Can being being physically intimate with an ex hold you back from moving on?
Question: I just broke up with my boyfriend of three years, but he's still hoping we’ll end up together. Neither of us is dating anyone new, so we still have "ex-sex" occasionally. He insists he can handle it emotionally, but is it wrong to continue when I have no intention of getting back together with him? –Sasha, 29
Her Take: In general, I see nothing wrong with temporary ex-sex, as long as 1) it's still fun and not too depressing; 2) you're not doing it so often that it keeps either of you from meeting someone else; and 3) you're absolutely honest and forthright about exactly what this is (which is, basically, using each other until someone better comes along). Personally, though, I'd do it only if I was the dumper, not the dumpee. First, I'm not a big fan of being used. And also, there's no way I wouldn't hold out hope every time we dimmed the lights that this would be the time I’d change his mind: he’d realize how amazing I am, confess that he can't live without me, and come crawling back. Then, when this didn't happen—when, in fact, he cut me off cold because someone more promising came along—I'd be doubly pissed at him for having used me (even if, yes, he told me he was doing it at the time).
Here’s the thing, though: I don't think a break-up necessarily has to be done in one fell swoop. If it takes a few weeks or a month, and you feel that hooking up occasionally during that time wouldn’t be a terrible thing for either of you—then I promise to cover my eyes and not judge you. You wouldn't be so much postponing the pain (or purely using him) as simply letting him down slowly. In Defense Of Ex Sex
His Take: It’s wrong. Please stop. Now.
Why? A little story: a long time ago (in a galaxy far, far away), a woman I'd been dating for four glorious months broke up with me. I know—I couldn't believe it either. But her old boyfriend was moving to town (she'd moved away from him for grad school but they'd never officially broken up), and now he and all their history had to be dealt with, which she suggested could take a very long time and meant, essentially, that I needed to pack my relationship bags and move on.
Or did it? After all, she and I still liked being together, and the sex was good, so why should we deny ourselves the pleasure of continued, if far less frequent, intimacy? This was my point anyway, and she, unfortunately, let me persuade her. I say "unfortunately" because the result of our dallying with ex-sex was that we saw each other just enough to keep me hooked but not enough to keep me from being miserable about being in a relationship that was out of my control. I needed her to cut me off, but she wouldn't. She kept saying that I could just walk away, that everyone’s responsible for his own feelings and decisions, and blah, blah, blah.
But here’s the thing: I was the jiltee, not the jilter. And only the strongest of jiltees can just walk away. Needless to say, I was not a member of this elite group.
Which led me to the following relationship rule: in a breakup, it is purely the jilter's responsibility to deny the jiltee of ex-sex. The one who was dumped is like an addict who must be made to go cold turkey; if there's any hope of a score, he'll rationalize and lie and beg to get what he thinks he needs, which in this case is sex (or anything) with you. And your solemn duty is to cut him off.
Continuing to serve as his dealer while merely lowering his dosage is not only dangerous, but possibly illegal. So take a page out of Nancy Reagan’s book and "Just say no." He'll be glad you did.
Cathi Hanauer is the author, most recently, of Sweet Ruin, a novel about love, marriage, and adultery. Daniel Jones is the editor of both the "Modern Love" column for The New York Times, and Modern Love, an anthology derived from the column. They have been married for 15 years. Together they provide a his and hers take on your questions.