For Valentine’s Day, we’re celebrating the breakups that shaped us, in all their messy glory. Because love is just as much about heartbreak as it is about romance. Read all the stories from our Love Bites series here.
If you haven’t heard a horror story about sex after a breakup, you might be someone else’s. Whether you’re awkwardly patting a naked stranger’s shoulder as they monologue about their ex, or you’re the one with mascara streaking down your face in an unfamiliar bed, having sex for the first time after the end of a relationship can be tough. But with the right mindset and preparation, it needn’t be the stuff of nightmares. Here’s your guide to sex after a breakup, from those in the know.
Know when you’re ready
It’s sometimes said that the best way to get over someone is to get straight under someone else, but 30-year-old Londoner Freya, whose surname we have withheld for privacy reasons, disagrees. “My worst sexual experience was when I completely ignored all my complicated breakup feelings, downed four tequilas to pretend I was totally fine, aggressively pursued a friend-of-a-friend I didn’t even fancy on a night out 48 hours later, and then cried all over her, fully clothed, in a bed I hadn’t made since l last slept with my ex in it,” she grimaces. “It was the most tragic thing I’ve ever done, and it still haunts me in the middle of the night.”
Breakups are tough enough without giving yourself night sweats too. Protect yourself, advises relationships and intimacy coach Dr. Lori Beth Bisbey, by trusting your instincts, and knowing when you’re ready. How do you know when you're ready? “When you’re able to think about having sex without thinking about what sex was like with the partner you broke up with, you’re ready,” Dr. Bisbey says.
Accept that things will be scary for a while, and your emotions may be confusing
Just because you’re not ready to burn all your ex’s belongings in delirious glee, doesn’t mean you’re going to be celibate forever. Break-ups hurt, they take time to get over, and sometimes your own emotions won’t make sense to anyone—let alone yourself.
Watch: How to Get Over Your Ex
Feeling anxious about sleeping with someone new will be par for the course, says Ammanda Major, a sex and relationships therapist at Relate. “There are many reasons people worry about sex after a breakup,” she explains. “You might be nervous about what’s expected: what might someone want me to do? How will my body look? What will it be like with someone new? How far do I actually want to go? And of course there’s the issue of being vulnerable with somebody new after breaking up with a partner.”
Dig deeper into how you're feeling, advises Major: “Work out what’s worrying you and rationalize it. Understand where it’s coming from. If something’s bothering you, maybe you’re worried your needs might not be met, or that this isn’t the right person. Know yourself well enough to recognize how you’re really feeling.”
Find the right person
While it might be tempting to embrace your new-found freedom by swiping right on the first Tinder profile you find that doesn’t feature any grinning bros posing with tranquilized tigers, Dr. Bisbey advises against a one night stand while you’re still grieving for the end of your relationship. “The first time you have sex after a big breakup, the tendency is to want to make it into a relationship,” she explains, adding that the choices we make in the immediate aftermath of a breakup are often unhealthy ones.
Instead, says Major, “just asking ‘do I feel ok with this person?’ is a pretty good benchmark. You don’t have to be in love with them, but you should be confident that yes, I would like to have this experience with this person, I do feel like I can be vulnerable, and I can ask for my needs to be met.”
Manage your expectations
Sex can be exciting and fun and satisfying—but it can also be extremely mediocre. Long-term relationships might make us feel like single life will be one big smorgasbord of orgasmic adventure—but in reality, single life can be disappointing too. So don’t expect too much from your first new encounter, warns Major.
“It doesn’t have to be this perfect event or a mind-blowing experience, it just has to feel good enough” she explains. “Don’t put expectations on the whole thing beyond just feeling sufficiently comfortable. Good sex comes out of knowing yourself sexually. Just relax and enjoy it.”
If you want to go for it, go for it
If you’re raring to go and haven’t given your ex a second thought—great! “We’re all different” says Major. “[Breakups] are a big deal to some and not to others. You just have to know yourself”.
For 27 year old Hannah from Sheffield, whose surname we have withheld for privacy reasons, sex with someone new was exactly what she needed after the end of a six-year relationship. “I’d never had a one night stand and I was keen to give myself a new experience,” she explains. Having sex with new sexual partners felt invigorating. “I was nervous for about two minutes and then I got into it. And it was a really great thing to do. I felt like I had taken a step towards moving on,” she recalls. “For the first time in my life I saw sex as something completely separate from a serious relationship. I separated myself from my ex and I also got to know myself better.”
So if you find yourself here in the painful, messy aftermath of a breakup, take heart in the knowledge that things can and will get better. Sex isn’t going out of fashion anytime soon and there’s a whole world of opportunity out there—when you’re ready to embrace it.