How To Handle Sex When A Long-Term Relationship Ends

illustrated by Assa Ariyoshi.
When a relationship comes to an end, there are many forms of intimacy and companionship that you miss. That person you confide in, laugh with, fall asleep next to – it’s what makes grieving a relationship feel so desperately lonely.
But the one thing no one prepares you for is the total upheaval your sex life is about to undergo. And it can be daunting.
When my boyfriend of six years left me in January, I’d like to say sex wasn’t one of the first things I thought about. But it was.
As I sat on our bed at 1.30am, the breath was whipped from my throat and my limbs began to shake uncontrollably as he said, “We don’t have a future, we’re not meant to be.” Despite the shock, I tried to fight for us. “What do you mean? Of course we are,” I said. “We’re a team, we have a laugh, we’re there for each other, and we’ve had a constantly great sex life for six years.”
And it was true – even he couldn’t deny it. We had instant sexual chemistry, and it never went away. After six years of sharing yourself that intimately with someone, their turn-ons, habits and preferences become second nature. It’s what makes the combination of a long-term relationship and that ‘I want to rip your clothes off in the middle of Lidl’ chemistry the dream combo for a really great sex life.

Suddenly, on that weekend in January, I lost the man I loved, and the sex that came with him

Suddenly, on that weekend in January, I lost the man I loved and the sex that came with him. It may sound trivial compared to the more profound loss of, well, love, but regular sex builds strong self-esteem, trust and happiness. When it suddenly goes, all of that disappears with it into the shitty break-up ether.
“When we’re newly out of a relationship, especially a long-term one, the idea of having sex with someone else can seem very alien and intimidating,” says psychotherapist and sex therapist Vanessa Marin. “Firstly, it’s important to give yourself time to mend. When you’re alone for the first time in a long time, the thought of doing things on your own – or with a stranger – can be difficult. Give yourself time to reestablish your sense of self and build your confidence back up.”
After the initial blow of shock and sadness began to subside, I did what any twentysomething fresh out of a relationship and looking for a rebound to fill the void would do –I downloaded dating apps. Tinder and Hinge, to be precise. And after a few accidental ‘superlikes’ and false starters (seriously, who starts a conversation with ‘Hey, I like your round ass’ and – the 2018 version of ‘pc4pc’ – ‘nude for nude?’), the conversations started flowing. But when it came to arranging dates, and the thought that, at some point, this could be the first person I would sleep with after my break-up, I became hesitant. Because frankly, it’s terrifying.
“As much as I wanted to have sex with other people, actually meeting those people was so out of my comfort zone that I put it off for weeks,” says 28-year-old Georgia, whose boyfriend of four years left her in January, too. “I think the scary and lonely side of dating and hooking up after a break-up is something we don’t talk about enough – it’s supposed to be all about ‘putting ourselves back out there’ but really, it’s much easier said than done.” When she did eventually have sex with someone, Georgia said it helped to make her “feel attractive and wanted again after having my heart broken.”
illustrated by Assa Ariyoshi.
It’s the same for Erica, 30, who waited almost a year to sleep with someone new after her fiancé left her. “It wasn’t from a lack of wanting to or not having plenty of opportunities,” she says, “but my confidence was so low that I was too terrified of rejection to share my body that intimately with someone.” When she did sleep with a new man, Erica made sure it was someone she’d been dating for a couple of months, and trusted enough to be physical with. Eight months later, and they’re still together.
According to Vanessa, establishing this initial trust is key to sleeping with someone new if your self-esteem is a bit battered. “It’s going to feel different being with someone new, and not having that foundation of trust and intimacy to fall back on,” she says. “Be gentle with yourself, and take it slow. Take a little extra time getting to know people, and figuring out if there's at least a basic level of trust and comfort.”

We had sex on his kitchen table (he lived on his own, thankfully), and it felt new and exciting

For me, after getting to know a Hinge match (who we shall call Mark) over endless glasses of wine and one very embarrassing pub quiz, I agreed when he invited me back to his flat in Brixton. While it wasn’t as successful as when someone knows exactly what you like and how you like it, it was fun once the nerves subsided – and just like with Georgia, it made me feel desirable and wanted; the opposite of how heartbreak makes you feel. Plus, we had sex on his kitchen table (he lived on his own, thankfully), and it felt new and exciting – I couldn’t remember the last time my ex and I had sex outside of our bed.
“Having sex with someone new after a relationship can be a great opportunity to rediscover your needs and desires,” says Vanessa. “Despite how successful your sex life was in a relationship, a lot of couples tend to fall into routines of doing things in the same way. Being with someone new may remind you of things you used to like.”
No matter your view on rebound sex (and whether you buy into the ‘get over someone by getting under someone else’ adage), there’s no doubt that, for me, it was a positive step towards healing and rebuilding my confidence in this new, uncertain life stage. Of course, we open ourselves up to the danger of emotional attachment whenever we’re dating and sleeping with someone, but that’s our choice to make, and our choice alone. There’s no right or wrong way to behave after your heart gets broken – only what feels right or wrong for you.
After Georgia first slept with someone after her break-up – an old flame who got in touch when he saw the relationship update on Facebook – they’ve continued to sleep together on a regular basis. “I’m discovering positions and fetishes I never knew I liked, and we’ve even discussed a threesome with his friend,” she says. “I don’t know what I want in the future, but right now I’m just enjoying exploring my new sexual freedom, and that’s fine by me.”
And that’s the key to sex after a long-term relationship – you don’t need to know exactly how you feel or what you want; if it feels right at the time, go for it. Establishing a basic level of trust will help if your self-esteem is suffering, but don’t put pressure on yourself. Post-heartbreak, your only concern is you, and what you want. And if that includes ‘getting under someone else’, then that’s up to us (kitchen table: optional).
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