Having sex with an ex seems to be a fairly typical part of the breakup process for young adults, a new study shows. But the behavior could be risky, pushing former partners into emotionally complicated territory where safe-sex measures are likely to be cast aside, researchers say.
The study's authors collected data on 792 "emerging adults" ages 17 to 24, who had been part of a longitudinal survey (meaning scientists followed them through time) in Lucas County, Ohio, which includes the city of Toledo. All had been in a relationship within the past two years. The researchers found that nearly half (44 percent) had broken up and gotten back together with a girlfriend or boyfriend.
Among those who had rekindled a flame, 53 percent said sex was part of the reconciliation. Racial minorities in particular were more likely to reconcile and have sex with an ex, the study found. This so-called "relationship churning" is far more common among young people than married adult couples, the researchers say. This could reflect the general instability and romantic exploration that are characteristic of emerging adulthood, though the team warns that such behavior could have negative emotional consequences.
"Having sex with an ex could put people in a position of technically being broken up, but still emotionally connected," the authors wrote in an article published in the Journal of Adolescent Research in November 2012.
"Those who stay in contact following a breakup continue to feel the pain of the breakup more intensely and may have more difficulty moving on. Previous research found that college students who had sex with their exes mostly described this as a 'difficult or negative event.'" The behavior is also risky from a health perspective. Previous research has shown that condom use is high at the beginning of relationships but tends to drop over time.
Though sex with an ex might be treated as a casual encounter, exes might be less likely to use a condom or take the safe-sex precautions they would with a less familiar partner.