Words by Stuart Haggas | @GetStuart  | Photos: © Shutterstock/Jacob Lund

Divisive events of the past few years show how much animosity there can be when two sides fundamentally disagree with each other. Extreme levels of anger and disillusion aren’t exclusive to world events like Brexit and Trump’s presidency. They can be equally unpleasant on a domestic scale, because when two people break up their whole world can fall to bits.


Break-ups come in all shapes, sizes and levels of extremity, from ‘we just drifted apart’ to ‘that cheating bastard!’ The post-break-up period can be equally polarised. In our survey on relationships and break-ups, some gay and bi men describe how low and depressed they can feel in the aftermath of a relationship; while others bounce back and immediately hit the gay scene with a vengeance.

In fact, 57% of the 1,097 men we surveyed say that right after a break-up they tend to have more casual sex than usual.

Why do some relationships break down in the first instance? And how can we safeguard our mental and sexual health after a break-up?

PITY OR PARTY?

The days, weeks and even months after a break-up can feel pretty miserable – regardless of how long that relationship lasted, or whether it was a ‘hard’ or ‘soft’ break-up. Several men told us how down they’ve felt in the aftermath of a relationship, describing clichéd behaviour such as sobbing along to old Amy Winehouse albums or comfort-eating chocolate and Ben & Jerry’s ice cream.

“I was too depressed to be sexy,” says Zac, 27 from Coventry.

Others quickly get back out on the scene – sometimes as an act of defiance, sometimes as a way of numbing the pain of a break-up. Which often means having a lot more sex.

When in a relationship, the vast majority of men surveyed say they don’t use condoms with their partner. 42% said they never use condoms, while 29% admit to only using condoms sometimes. Should the relationship end, some of these men don’t immediately get back into the habit of using condoms.

Adam is 27 from London, and recently split with his partner of two years. “I finally got the courage for casual sex,” he says. “I didn’t use a condom as I wasn’t used to the routine of using them – plus the guy was the top and I expected him to put one on himself – and I caught an STI.”

“I was 18, I’d just moved to London and broken up with a long-term partner,” says Rob, 25. “I then decided it was my time. I was out frequently, drinking, having fun and a lot of casual sex. Sometimes protected, sometimes not. After some time I decided to go and get checked. I was diagnosed HIV-positive.”

“In the couple of months following my first big break-up, I got gonorrhoea in my throat,” admits Darren, 25, from Dublin.

“My ex made me feel like I was a complete failure,” says Connor, 22, from London. “I decided to get very drunk one night with my friends, and Grindr was just too tempting. Two weeks later I had something seeping out of my penis, and then I knew what had happened.”

“If you find yourself taking risks that you normally wouldn’t after the end of a relationship, it might be worth trying to hit the pause button,” suggests Matthew Hodson, Executive Director of NAM. “Alcohol and drugs might seem to blot out the pain but the respite is only temporary and chances are they’ll only leave you feeling worse in the morning. If you’re HIV-negative and you can’t stop taking the risks, try to get yourself on PrEP. There are websites that will put you in touch with cheaper supplies and many sexual health clinics will now support you if you talk to them about using PrEP.”

The lows that can accompany the end of a relationship may lead us to neglect our health and wellbeing in other ways.

“If you’re living with HIV, make sure that you don’t get to the point where you’re regularly forgetting to take your treatment,” Matthew adds, “as this can severely damage your health, may reduce your future treatment options, and can leave you much more likely to pass the virus on to your sexual partners.”

SOME COUPLES JUST GROW APART

Having asked 1,097 readers to share their experiences of relationships and break-ups, there was an outpouring of stories.

“We had been together for about two and a half years. We had started growing apart so I sat him down to chat and we realised we both wanted different things from our lives,” says John, 28, from Manchester. “It was the hardest conversation I have ever had with someone.”

Rather than bringing them closer, sometimes co-habiting can drive some couples apart.

“The relationship fell apart when we decided to take the next step and move in together,” says Rob, 25 from Doncaster. “After living together for no longer than two months, we decided to call it a day.”

“We moved in together after only nine months and we were in a shared house while I was at uni,” says Joseph, 22 from Newcastle. “It was too much too soon, it drove us apart and made me actively dislike him. I studied abroad and we stayed together but I cheated a few times, as did he. I used to dread spending time with him. Even before I cheated he was jealous and manipulative. I was horrible to him and it was a toxic place to be.”

For some couples, it doesn’t help when there’s an ex lurking in the wings. “It was doomed from the start, it was a drunken one night stand and we both seemed to feel obliged to see if it was worth pursuing. It wasn’t,” says Scott, 29 from Manchester. “We were too different and had no common interests. He also wasn’t over his ex who was still contacting him while we were together. They ended up getting back together after we broke up.”

SOME FOUND THEIR PARTNER TOO CONTROLLING OR ABUSIVE

“There isn’t really much to know,” says Jordan, 22 from Hertfordshire. “He was a serial cheater and liar. He was eventually abusive, especially when caught out. I loved him, even said ‘yes’ to marrying him at one point. But the person I fell in love with and the person I had to break up with were two very different people. Almost like Jekyll and Hyde.”

“He was emotionally abusive, once physically, and manipulative – and would secretly read all of my messages to family and friends,” says Aron, 23 from London. “Eventually I cheated on him and he found out while snooping through my laptop while I was at work.”

“It was not physical abuse but he was mentally abusive – lying, deceiving me, and making out I was imagining things,” says Adam, 39 from Lewisham. “He was also very controlling. I realised what was going on and with the help and support of my parents and friends I left the relationship.”

“He was insecure and took that out on me in a way which I’ve since come to realise was abusive,” says Jonah, 45 from London. “If we went to a party together and I talked to someone other than him, even if it was a heterosexual man or someone who he should never have thought was a threat, he would fly into a rage. I found myself self-censoring so as not to upset him, but no matter what I did, nothing would convince him 

that I was committed to the relationship. Eventually I realised that I was just miserable, and that as long as I was with him I could only be unhappy, so I ended it.”

COMMUNICATION

Andre Smith, Health & Wellbeing Coordinator at Positive East, explains that talking is often key.

“Communication is ultimately the bedrock of every relationship,” he says. “If one partner in a relationship starts to feel jealous, or feels the pressure of being controlled or manipulated, it’s important and healthy that he shares his feelings or concerns with his partner. We can’t always expect our partners to magically know what we are thinking or how we are feeling. While one partner may feel emotionally controlled or even abused, the other may have absolutely no idea of the impact of what they feel is normal relationship behaviour.

“As a counsellor, I very often hear statements like ‘I don’t think he really understands me’ and yet when I probe further, I often find that the person I’m helping has never really expressed their worries, anxieties, or true feelings to their partner. Which of course begs the question, how do we expect our partners to fully understand us if we haven’t shared our fears and insecurities. If a partner does not want to hear about such things, then they are probably not right for you.

“Left unexpressed, our emotions, thoughts, worries and anxieties will turn from frustration into resentment – and sometimes get to the point of becoming extreme or toxic. If that happens, and the relationship is beyond the point of talking things through and is impacting on you in a very negative way, then that is time to up sticks and leave. The key is to keep communicating and never let it get to that point.”


THE BREAK-UP BREAKDOWN:

  • 82% said that growing apart caused a break-up

  • 23% said arguments were the source of the break-up

  • 16% broke off a relationship because it was abusive

  • 62% said they have stayed friends with an ex


CHEATING

“My ex cheated on me but I found out,” says John, 28 from Manchester. ”He then continued to lie about it and made out that I was the crazy one for thinking it. After a year, and me finding out about him cheating again, he finally came clean. Optimistically I tried to make it work, but I just couldn’t trust him. In the end, it was the lies that I couldn’t recover from, not him having sex with other guys.”

“I was in a long-term relationship of eight years. He cheated, I cheated as payback which wasn’t the most mature thing to do and only made it worse,” says Nathan, 28 from Manchester. “We had no trust but decided to plod along, until admitting we weren’t happy.”

“After eight months together I found out that he had been sleeping with a guy that he reassured me was only a friend,” says Wayne, 24 from Limerick. “Everybody knew and they decided to be together. Like any break-up it was humiliating and devastating.”

“He started going on dates with his then best friend, and slept with him,” says Gav, 23 from Cardiff. “His sister was the one who told me, after realising he hadn’t finished with me, and was seeing the two of us.”

“He used a lot of dating apps and manipulated me into thinking this was just for friendship,” says Jay, 22 from Liverpool. “He told me I was psychotic for not letting him meet ‘friends’ off apps such as Grindr, Tinder and Hornet. As it transpired, he was in fact sleeping with other people along with sending nude pictures and videos on social media. He even took secret videos and photos of me and sent them to the men he was sleeping with.”

“I caught him messaging and sending photos to other men on Snapchat. It had been happening for over six months, so I walked out on him,” says Dom, 22, Leicester.

“I’d seen he had Grindr on his phone so when he went to sleep I read all the messages,” says Ryan, 25 from Cavan, “and found out he’d slept with at least 10 to 12 different guys in the last three months.”   

“He had been sleeping with somebody he’d met on Grindr while I was on a one week trip abroad,” says Dan, 21 from London. “Prior to the trip he had asked me if he could sleep with somebody else. I said no, because I thought we were in a monogamous relationship. When I returned he was acting odd, so I asked him if he’d slept with someone else and that’s when he told me.”

“In my last relationship, I found he was cheating, this led to arguments,” says Kammy, 18 from Doncaster. “He asked for an open relationship, I agreed, but he then got angry with me for having sex with someone else. So I had sex with a different guy, filmed it, and sent it to him informing him it was over.”

SOME ARGUE TOO MUCH OR STOP HAVING SEX

“We started arguing daily,” admits Stephan, 20 from Portsmouth. “We had no respect for each other. We stopped having sex. I was depressed. We rushed into our relationship and into buying a flat.”

“We stopped having sex,” says Leon, 38 from Leeds. “There were probably underlying emotional issues which we (or more likely, I) refused to discuss. This went on for a long time; we hadn’t had sex for two years when we broke up. Everything else was great, but we started to resent each other for the lack of sexual contact. Eventually he confronted the situation. I’m not good at confronting issues and would have let it carry on forever. We decided while we were still relatively young it might be best to split so there was still time to find people we could have proper, fulfilling relationships with. There were lots of tears, but it was very amicable.”

A COMBINATION OF THINGS

“There were too many issues we just couldn’t fix and we ended up unhappy together,” says Dean, 22 from Dublin. “My relationship was three and a half years long and was good at the start, but the last six months of the relationship got bad. We couldn’t work through the issues no matter how hard we tried. We decided we need to be apart and see other people so we can grow as people.”

“We grew apart, and kept arguing. Neither of us could be bothered to resolve the issues,” says Oliver, 21 from London. “I met this guy through a friend and we got on really well. I started to develop feelings for the other guy so knew I had to end it with my boyfriend.”

“I was engaged to my previous boyfriend for over 18 months, but he had an alcohol dependence and would blame everyone else around him rather than accept his issues,” says Stephen, 29 from Newry. “He used mind games to make me think it was in my mind. And after we split I found out he had been cheating on me for nearly a year. He was dating again six weeks after I left him.”

“We had been growing apart for a while. I was growing depressed and had taken to drinking every night just to feel a bit happy,” says Martin, 26 from Plymouth. “Throughout the relationship he had become controlling, telling me that I couldn’t go out with friends constantly. The one time I did go out with friends he screamed at me about it. There was also constant emotional manipulation making me think everything that had gone wrong was my fault. In the end all this did was make me feel increasingly isolated and depressed.”

“My ex and I had a lot of arguments, though we also had good times,” says Daniel, 30 from Dublin. “He was unemployed for a while, and moved in with me, which put a strain on the whole thing. We also partied a lot as a coping mechanism. Eventually, a huge fight escalated into a break-up, followed by his attempting to cut his wrists in my bathroom. He was in a mental health ward for several weeks afterwards. We kept in close touch for a while, but he’s become more hostile to the idea in recent months.”


THE BREAK-UP BREAKDOWN PART 2:

  • 42% admit to never using condoms with a partner
  • 32% go for regular sexual health check-ups while in a relationship
  • 24% said they got an STI  during a relationship
  • 73% said they didn’t get the STI from their partner

HOW TO MAKE LASTING RELATIONSHIPS

“New relationships are fragile and rushing through the formative early stages can lead to a promising  new romance going pear-shaped very quickly,” warns Andre Smith of Positive East.

“A new relationship is addictive and in those first few weeks, when the endorphins are coursing around your body and you feel lightheaded with romance, it’s common to let your normal rational mind take a holiday. But if you really want this relationship to last it’s important to apply the brakes a little. Ask yourself, are you really interested in getting to know the other person, or are you more concerned with easing your loneliness and sating you desires? Is it a reaction to the past?

“Some people rush into a new relationship to get over an old one. Rebound relationships rarely stand the test of time because until your heart has healed from the past there isn’t room for someone new to come in.

“Are you giving too much too soon? Sometimes it’s good to hold a little back. Relationships that go straight into daily contact and 24/7 availability can burn out quickly. Hold something back and leave your date wanting more of you rather than less. Avoid spending every available moment together, jumping into bed too quickly or being constantly online 24/7.

“A common mistake people make when claiming the ‘timing is wrong’ is putting the wrong offender to blame. They put the emphasis on the wrong words. Is the timing wrong because you’re not ready to commit to them? It’s very possible that your inability to enter a relationship isn’t because of where you are in your life, but rather who you are with. If your boyfriend left you because he said the timing was wrong, it could very well mean that either you were not right for him or he simply didn’t know how to deal with matters in his own life, and consequently didn’t know how to deal with you.”

RELATIONSHIPS AND SEXUAL HEALTH

The majority of men surveyed don’t use condoms with their partner when in a relationship: 42% say they never use condoms, 29% say sometimes. Just 29% say they always use condoms with their partner when in a relationship.

Not using condoms leaves you vulnerable to STIs, and in fact 24% of the men we surveyed admit they’ve contracted STIs during a relationship. In many instances this is because the relationship was open, and necessary actions were taken.

“I’m in an open relationship, and I got gonorrhoea from another sexual partner,” admits John, 28 from Manchester. “I immediately told my boyfriend. I was tested and treated. He was tested but was negative.”

But some of the men who contracted an STI were taken by surprise because they thought their relationship was monogamous. Gregor is 45 from London and was in what he believed to be a monogamous relationship, but after five years together they recently split up. “He contracted HIV after a casual encounter. We hadn’t agreed on an open relationship.”

“He cheated on me with his friend from rugby,” says Ben, 23 from Brighton, “I found out when he had stopped wanting sex and said that he needed to go to the hospital one day. He caught gonorrhoea.”

“I was in a relationship where my ex had unprotected sex with somebody else and contracted gonorrhoea,” says Darren, 25 from Dublin, “but I was lucky not to contract it.”

Adam is 27 from Brighton. He was in what he believed to be a monogamous long-term relationship when his boyfriend caught chlamydia. “He actually caught it and attempted to blame me for it, claiming I was unfaithful,” Adam says. “We got checked. I was all clear. He was not. He still tries to blame the towels at the gym to this day.”

PROTECTION AND MONOGAMY

How should couples that agree to be monogamous deal with questions around condom use and STIs?

“I would advise anyone who’s depending on monogamy to protect themselves from STIs to think very carefully about it,” Matthew suggests. “You may be certain that the two of you will cleave to each other for all eternity but it only takes one of you to slip up and you’re no longer in a monogamous relationship. The protection against HIV transmission that is offered by effective treatment may come too late if your partner acquires HIV during your time together. It’s worth discussing as a couple how you think you’d cope if one of you were to have sex outside the relationship. If you’re clear that any sex outside the relationship is grounds for a break-up, that very threat may result in one partner choosing not to talk honestly about what’s going on outside the marital bed – and that’s when the risks start getting serious.

“Contrary to popular belief, it’s likely that the majority of new HIV infections aren’t from unbridled lustful liaisons with hundreds of up-for-it nightly callers but from intimate sex acts between loving partners who’ve decided that they no longer need to use condoms. As Public Health England bluntly stated in one of their annual HIV reports, ‘unprotected sex with partners believed to be of the same HIV status is unsafe’.”

NON-DISCLOSURE AND BREAK-UPS

Some people split up when they discover their partner has HIV, but didn’t immediately disclose this.

“After three months apart he then finally told me he had HIV,” says Mikkie, 26 from Callington. “That for me wasn’t the problem. It was the fact it was hidden from me when all my secrets were laid bare for him to see.”

Michael is 27 from Leeds, and he and his partner had chosen to not use condoms. “My partner at the time, unknown to me, had HIV, but had chosen not to tell me,” he explains. “When I felt unwell once, I wondered if it was due to any STIs as we’d only been together a few months. He then chose to tell me about his HIV status, but said that he had only just found out, something I later found was a lie. I stayed with my partner for another five months, as I wanted to be with him despite his HIV status. However, over the months the relationship slowly broke down as he refused to talk to me, or anyone else, about it. In addition to this he also failed to come to any of the meetings I had to ensure that I was free of HIV. Thankfully, it came to light that I didn’t have it, but two months later the relationship was unsalvageable. I still love him to this day, but he refuses to talk to me and continues to refuse to talk about his issues with other people.”

“When to disclose remains a tricky issue for those of us who are living with HIV. There is no easy solution as whatever you do you run the risk of being damned,” says Matthew Hodson.

“Even if we’re happy to be open about our HIV status it doesn’t mean we want to be defined by it. If you announce your status straight away there’s the risk that your new or potential boyfriend might think it’s a more central issue for you than it actually is. If you hesitate then you run the risk of being accused of lying or, worse, of being careless about your partner’s health (even if you’re undetectable and so pose no transmission risk).

“These challenges are even greater if you’re unwilling to be entirely open about your HIV status, perhaps because you haven’t even come out to your family as gay, so the last thing you want is for it to become gossip that you’re living with HIV.

“None of this would be a problem if HIV didn’t carry such a high burden of stigma. It’s the hangover from the days when HIV was untreatable, when death was the likely outcome of infection and when someone with HIV was considered to be a risk to his sexual partners. Now HIV is very treatable, if diagnosed early. HIV treatment has resulted in the number of HIV-related deaths plummeting. If you’re on treatment your life-expectancy is near normal and, when your treatment is effective, you can’t pass the virus on to your sexual partners, even if you don’t use condoms.

“Ultimately the solution is that everyone needs to be better educated about the actual risks of HIV transmission and the impact of HIV infection. Inevitably, one of the best ways for this to happen is for people living with HIV to have the confidence to speak to their partners, friends, family and colleagues about HIV.”

THE AFTERMATH OF A BREAK-UP

Negative experiences from past relationships sometimes linger on – and can impact our future relationships.

“I’m a lot less trusting and find it hard to connect with men now,” says Jay. “Although I know exactly what I don’t want in a relationship, and realise that I shouldn’t be treated as I was before.”

“Every time I’m dating someone now all I can think is that they’ve no interest in me,” says Ryan, 25 from Cavan, “or that if they do, they’ll go off me soon.”

“Two guys I have dated have been alcoholics, so I don’t date guys who are big drinkers for fear of having to see someone fall into the pit of addiction and then suffering the heartbreak again,” admits Stephen, 29 from Newry. “My current boyfriend is basically tee-total.”

“Although there is no magical answer to how to move on past your break-up, there are things you can do to help you get through this painful time, get you on the path of recovery, and feel optimistic again about your future,” says Andre Smith. “Give yourself time to emotionally digest the break-up. The moving on process can take time, especially if you want to be fully cleansed of all lingering hang-ups and scars, rather than just moving forward on a surface level.

“Take time. Some people ‘get right back on the horse again’ and start dating – I am not a great fan of this advice. I believe more good can come from giving yourself some time and space before you rush back into dating again. Time spent out of a relationship provides the opportunity for clarity and introspection. It also allows you to take a step back, and decide if this is yet another relationship that sounds and feels like the others. Look for patterns that can help prevent future relationship mistakes. Time affords you that opportunity.”


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