One of the most difficult aspects of a marital breakup is communicating with a former spouse. In the immediate aftermath of a separation, feelings are raw, and emotions can be overwhelming. Regardless of how long couples have been married, the trauma of a separation can cause a significant emotional wound. When individuals are feeling abandoned, hurt, or in pain, the first person they want to turn to for comfort is their spouse. Sadly, this is usually the same person that is the source of the pain. This conundrum can cause some newly separated individuals to continue a relationship, either platonic or sexual, with their estranged spouse. The need for a sense of security and safety that cannot be found in friends or family members is what most often drives a hurting spouse into the confidence or arms of their ex. Although doing so may provide immediate emotional relief, the effects on psychological well-being in relation to the separation are not clear.
Ashley E. Mason of the University of Arizona recently led a study to determine how sexual conduct with an ex-spouse (SWE) and nonsexual conduct with an ex (CWE) affected the psychological adjustment of spouses who were recently separated. For her study, Mason interviewed 137 partners who had separated within the previous 6 months and found that acceptance of the separation influenced the outcome for some, but not all, of the individuals. Specifically, there was no relationship between acceptance and adjustment for those who had no contact with their exes as well as for those who had SWE. “Thus, the significant correlation between separation acceptance and psychological adjustment was largely driven by people having CWE and people not having SWE.” Additionally, Mason discovered that participants with less acceptance of the separation adjusted better when they did have SWE than those who did not have SWE. Mason believes this could be a result of separation acceptance needs being met through sexual closeness. In sum, the results of this study demonstrate that contact with an ex-spouse can be both beneficial and detrimental depending on an individual’s acceptance and attachment.
Mason, A. E., Sbarra, D. A., Bryan, A. E. B., Lee, L A. (2012). Staying connected when coming apart: The psychological correlates of contact and sex with an ex-partner. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 31.5, 488-507.
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