‘My ex-boyfriend and I broke up a year ago but we are still having sex’

illustration of two people at a party kissing - R.Fresson/A Human Agency
illustration of two people at a party kissing - R.Fresson/A Human Agency

Dear A&E

My ex-boyfriend and I broke up nearly a year ago but we are still having semi-regular sex. The sex is always great but I never feel very good afterwards and I have to really concentrate on not fixating on him for a week or so after it happens. He never follows up with any contact and then I feel hollow. Then it happens again.

Is it OK to carry on like this just because I crave the physical thrill and the comfort? I know that sex with someone new won’t be as good.


Dear Hollow

We are sure you realise that your arrangement is not unusual. Perhaps this kind of break-up is more common than a complete cessation of activities. Break-ups are generally sad and we can create mess to protect ourselves from the vacuum they throw up in our lives.

So, once we’ve established that many of us do this, we can go on to acknowledge that we do it with varying degrees of success. Some people manage to use it as a shock absorber in order to cope with the pulling away. Others use it as a bridge to their next relationship.  And some of us get stuck in this dynamic or – in the worst cases – get left behind when the other person moves on. It is not without risk, but what is?

At no point in your letter do you suggest that you are in love with him or, indeed, that you ever were. Do be careful that this attempt to loosen your grip on him doesn’t start twisting into feelings that you think are love but are in fact just familiar pain. We all have a history and it is helpful if we do not allow that history to control us. Good sex can have a narcotic quality, but it is worth reminding ourselves that it is not always fulfilling. And if this relationship was what we call a “sex fire” relationship (technical term, you understand), with all the accompanying highs and lows that those connections bring, then it probably doesn’t have a forever flavour.

Sex with someone new might not be as good. But it might be. Most likely is that with practice, increasing confidence and communication, sex with someone new could become every bit as good and eventually be better. You can never tell until you, ahem, suck it and see.

These scraggly endings are common but they are not clean. It is difficult to go backwards; to turn the familiarity of a relationship into the breezy intensity of casual sex. We know a few people who have “arrangements”, but they are very much just that and fiercely boundaried. You will remember on some kind of cellular level that sex with this man was, at one time, supposed to mean commitment, intimacy and possibly love. There is nothing wrong with sex between two old lovers until such a time as you are both ready to move on. The stickiness lies in the fact that this is highly unlikely to happen for both of you at exactly the same time.

You are not allowing your system any time and space to be clear of him. You can be active, you do not need to be merely reactive and wait for the situation to get stale and nasty.

You can consider a retreat from the automatic go-to-ness. You can make an effort to stop sleeping with him. You may slip up, but it will get less regular, less expected, less familiar, less automatic and the longer the intervals between encounters, the less you will crave them. The longer you go without him, the less you will think about him.

There is no “should” about this. But it is making you feel low-level bad and that is not OK. He doesn’t follow up after sex and we can assume that this is purposeful rather than merely lazy because he is not an idiot. And you mind. Which is hard to admit. But maybe it means that you are still wearing your relationship hat while he has styled his as a one-night-stand hat. If he meets someone new, will you feel less than? Will you feel broken up with all over again?

This state of play doesn’t sound comforting; it sounds like a quick fix. A series of fixes that keep you hooked. You feel relieved for a moment and then uncomfortable all over again. Looking backwards will give you very little, in the end. Looking forwards into the wide blue yonder is intimidating, but ahead of you is a sex life, a love life, an emotional life waiting to be lived. You know this. You know that what you are doing right now is following the path of least resistance with some thrill thrown in for good measure.

Scratching an itch is fine until it makes you feel raw. Do not let this just happen to you. You have choices. You have value. Get back in the driving seat. You should not feel hollow, Hollow; a sure-thing on a Tuesday night. You are new and sparkly and compelling. It’s time to believe.

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