Mia Farrow: The Temptation of Hooking Up With An Ex

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Actress Mia Farrow and son Ronan Farrow

Nothing is more tangled than the relationships of the stars, but actress Mia Farrow‘s 12 year relationship with Woody Allen was tumultuous even after it ended in 1992. Their split was followed by a messy custody battle that Farrow won over her now 25-year-old son, Ronan Farrow, born during her relationship with Allen.

But it turns out Ronan may not actually be Allen’s son. In the recent November issue of Vanity Fair, Farrow admits that Ronan could possibly be Frank Sinatra‘s. In the interview, Farrow says that Sinatra, who she married when she was 20 and divorced after less than two years, was the love of her life. Farrow says she and Sinatra “never really split up.”

Farrow certainly isn’t alone. Not really breaking up is an all too common phenomenon. Who can forget Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton’s marriage, divorce, and re-marriage. When a relationship ends, it doesn’t always mean the intimacy does, and quite often, people finds themselves in the arms of the very person they previously deemed a bad match. Getting back together with someone from the past is not always a no-no, but if you’re in another relationship, or married, it’s all sorts of bad news.

(MORE: Why Your Parents Hate Your Spouse)

In today’s socially connected world, your ex can always be in your back pocket. Even if you delete a number, there are far too many ways to know what an ex is doing with their time, and who they’re with. As Maureen O’Connor writes for New York Magazine, “cutting ties is no longer so easy—nor, I guess, do we really want it to be. We gorge ourselves on information about the lives of our exes. We can’t help ourselves.”  Reconnecting is easy, but what’s really the appeal of a rendezvous with a former flame?

A study published this year in the Journal of Adolescent Research found that among young adults ages 17 to 24, 44% who had been in a relationship within the last two years had broken up and reconciled with at least one ex, and over a quarter of the 792 participants reported having sex with an ex during those years.

The are some common ties among people who have sex with an ex partner. Typically, exes who reconnect sexually were previously in a long-lasting and intimate relationship, in which they frequently shared important details of their life with their partner. Sex among exes also tends to be an attempt by at least one partner to rekindle the relationship.

“People may have sex with an ex because they have a long-standing connection, and those things don’t necessarily go away when you break up. Continuing the sexual relationship could be a consequence of people still having close emotional ties to a partner of the past,” says study author  Dr. Sarah Halpern-Meekin, assistant professor of sociology at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee.

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Re-partnering after a long relationship can be complicated, which is why many people have difficulties cutting off a former partner, even if the relationship wasn’t necessarily pleasant. Dr. Halpern-Meekin’s research shows that people who report having sex with an ex are more likely to describe their prior relationship with that person as high in conflict. It may seem contradictory, but the people who say they have not had sex with an ex tend to be the ones who describe their prior relationship as easy and conflict-free.

“We can imagine these may be high passion relationships–you fight hard and make up hard. Those are the relationships that are probably the stormy relationships where people don’t have skills for resolving their conflicts,” says Dr. Halpern-Meekin. “I think instability in relationships is more common than we think. Even when marriages break up, many–not all–married couples try to reconcile. It’s part of soap opera of relationships.”

Connecting with a former lover may have a forbidden fruit appeal, and it’s hard to squash those reminiscent flutters, but when you’re with someone else, or there’s a third person involved–like a child–the potential for harm is exacerbated. Ronan may be well adjusted, and taking the paternity debacle lightly, but for the many others, a surprise like Farrow’s can be devastating.