Back on the dating scene after long-term relationship

I am 31 and I have been in a long-term relationship since I was 15. We recently broke up and now I am out dating again, but I have no idea what I’m supposed to do. I feel like I don’t really know anything about sex apart from my one boyfriend. I don’t even know how many dates you should go on before you have sex.

My heart goes out to you. No matter how mutual the decision was, coming out of a 16-year relationship is extremely difficult and since you were only 15 when it started, your entire adult identity has been formed within the confines of that relationship.Relationship dissolution is always stressful, but finding yourself alone at 31 is particularly so. A break-up can affect almost every aspect of your daily life, from where you live, to what you do in your free time, to the even bigger questions. You may want to have children and may be worrying about when that will now happen. On the upside, this is also an exciting time for you — a fresh start and a new journey.

While your desire to move on is understandable — you have, after all, grown up as one half of a whole — I would urge you to pause, and take a breath before you start dating again. This break-up provides you with an opportunity to focus on yourself and if you meet someone new immediately, that opportunity will be lost. Try to enjoy this period of reassessing your life, both romantic and otherwise, and enjoy the freedom to make decisions that are yours and yours alone.

You are curious about having sex with other men, but have you explored your own sexual responses? Boyfriends may come and go, but your body is with you for life — so take this time to learn about yourself, work out what you really want, and take it slowly.

Women in relationships are less likely to masturbate than women who are single, but the number of women who enjoy solo sex (or who admit to it, for it is still a taboo subject for many) is very low. In the 2010 National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles (Natsal) study, only 33% of women in Britain reported having masturbated in the previous four weeks. For women aged between 25 and 34, the figure was slightly higher (44%), but that compares to 78.1% of men of the same age.

The reason this depresses me is that, as proven by research by the psychologists David Hurlbert and Karen Whittaker in their 1991 study, women who masturbate are more sexually confident and competent. The study showed that they report fewer arousal difficulties, are more sexually adventurous and have a higher orgasm frequency during sex with a partner. Those are great qualities to have for yourself and to bring to your next relationship.

The newly single always stress about making the wrong call when it comes to picking a new partner, but trust your instincts. If you find someone you like, go for it, and don’t fret about choosing the right person straight away. A 2014 study by the psychologists Claudia C Brumbaugh and R Chris Fraley at the City University of New York found that people who started dating or got into new relationships shortly after a break-up were significantly more confident than people who came out of a relationship and stayed single, and the speed with which they began their relationship was associated with greater psychological and relational health.

In terms of the number of dates people have before they have sex, there are no rules, but anecdotally the general consensus is that three feels about right. However, it is a personal decision, so go with your instincts, and it should go without saying you must not allow yourself to be, or feel, remotely pressured. With regards to sex, you will know what to do. It is like riding a bicycle. The pace may differ, but the mechanisms are the same. So go for it — and enjoy yourself.

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