Love & Sex

True Stories: In Defense of Ex-Sex

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It is a truth universally acknowledged that "sex with an ex" falls somewhere between "crush on a co-worker" and "affair with a married man" on the great Don't Go There continuum — an emotional quagmire, best avoided if you know what's good for you. You're playing with fire, psychologists admonish would-be repeat offenders in their advice columns and call-in shows. It will only bring back a flood of emotions. Find someone new and keep that door shut, girlfriend.

With all due respect, I think the advice columnists are wrong: breakup sex is way underrated. Sure, it has the potential to be misleading and self-destructive, but so does a one-night stand with a total stranger. Under the right circumstances, I'd even argue that one last round in the sack can be an essential, healthy step towards the Holy Grail of all breakups: closure. Take it from me. I slept with my ex-husband three months after our divorce was final, and it was one of the best decisions of my life.

He and I had been lovers all through college and married the month after graduation. From then it took us three rocky years to admit that somehow the unthinkable had happened — we had woken up from the fairy tale as unexceptional twenty-five-year olds who fought more than we should, hardly ever had sex, and no longer had much of anything in common. Despite a mutual decision to sever ties, the incision was far from clean. I moved to California, and in my absence, he took up with my best friend. I broke down, spent a month in bed, and when I finally emerged from my gauzy stupor I told him to stop calling me. Months passed when our only communication was brisk emails about practicalities. Slowly, tremblingly, I established a separate life for myself thousands of miles away from him. It was only after all the paperwork had been stamped and filed, and my life had started to take recognizable shape, that I was able to admit to myself that I missed him.

I didn't tell anyone about this. I already knew how my friends would react.

We started corresponding again. Slowly at first, just emailing funny things we'd read or heard, but soon we were Gchatting and texting four or five times a week, and sometimes talking on the phone late into the night. I didn't tell anyone about this. I already knew how my friends would react — sternly remind me how much he'd hurt me, how hard it had been to get over my emotional dependence on him — and I was afraid that they were right. Even though I enjoyed my long conversations with him, I didn't trust them, and I couldn't shake the guilty feeling that I was cheating on my new self with my old one.

Ten months after our breakup, I was back in town and called to see if he wanted to get a beer. I used the pretext that I needed some stuff from our old house, but really I just wanted to see him, find out where things stood between us. I took certain preventative measures: I asked him to meet me in the early evening at a bright, family-friendly brewpub and picked clothes and makeup that made me look good, but not like I was trying. In case I tried to do something regrettable, I took out an insurance policy by arranging to meet my most judgmental friends at a nearby bar two hours after I was set to meet him. Keep that door shut, girlfriend.

He was (characteristically) late. As I waited in a black vinyl booth, I tried to divine the source of my sudden nervousness. We knew each other better than anyone, but I didn't know how I would feel when I saw him, and it scared me. I needn't have worried. He was just the same, or nearly so — his thick Greek hair was slicked back into a bun. Gross, I thought, and relaxed. This person sliding into the booth across from me was no threat to my equilibrium.

We started out with pleasantries — gossip, biographical tidbits, things we'd been reading, just two old friends catching up. But the conversation turned personal somewhere into our second beer. We talked about the ups and downs of our six-year relationship, the strangeness of dating and sleeping with other people, the emptiness of making out with strangers at parties. Our friends had encouraged it of both of us, and I told him it always made me feel that much more alone. He nodded understandingly; I'd forgotten what a relief it was to have a conversation with someone who always knew what I was talking about. Two hours passed in a blur, and as our intimacy deepened, I was glad I had a reason to leave.

He insisted on walking me to the next bar. I was grateful for the lingering June light as we dawdled in front and shared a long goodbye embrace; there were no shadows or dark corners to get lost in. I savored his closeness, but then remembered myself and quickly took my leave. Inside, I found my friends and made my way over to them in the dimness. They were suspicious of my buoyant mood (they'd been expecting tears, venom, the usual), but were cautiously happy for me when I told them how well things had gone. Someone handed me a beer. Someone else started telling me about her new boyfriend. Soon I was wholly caught up in the social whirlwind, and was on my next drink by the time I noticed I had a new text message. That was such a nice talk. Thank you.

I smiled, then checked to see if anyone was watching. They were not. I decided to test the boundaries. I'm gonna admit this to you in the spirit of honesty. I seriously thought about trying to have breakup sex with you, but it seemed way too self-destructive.

He texted back immediately. Yeah I thought about it too. You're looking good these days. But I agree. Too much attached.

So he had thought about it. And he thought I looked good. I was flush with success. More time passed. More pitchers were consumed. More people came. The party moved to a dive bar down the street. It was after midnight when my phone buzzed again. In the spirit of honesty… how averse to being self-destructive are you?


I made a beeline for the grimy two-stall bathroom, checked to make sure I was alone, and then stared at myself in the mirror. The florescent overhead light should have washed me out, but there was color in my cheeks, fire in my eyes. I looked my reflection straight in the eye. "Anna. Don't do this. There will be consequences." (Bathroom-mirror pep talks are common for me when I've been drinking.) My reflection didn't flinch. Intellectually, I understood that the decision I was about to make was a bad one, but I was tired of fighting the past, tired of inoculating myself against life. I locked myself in a stall and waved the white flag. Not that averse. Give me a few hours.

I only told one other person about my decision, a friend who had made plenty of her own mistakes and would not judge mine. She was on her way home, but told me to wake her up if I needed to crash on her couch. I assured her I wouldn't, and texted him. You still up?


Come pick me up?

I weaved my way to a street corner a discrete distance from the bar, and soon saw his green Honda Civic (formerly our green Honda Civic) slowing as it came toward me. I took a deep breath and climbed in. We kissed awkwardly. "Is this a terrible idea?" I asked.

"Maybe," he said.

We didn't talk much on the short drive back to his apartment (formerly our apartment; I had to stop thinking like this). Instead, I thought about how clean his car was. It made me sad. So this was what life was like without me — tidier. As we walked to the front door like we had countless nights before, I had the disorienting sense that the past ten months had been a dream. I pushed it away. In the living room, his penchant for sheepskins, Persian rugs, and Orthodox iconography had gotten out of control. The last time I'd been there, when I was moving out, I'd been struck by how easy it had been to divide our possessions.

I reached for him, and we fell into the bedroom.


That weekend suddenly seemed like a lifetime ago. How had we never noticed that everything I owned was modern and everything he liked was antique? Had I really lived for five years with someone who decorated his apartment with animal skins?

But the thoughts didn't gain much ground. I reached for him, and we fell into the bedroom. He'd rearranged the furniture, but it was all still there: the bright Mexican prints we'd found in Oaxaca, the wrought-iron bed we'd picked out together at IKEA, the turquoise Ralph Lauren duvet cover I'd bought with his mother in a New Jersey outlet mall. I tried not to notice. I tried to concentrate on kissing him, but even that was weird: familiar, dull, mechanical. When he produced a nearly full box of condoms from his bedside table, I tried not to wonder who he'd bought them for, or how many he'd been through since our split. I tried not to be bothered by the atrocious length of his hair. I tried not to think about the phrase "marital bed." I was so busy trying to concentrate on the task at hand that it took me a minute to realize that he had lost all enthusiasm for it.

"What's wrong?" I asked, still pretending, even though by then we both knew it was no good.

"I… I don't think I want to do this," he said. "I'm so sorry. It's just too weird."

That was all it took. My emotional floodgates groaned under the weight of it all: the sudden intimacy and rejection, the alcohol, the turquoise duvet cover, everything else I was trying not to think about, everything I'd been holding inside since September. I burst into wild, body-wracking sobs. "I don't want to do this either," I wailed.

"That's okay," he said and pulled me close. I told him it wasn't and pushed him away.

"We used to love each other so much, and now we can't even have breakup sex," I sobbed, and starting pulling my clothes on, violently. I said that if I let him comfort me, I'd be doomed. He seemed to understand. I couldn't stop crying. He offered to drive me anywhere I wanted to go, and I sheepishly called my friend and told her I needed her couch after all. We finished dressing quickly, in a silence that wasn't awkward or tense, just terribly small and real. Truth be told, we were both a little embarrassed. After all we'd been through together, we should have known better.

I didn't know where I was when I opened my eyes on a strange couch the next morning, but after a few seconds the whole sorry scene came crashing back, along with a throbbing headache and aching limbs and eyes puffy from crying myself to sleep. I lay very still and waited for the usual wave of recrimination and self-doubt that usually follows in the wake of my drunken bad behavior, but there was none. In its place was a profound sense of well-being. Our marriage was resoundingly over, and now that I'd finally mourned its loss, I could let it go.

Hear that, girlfriend? You need to open that door and face whatever's behind it, if you know what's good for you. Then slam it shut and find someone new.  



Anna Roth is a food, pop culture and travel writer, whose work has appeared in the Seattle Weekly, Sunset, Seattle Times and Edible Communities. She currently lives in Los Angeles and works as an editor at a new media company.