When a relationship ends, a wave of emotions comes in its wake. There are complicated emotions—maybe a mix of sadness, anger, or even relief—as well as equally complicated feelings around sex. Especially if you’ve been intimate with the same person for a long time, exploring your sexuality outside of that person can be simultaneously freeing and scary.
But intimacy is important whether you’re in a long-term relationship or single. Here, psychotherapist Liam Reilly gives his advice for rekindling your sense of intimacy post-breakup.
The psychology of break-up sex
When you’re physically intimate with your partner after your breakup, it may not mean that you actually want to get back together. “In some ways, it might be about fulfilling sexual urges,” Reilly says. When a relationship ends, you typically lose access to that person—so break-up sex is a way of trying to get that access back.
It can also have a more emotional meaning. You might feel ambivalent about the breakup, or you might be using sex as a way to manage your negative feelings about the relationship or yourself. In these instances, be honest with yourself about whether sex with your ex is actually helping you emotionally—because, in all fairness, it’s likely not.
The psychology of rebound sex
“Sometimes rebound sex can be the denial of the loss of the relationship,” Reilly says. Consider your motivation to have rebound sex—are you trying to rebuild your confidence? Is it about revenge and getting back at your partner? Or is it about fulfilling a sexual urge and genuinely getting to know a new person? Thinking about the why behind your desire to have sex with a new person can help you to process your emotions.
What’s important to note is that people operate on different timelines, and everyone may have a different reason why they turn to sex after a breakup. “Sometimes rebound sex can be the way that you can rediscover sexual drive and sexual intimacy that you didn't have,” Reilly says. “In other ways, it can prolong your healing process.” Take some time to be introspective.
Finding intimacy after the end of a relationship
Breakups can take a “huge toll on your self-esteem, confidence, body image, and moods”—and if any of those issues are getting in the way of sparking new connections, you may need more time to heal, Reilly says. Give yourself time to heal and talk to a professional who may be able to guide you.
If you’re simply nervous about getting back in the dating world, “It’s worth just giving it a try,” Reilly says. After a date or after you have sex, ask yourself some questions to check in with yourself. Considering your motivations can help you to figure out when you are ready to move on—and find a new connection that you’re genuinely excited to explore.
Questions to ask yourself:
After a date with someone new, do you feel good? Or do you feel depleted?
Are you looking for casual sex? Or a long-term relationship?
Are you having sex because you feel bad about yourself or do you want to avoid thinking about the breakup?