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Ashley Gork//MEDILL

Breaking up really is hard to do

by Ashley Gork
Feb 19, 2013

Malcolm Shaw (not his real name) was in love with his ex-girlfriend.

At 24, Shaw maintained a sexual relationship with his ex for several months after she broke up with him. She wanted to be single. He was caught off guard. Shaw said accepting a “friends with benefits” scenario seemed better than completely loosing what he had with the girl he loved.

“I gave all my effort and sanity,” he said.  His only regret was that he didn’t move on sooner.

Shaw’s experience is a common one, according to research published in the current Journal of Adolescent Research. The study, led by psychologists Sarah Halpern-Meekin and Wendy Manning of Bowling Green State University, found that almost half of the young adults aged 17 to 24 surveyed experienced reconciliation, a break-up followed by a reunion. Of those who reconciled, 53 percent had sex with their ex.
Halpern-Meekin said this statistic represents “the reality of relationships, how we talk about it with our friends and the messiness of it all.” She noted that when people form a particular emotional bond with one another, it can very difficult to cut it off completely.

The researchers said they hypothesize this trend may be a result of the increasing age of marriage, almost 29 for men and 28 for women, and the reduced need to stay together for economic reasons. With more years in earlier adulthood to explore and navigate, there are also more opportunities for breaking up and getting back together.

“How we define relationships in early adulthood is really in flux,” Manning said. Although similar findings have been found in marriage literature, neither researcher expected the results to be so high for young adults.

However, this can also involve several complications.

Manning said the sexual and psychological risk involved in what she called “relationship churning.” She said that having sex with an ex could feel like having sex with a boyfriend or girlfriend and that this monogamous feeling can result in subsequent unprotected sexual acts.

Psychological well-being can also be disrupted with relationship churning. Manning said that reconciliation be problematic when it comes to stability in future relationships, especially when children are involved. She noted the importance in learning how to break up and be on one’s own.

Amy Johnson, a psychologist and relationship coach in downtown Chicago, who is familiar with relationship churning, said this type of relationship tends to reflect insecurities. However, she doesn’t necessarily see trouble as long as both parties know what they want.

“It [doesn’t have to be] awful as long as you go in with the right frame of mind and asking the right questions,” Johnson said. “If both people know what they are going back for, it takes the edge off a little bit.”

Shaw admitted that unprotected sex and an unhealthy emotional connection were both significant parts of his relationship with his ex. Now after four years of being separated from her, he said he could have a sexual relationship with his ex again. Without the strong emotional attachment, Shaw said he could just see it as sex… as if that is all it ever is.