You’re in bed with your partner, and things are heating up. You’re lost in the intimacy of the moment, feeling close and connected—but then suddenly, seemingly out of nowhere, an unwelcome intruder barges into your mind. To your surprise and discomfort, your mind has wandered from the here and now with your current partner to a vivid flashback of your ex.
As if this unexpected visitor wasn’t distressing enough, now you find yourself grappling with an unexpected dilemma: Why am I thinking about my ex right now? What does this say about my current partner or relationship? Am I a terrible person?
If you’ve found your mind wandering while you were having sex and thinking instead of a past partner, you might be feeling confusion or guilt. You might even be wondering whether it means that there’s something inherently wrong with your current relationship. But the good news is that you aren’t alone, and it’s not an uncommon phenomenon at all. In this article, we’ll talk about why you might find your mind wandering to unwanted places while you’re having sex with someone else.
Why am I thinking about my ex during sex?
First off, it’s important to note that having wandering thoughts during sex is not uncommon. While ideally, you’d probably like to be completely focused during intimacy, your mind can wander during sex just as much as it might in other circumstances, and it’s not necessarily a cause for worry in and of itself. In fact, sexual fantasies are often healthy, even if you’re in a relationship.
You also certainly aren’t alone if you’ve ever found yourself fantasizing about someone else. A small survey conducted in the UK found that 46% of women and 42% of men admitted to fantasizing about someone else while they were having sex with their current partner. Even more relevantly, 60% of the people surveyed also said that an ex was the subject of those thoughts.
But why would you think about your ex, especially in a moment when you’re getting intimate with someone else? That might not necessarily be a big deal either—even if it feels disconcerting or like a betrayal of your current partner at the moment. According to April Kilduff, MA, LCPC, LMHC, a licensed therapist with NOCD, a lot of these wandering fantasies can be chalked up to something as simple as your brain drawing connections between your current experience and similar past experiences.
“When we’re having sex and our brain is thinking about sex, it can easily then connect back to other times you’ve had sex like with an ex,” Kilduff explains. “It could be that your current partner says or does something in a way that reminds you of how an ex did it.” It could even be a simple matter of proximity, as might be the case if you’re thinking of a very recent ex while you’re having sex with a very new partner. In short, to some degree, your brain can very naturally make comparisons and draw connections between similar experiences, meaning nothing at all about your actual desires or feelings.
But what if you frequently find yourself thinking about your ex during sex? Does it mean something then? It’s important to look at the context of your relationship as a whole, rather than drawing conclusions based on random thoughts—even if they happen regularly.
Unresolved emotions and lingering feelings of pain, attachment, or nostalgia can certainly be linked to thoughts of your ex, especially during emotionally vulnerable moments like sex. So if you’re growing concerned about frequent random thoughts about your ex, you may need to evaluate whether those thoughts are affecting your current relationship or sexual encounters. Do comparisons of your ex expand to other areas of your relationship? As with any other area of concern, it’s important to be acquainted with your own feelings. But if your thoughts during sex don’t align with your true feelings or values, they’re likely intrusive, and not a meaningful sign of anything at all.
When do thoughts about your ex count as “intrusive thoughts?”
The occasional errant thought about your ex during sex is fairly normal, even though it might disturb you in the moment. If your thoughts align with other genuine feelings you have, then it’s worth looking more closely. Intrusive thoughts, however, are a different story.
Intrusive thoughts are one of the hallmark symptoms of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). People with OCD experience these obsessive, intrusive thoughts, which then cause them intense amounts of fear, anxiety, and distress. They then try to cope with these thoughts with compulsions, or repetitive, often ritualistic behaviors meant to soothe or reduce this distress—though only temporarily, before obsessions return again.
Everyone can experience random and disturbing thoughts that they categorize as intrusive, but it’s important to draw the distinction between a regular, “run-of-the-mill” flashback about an ex versus an intrusive thought related to OCD. If you don’t have OCD, an intrusive thought about your ex might be a bit uncomfortable or bring up tricky questions, but it’s something that you can fairly easily move on from and don’t feel a need to fixate on. But if you have OCD, this is much, much harder to do.
Kilduff explains: “If someone who doesn’t have OCD thinks about an ex during sex, they might think, ‘Oh, that’s weird. That’s not what I want to be thinking about. Relax and return to the moment.’ They’ll be able to move on from it, and there’s no particular meaning attached to it.”
She continues, “When it becomes intrusive is when someone has OCD and their OCD says, ‘Oh no, that’s not acceptable. That has to mean something.’” In cases like this, someone might have a random thought about their ex during sex, as is true for many people. But then, they begin obsessing and having constant worries about why that flashback happened, and what it could mean. They may then engage in compulsive behaviors, like ruminating on the thought, seeking reassurance from others online, or avoiding sex when they’re worried about their thoughts, rather than moving on and chalking it up to a weird but ultimately meaningless thought.
What does it mean when you have intrusive thoughts about an ex?
As disconcerting as it might be, a random thought of your ex while you’re having sex with your current partner doesn’t necessarily have to mean anything about you or your relationship. However, if you have OCD and are experiencing an intrusive thought, that thought about your ex can become a much bigger deal in your mind.
Kilduff explains, “OCD’s trick is to take stuff that’s absolutely meaningless and force big, scary, dangerous meaning on it. It can come in and say, ‘Oh, you just thought about your ex during sex. Maybe you’re not over them, maybe you should be with them. Maybe they’re the right partner and you’re just lying to yourself.’”
In other words, the thought of your ex doesn’t necessarily have to mean anything at all—but your reaction to it might mean something about your mental health. Doubt is a normal part of virtually any relationship—if you are in a relationship with another person, there is always going to be some aspect of uncertainty there. But being able to tolerate this uncertainty is also an important part of relationships. For people without OCD, regular worries about whether you’re with the right person can ultimately be addressed by working on the relationship and communicating openly with yourself and your partner.
But when you have OCD, intrusive thoughts are not something that you can easily move on from—or something that you can solve by engaging with them. OCD often latches on to the things that matter to you the most, which means that those obsessive questions about your relationship can cause intense and unreasonable anxiety that can’t be solved by trying to “figure them out.” In the case of relationship OCD, you’ll find yourself continuously returning to these thoughts and doubts, no matter how much reassurance you receive or how much thought you put into them.
When are thoughts about an ex a sign of relationship OCD (ROCD)?
Relationship OCD (ROCD), a subtype of OCD, is a mental health condition that is characterized by intrusive and unwanted thoughts and doubts about your relationship. While most everyone will experience relationship doubts of some kind, someone with ROCD can have obsessive fears, anxieties, and worries about their relationship that aren’t soothed by reassurance or even by a different relationship.
For example, ROCD obsessions could manifest as fears that you could one day be unfaithful, or that your partner could leave you. You could worry that you don’t love your partner sufficiently, or conversely, you might wonder whether your partner loves you enough.
So, unsurprisingly, thinking about an ex during sex with a partner can be a huge trigger for someone with ROCD, bringing about a huge amount of doubt, fear, and anxiety about their relationship. If someone with ROCD has an intrusive thought about their ex, they might fixate on the idea that that thought was “wrong,” and that it must say something about their relationship. They might obsess over the idea that they’re not with the “right” one, that they aren’t loving enough, or that they aren’t attracted enough to their partner. They may then try to alleviate that fear with compulsive behaviors like seeking reassurance from their partner or others, or constantly comparing their relationship to others.
What to do if intrusive thoughts about an ex are distressing you
Again, occasional thoughts about your ex during sex are not necessarily a cause for concern on their own, since there are so many related factors that could cause your brain to wander in that direction. However, if you find that you can’t move on from these thoughts, or they’re impacting your well-being or your relationship, you may need to look a little closer.
If your thoughts are becoming intrusive, obsessive, and causing you intense levels of fear and anxiety, it’s well worth talking to a mental health professional to determine whether Relationship OCD is a possibility. In cases like this, exposure and response prevention (ERP) therapy is the gold standard for treatment.
In ERP therapy, you will work collaboratively with a specialty-trained therapist to be gradually exposed to your thoughts and triggers. However, during ERP, you actively work to stop engaging in the compulsive behaviors that you usually do to self-soothe. Instead, you learn to sit with those intrusive thoughts, allowing your anxiety and worry to dissipate on their own. It can be uncomfortable and distressing at first, but eventually, you learn that your compulsions don’t actually fix your discomfort, and you feel less distressed by intrusive thoughts in the future.
In the case of someone who is having intrusive thoughts about their ex, Kilduff explains that she might start treatment by examining the patient’s beliefs around relationships and sex. Then, ERP works to make them accustomed to thinking about their ex, recognizing that random thoughts about them don’t have to mean anything at all. “We want people to understand you don’t need to be afraid of the thoughts, and the thoughts don’t mean anything,” she says. “The more you can actually practice having them on purpose, then the less OCD can impact you.”
OCD can feel scary and overwhelming, especially if it’s affecting your relationships, but the good news is that there is hope and help available. If you think that you are struggling with ROCD, I encourage you to learn more about NOCD’s accessible approach to ERP therapy. Our therapists specialize in OCD treatment and are trained in ERP to help you navigate those fears and anxieties.