2 Researched-Based Motivations Behind The Breakup Sex Itch
The universal phenomenon of breakup sex is rooted in both fear and curiosity.
By Mark Travers, Ph.D. | October 18, 2023
After a breakup, there is often a lingering sense of unfinished business and questions left unanswered. For many, physical intimacy with an ex-partner can provide a sense of finality and resolution—a way to say goodbye to the relationship on their own terms or to reaffirm the emotional bond that once existed.
Research in 2020 found that, regardless of gender, individuals may turn to breakup sex to maintain or rekindle their relationship, or to seek emotional closure.
However, the researchers also suggested that breakup sex might disproportionately benefit men more than women. Male participants in the study reported feeling better about themselves after breakup sex, whereas women reported feeling better about the terminated relationship, but worse about themselves.
A new study published in the journal Personality and Individual Differences offers a closer examination of the differences in why men and women engage in breakup sex.
The researchers discovered two underlying motivations for post-breakup intimacy: a fear of being single and a pattern of "sociosexuality." These motivations are unpacked below.
1. A Fear Of Being Single
The researchers found that women who reported a heightened fear of being single expressed a greater desire for breakup sex. This was not a motivator for men in the study.
The fear of being alone or harboring concerns about one's ability to find a new partner could lead to engaging in breakup sex as a way to avoid or mitigate these fears. The comfort of physical intimacy with a familiar ex-partner can provide a temporary sense of security.
Further, research shows that a fear of being single leads to settling for less in romantic relationships and makes individuals more likely to stay in an unsatisfying relationship. This fear also leads people to choose partners that are less emotionally responsive than they desire.
Therefore, in the face of alternatives that seem unfulfilling or unappealing, one might discover a newfound appreciation for what they had with their ex-partner—temporarily ignoring the reasons behind their split. This longing for ex-partners can prompt the pursuit of breakup sex.
2. A Pattern Of Sociosexuality
Sociosexuality, which refers to desire to engage in casual sexual encounters, emerged as another driving force for both men and women to engage in breakup sex. Individuals with a more relaxed attitude toward sex were more inclined to engage in post-breakup sexual encounters, seemingly driven by their heightened desire for sexual experiences. Such individuals were also more likely to have had breakup sex in the past.
The researchers found that men, more than women, engage in breakup sex for hedonistic pleasure and excitement. This desire aligns with the concept of "fiery limbo," a relationship stage in which ex-partners continue to experience sexual attraction to one another, while grappling with the knowledge that they are no longer together. Their desire is possibly intensified by the uncertainty surrounding their relationship status.
The researchers suggest that women may have a lower motivation to engage in breakup sex for reasons of pleasure due to the possibility of becoming pregnant with a non-supportive partner. Further, heterosexual women might not be as interested in breakup sex for pleasure due to the "orgasm gap," which refers to the lower likelihood of them reaching orgasm as compared to their male counterparts during a sexual encounter.
Breakup sex is a complex and multifaceted phenomenon driven by a combination of emotional, psychological and individual factors. For women, both sociosexuality and a fear of being single lead to a greater desire for breakup sex, whereas for men, sociosexuality and hedonistic pleasure play a greater role. The consequences of post-breakup intimacy can vary and there is no one-size-fits-all solution to dealing with the emotions that follow a breakup. The best we can do is thoughtfully evaluate how breakup sex impacts us and choose what benefits our mental health in the long run.