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‘I called my boyfriend by my ex’s name during sex’

Ask Roe: ‘I don’t feel anything towards my ex and want a future with my current boyfriend’

Dear Roe,

For the past year and a half I’ve been in a stable and happy relationship with my boyfriend and have never had any doubts about our relationship. We live together and have discussed our future together, and before last week never had any major arguments.

It was my ex-boyfriend’s birthday a few days before, and it had come up on my Facebook, as well as old pictures of us that I’d put up in previous years. We had dated for just over two years and it was quite serious, but I have long gotten over him and hadn’t thought about him in ages.

Since the Facebook post, I suppose he’s been on my mind but I don’t have any feelings for him at all. However, one main thing I remember about that past relationship was that the sex was really good, and later that week I said my ex’s name during sex with my boyfriend. My boyfriend was obviously infuriated and confused, and now believes I’m not over him, but I truly don’t feel anything towards the ex and still really want a future with my current boyfriend. What can I say to reassure him? Is this a normal incident and he’s over-reacting, or am I in the wrong? What do you think?


It’s funny reading this question this week, when that Friends reunion is being advertised everywhere, and we’re being told the world has been waiting for it. (Have we? Have we not all very happily moved on? Are we not all actually waiting for season three of Succession?) But of course, one of the infamous car crash moments was when general walking disaster and spokesperson for toxic masculinity Ross Gellar (don’t argue with me on this one, I’ll win) mistakenly called his fiancée the wrong name, on the altar. “I Ross, take thee Rachel – I mean Emily!” Not an ideal scenario.

The fact that you were having sex with your boyfriend and enjoyed a great sex life with your previous partner could have also played a role in the mix-up

And neither is your situation – though it is understandable. People call each other the wrong names all the time, including during sex, and it does not necessarily mean that they are cheating or harbouring a secret love. Your innocence is even backed up by science. Samantha Deffler at Duke University has carried out research exploring the phenomenon of misnaming, and her primary finding was that misnaming is largely a semantic mistake. We tend to categorise the people in our lives into different groups – romantic partner, family members, child, friend, colleague, mother-in-laws, etc.

Over time, many people in your life will occupy the same category, and Deffler found that it was common to misname someone with the name of another person in the same semantic category. For example, parents will often call one child by their sibling’s name, because in the parent’s mind, the two individuals are both in the same category of “child”. This isn’t because the parents can’t distinguish between the children or that they prefer one to the other, simply that when they mentally reach for a name, their brain produces a file titled “children I love dearly” and sometimes within that file they just grab the wrong sheet of paper.

One cute finding was that sometimes, family members will accidentally call each other by the family pet’s name, indicting that the pet is so adored it is now categorised as “family member”.

Of course, in your boyfriend’s mind, hearing you utter your ex-boyfriend’s name during sex is far from cute. But scientifically, it makes sense. Thanks to Facebook reminders and old photos, you were recently given very explicit cues to think about your boyfriend and reminisce about your relationship, so your mind dug up your ex-boyfriend’s dusty sheet from the back of your mind and put it back in rotation in the semantic category of “Boyfriends/Romantic Partners”.

There are also more subtle cues at play here too; you were with your ex-boyfriend for two years and it was quite serious, and you’re now in a serious relationship with your current boyfriend that is approaching the two-year mark. It’s natural that even subconsciously you would be thinking about your old relationship and – from what you have described – thinking about how much more happy and fulfilled you feel in this relationship.

Taking all of this into consideration, it makes sense that mistakenly using your ex-boyfriend’s name is absolutely not a sign of some deep long-lost love, but just that over the past few weeks, you have been categorising your partner and ex under the same social relationship of “romantic partner” – and having your boyfriend come out of the comparisons favourably!

The fact that you were having sex with your boyfriend and enjoyed a great sex life with your previous partner could have also played a role in the mix-up – again, in a way that reflects positively on your current relationship. In an interview with Vice magazine, Dr Jim Pfaus, a professor of neuroscience and psychology who studies cognition during sex, said that saying an ex-partner’s name during sex is common because “when you’re in a state of euphoria, you conjure up things that remind you of other things, because you’re in a state that has happened before”.

As awkward as it can be in the moment, Pfaus says it’s not necessarily a bad sign; rather, it’s often an indication you’re conjuring a closeness that is akin to previous intimacy. “Let’s assume the person had a very special former lover who made him or her feel a certain thrill. Those sexual thrills, quality of orgasms, and feelings of closeness were associated with that person and his or her name,” he explains. You had been thinking about how good the sex was with your ex – and were reminded of that good sex while with your boyfriend. That’s a good association, not a negative one.

Have a conversation about whether he generally feels loves and appreciated, or if he has any underlying concerns. If this is the only issue, he's going to need to make a decision about his own emotional reaction

Those are the possible scientific explanations why you used your ex-boyfriend’s name in bed, but your pressing issue now is how this slip of the tongue affects your relationship.

Here is where the reaction to the utterance of an incorrect name becomes more telling than the act itself. Being called by your ex-boyfriend’s name during sex was understandably unpleasant for your boyfriend, and it’s natural that he would want reassurance that you love him and don’t miss your ex, which you should gladly give him. (If he finds science reassuring, show him this article.) But if his insecurity, jealousy and suspicion persists, there may be a deeper issue at play here that is leading him to use one single incident of misnaming to doubt your whole relationship.

Have a conversation about whether he generally feels loves and appreciated, or if he has any underlying concerns. If this is the only issue, he’s going to need to make a decision about his own emotional reaction. He can project his insecurity around one moment on to your whole relationship, or he can respect the fact that you have had relationships before him and are a human being who made an unfortunate mistake, and that you both need to move on.

Just make sure that during this conversation, you do get his name right. That wouldn’t go down well at all.

Roe McDermott is a writer and Fulbright scholar with an MA in sexuality studies from San Francisco State University. She is researching a PhD in gendered and sexual citizenship at the Open University and Oxford

If you have a problem or query you would like her to answer, you can submit it anonymously at