just had the best sex ever, you’re probably left wondering, “Why are we ending this?” Moyle explains that this might have to do with how each partner feels about the breakup. “It's not necessarily the sex itself, but what it means and represents to both parties which is the biggest factor,” she notes. For example, if one partner wants to save the relationship, having sex might make them feel like there’s a chance of staying together.
If you or your new ex are hoping to rescue the relationship, it’s best to steer clear of breakup sex entirely. You don’t want to confuse the situation further or make it harder to move on. Moyle explains that in situations where it was a clearly one-sided breakup, “breakup sex here may be something that gives [the broken-up-with partner] hope that it can be saved.” That’s not to say it won’t still be sexy in the moment, but you’re more likely to experience feelings of regret in the aftermath.
Moore tells Elite Daily he recommends that people check back in with themselves a day or two after having breakup sex. “Do they feel good about the experience or bad — or both?,” he inquires. “If the answer is ‘bad or both,’ then it’s important to look at the logical reasons that the decision to split happened in the first place. By revisiting these reasons, it can help to provide clarity.” If breakup sex has you questioning why the relationship ended, try making a list of reasons you feel like the split was the right thing.
Overall, the emotional impact of breakup sex has a lot to do with how the relationship ended and how both partners are feeling about the split. When done in a healthy way, where both people see it as a last hurrah, breakup sex can be a useful way to let go of your relationship. “Because both people consciously feel liberated from the constraints of the relationship that once was, they can show an uninhibited part of themselves to their ex that is unique and independent,” Moore says. You might even find yourself having one of your most meaningful sexual encounters together once you’ve made the decision to end things. And that’s OK! The important thing is that you both go into the breakup sex knowing it’s just that — breakup sex — and not some last-ditch effort to save your relationship.
Once you're clear on that front, feel free to get it on after you cut things off! Oh, and definitely fill in the squad during your next brunch outing. Trust me, they’ll be ready to hear your opinion.