When it comes to divorce and new relationships, there’s a memorable line from the 1989 Rob Reiner film, When Harry Met Sally. Soon-to-be-married Marie and Jess have each just gotten off the phone from consoling their single friends, Harry and Sally, who are suffering the tremors of emotional uncertainty brought on by the aftermath of their first sexual encounter together. Afterward, Marie turns to Jess and pleads: “Please tell me I will never have to be out there again!”
That we understand this sentiment should come as no surprise. When married, our sexual routine was a safe bet. We either had sex or we didn’t. We were familiar with our partner’s moves, and we knew what was expected of us. Whatever else it may have been, it was safe. And our needs were – to varying extents, depending on the partnership – being met. After a break-up, however, things are neither “safe” nor predictable. We’re not only dealing with a painful recovery process, but we’re also wondering if we’ll ever have a satisfying relationship – or whether we’ll be able to love or be loved – again.
Sex and Divorce: a Potent Psychological Cocktail
Sex and divorce are two of the most emotionally potent subjects of our time. When combined, they create a psychological cocktail with all the portents of both ecstasy and hangover, of pleasure and pain, of risk and failure. And, as with any strong elixir, the subliminal message reads: handle with care.
Unless you left your ex for someone else, break-up usually means being single again. And being single again means that you’re going to face, in one way or another, the potential of new relationships and their inherent sexuality. And sexuality, for all the self-help manuals that have proliferated in North America over the last few decades, still remains a mystery to some extent. Sex is the private poetry that flows between two individuals – even if only for the moment – carrying with it a unique signature of communication at its most intimate. It’s a physical and emotional union where our most primal expressions of self are laid bare to another being.
Divorce, on the other hand, no matter how common it has become in our society, is still a painful psychological process of denial and acceptance, grief and growth, death and rebirth. How is one to manage both the pain of divorce and the uncertainty of new sexual encounters when dealing with one comes so close upon the heels of the other? Coping with divorce and the prospect of intimate sexual relationships thereafter is like having each foot in a different camp: which deserves the most attention?
The answer lies in finding the root that connects them both: in dealing with one issue, you ultimately find yourself dealing with both. And in order to begin that process, you need to examine the dynamics of the partnership that’s ended and identify a starting point uniquely your own.
Being Out in the Cold
According to Jill Fein, a certified Imago relationship therapist and LCSW practicing in Lincolnwood, IL, some people want to get right back on the horse after splitting up with their spouse – and the sooner, the better. “It’s a way to reassure themselves that they’re still desirable,” she says. “Others are very cautious: they want to protect themselves from ever being hurt again. Many clients have told me they’d love to be in a relationship if there were a guarantee they wouldn’t get hurt. But opening your heart to someone is a risk – and it’s the risk you have to take if you want to be in a relationship.”
There’s absolutely no doubt that the prospect of new sexual relationships is going to bring emotional issues related to your break-up to the forefront. If you have unresolved hurt or anger, these are going to affect your sexuality and your ability to become involved in a fulfilling manner. Post-divorce sex can either salt the existing wounds or be a loving, satisfying experience; it depends on where you are on your “healing curve.”
Being dumped can bring on low self-esteem, feelings of personal failure, rejection, and abandonment. And these will have a tremendous impact on how you perceive your sexual attractiveness and the way you interact sexually. In addition, there’s still a considerable divide between men and women with respect to sexual objectives and attitudes that govern sexual behavior.
Looking for (the Next) Mr./Ms. Right
Feelings of abandonment or rejection can manifest themselves in a number of ways. You could experience some sexual inhibitions and feel fearful of sexual contact, since rejection can have a debilitating effect on your sense of inner self and body image. Alternatively, you could use your sexuality as a vehicle to act out your anger and to regain a sense of control, or as an attention-getting device, attempting to repair your damaged self-esteem.
A woman who has been left by her spouse often loses much of her self-confidence and self-esteem, notes Toronto-based individual and marital therapist Karen Solomon-Ament. “She needs to feel love and acclamation, and so she’ll have sex with the guy who gives her attention and fulfills her immediate need. Then she wakes up the next morning hating herself. It can also be a way of retaliating from being in a relationship where she felt impotent, neglected, or rejected.” Of course, men can end up on this emotional rollercoaster, too.
Solomon-Ament says that this is really a form of self-sabotage: that by using casual sex specifically to deal with unresolved issues, you’re only effecting a temporary cure that carries one hell of an emotional hang-over – not to mention the physical dangers of having sex with someone you don’t know well. Your self-esteem and sense of self-worth continue to be assaulted the “morning after,” and you’re actively denying yourself all of the joy and fulfillment of a loving sexual relationship.
Sex with Your Ex
Many couples who’ve split up avoid the whole prospect of being out in the cold by continuing to have a sexual relationship even though the relationship is over. It’s a way of remaining in the safe, secure sexual environment we know and delaying the inevitable plunge into the unknown singles market. Therapists, however, are quick to point out that it “ain’t over ’till it’s over.” In other words, while sex with your ex can provide a wonderful release, you need to let go sexually in order to fully heal, grow, and move on to a new life. And that won’t happen until you and your ex can agree to stay out of each other’s beds.
Sharon admits to having an on-again, off-again affair with her ex-husband, Dave, for four years after they split up. “Every time we’d make love, I’d think ‘This feels so great – he must want to get back together with me.’ And each time, I ended up hurt and disappointed, because all he wanted was the sex.” The last time they slept together, Dave told her he was engaged to someone else. “It was like a cold bucket of water in the face,” Sharon remembers. “I asked him how he could cheat on his fiancée, and he replied that it wasn’t really cheating if it was just with me.” She suddenly realized that he intended to go on having sex with her even after his marriage to another woman, and that she had to terminate their sexual relationship if she wanted to get over him and move on with her life. “It was a bit like getting divorced again – really sad and painful,” she says. “And it took Dave years to stop making passes at me whenever I’d see him; he just couldn’t believe that I was never going to sleep with him again.”
If you’ve left behind an abusive marriage, there are probably a number of very deep emotional issues that need to be tackled before you should consider starting an intimate, sexual relationship. The main risk of entering into new relationships lies in repeating an established pattern: the relationship may be new, but your role as a victim will be all too familiar.
“Before getting into a new relationship, you should consider therapy,” advises Debra Burrell, a New York psychotherapist who provides “Mars-Venus” counseling and workshops based on the work of Dr. John Gray. “Make sure you’re not the same person who was the victim in the abusive relationship. You need to learn how to spot the warning signs early on, and how to attract a different type of mate.”
Burrell emphasizes that unresolved emotional issues stemming from an abusive marriage can result in the individual finding themselves in the same type of toxic relationships over and over again.
When coming from a sexually repressed marriage, there are two common reactions: to choose another partner with low sexual requirements; or to get out there and make up for lost time! If you felt sex-starved by an unresponsive marital partner, then you’re going to have a great deal of pent-up urges that want expression. And finding a sexually responsive partner can open up a whole new realm of joy.
There are risks, however, to becoming sexually active immediately following a break-up. Burrell points out that you’re not likely to be very discriminating at this stage, and that you’ll only become more discerning with time. The difference between sexual experimentation as acting-out behavior – as opposed to the positive enjoyment of one’s freedom – depends on a number of psychological factors. Whether or not it’s okay to “go out and play” for a while depends on you: your background, religious beliefs, and personal history.
“If you’re inclined to have sex immediately after break-up, you need to accept that it’s raw sex,” says Solomon-Ament. “It’s primal. Sex for its own sake is okay as long as it’s consenting and not abusive or destructive to either partner.”
And remember to have safe sex each and every time you sleep with someone. You can’t tell whether someone has a sexually transmitted disease (STD) by looking at them: nice people get AIDS and herpes, too. If you don’t know what safe sex is (and you may not after a long-term, monogamous marriage), ask your doctor about safe-sex practices, or get a book such as Sex for Dummies by Dr. Ruth K. Westheimer or The Kinsey Institute New Report on Sex and read all about it before having sex with a new partner.
Most therapists agree that it takes a minimum of one to two years to heal from a divorce. You’re extremely vulnerable after a break-up, so if you’re not sure about whether you really want to have sex, or why you are having sex, it’s best to wait until you know.
Performance Anxiety and Inhibitions
Sexual performance anxiety in men is not uncommon after divorce. If this is the case, visit a physician to find out whether there’s a physical cause for your impotence. If physical problems have been ruled out, consider seeking help from a therapist who specializes in sexual issues. Non-organic impotence can be caused by anxiety or guilt: it often emerges when the relationship has not had a final ending or closure; or when it has broken down because the man’s wife was cheating on him; or sometimes even if the man was the one who did the cheating.
Interestingly, though not surprisingly, men often try and work their problems out themselves rather than going for help. For health reasons, however, men suffering from impotence should find out whether the cause is organic or non-organic with the help of a medical practitioner. Then, when they’re ready, they can choose to seek help from a doctor or therapist.
Jill Fein suggests that anyone who has been in a long-term partnership may feel some sexual inhibition with a new partner. “It’s normal to have inhibitions after divorce,” she says. “There’s the fear of being naked in front of someone new – to leave the security of being with someone who has seen you change over the years.”
If you’re used to a sexual routine in which the ability to please and be pleased has been mapped out by experience, you’ll be facing a whole new set of questions, such as: “What’s expected of me now?” “Is there anything more about sex I should know?” or “What kind of sexual behavior is considered acceptable?” These concerns should eventually subside through the process of learning and sharing with a new sexual partner.
“There’s a terrible embarrassment about revealing yourself after years and years of marriage,” says Monica Morris, the author of Looking for Love in Later Life (Avery Publishing). “Both men and women feel like this. Men are afraid they won’t measure up, that they won’t be able to deliver – especially older men, although younger men also experience this… Sex is such a problem for men. Either they have an erection, or they don’t – there’s no faking it.”
Sexual inhibitions in a woman can have a great deal to do with negative body image. Becky Wilborn, president of the Diet Center in Manhattan, points out that being – or even feeling – overweight affects every area of a woman’s life: including her vitality, self-expression, and self-esteem. While she is taking part in the sexual act, this woman’s mind is likely to be engaged with thoughts such as: “I hope he doesn’t see this part of my body, or that part…” rather than concentrating on pleasure. Before she can truly enjoy and wholeheartedly participate in sex, she needs to deal with her body-image issues.
Body Image and Sex
Our body image is what is triggered in our minds when we look in the mirror: how we perceive and feel about ourselves. And there are huge gender differences. Although things are changing, says Wilborn, generally speaking, women are more concerned about appearance and body weight than men. Women are trained from childhood to believe that their appearance is extremely important and they must invest considerable time, effort, and expense in maintaining it if they want to be happy and successful.
Poor body image almost inevitably translates into bad sex. If you’re trying to flatten your stomach or worried about how your thighs look, for example, you’re unlikely to derive much pleasure from the sex act. Dr. Thomas Cash, a researcher into the link between body image and sex at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, VA has found that women who like the way they look reach orgasm more frequently than those who were preoccupied with their “physical defects”: they reported reaching orgasm 73% of the time compared with only 42% for women with a negative body image.
Very often, weight gain in a woman is a substitute “problem” for an underlying emotional issue she doesn’t want to deal with. For example, if she’s been hurt by a painful break-up and she’s terrified about her future prospects, she might gain weight out of a subconscious wish to become “undesirable” and thereby protect herself from having to face the pain and fear of rejection.
Wilborn, who estimates that 75% of her clients are women, points out that some women start to gain weight before a break-up to avoid sex with their husbands, from whom they feel emotionally estranged. “For some, the extra weight is there because of intimacy issues: the weight is a cushion protecting her from having to have sex with her husband. After a divorce, being overweight can be a barrier between a woman and a new relationship.”
Even a stunning woman can have a poor body image; she feels ugly or undesirable, and that translates into a negative energy that she sends out to men. Most women and men, whether they realize it or not, are attracted to a person’s energy far more than their physiology. The key to positive sexual energy is truly accepting and loving yourself – and that includes your body.
Ask yourself: “How do I feel about my body?” If the answer is a list of dislikes and complaints, then you can be pretty sure you have a self-esteem or body-image problem. The first step to renovating your poor self-image is to identify the belief that’s responsible for it, figure out where this belief came from, and deal with the experience that caused it. If you’re having trouble figuring out the original “trigger” for your negative thoughts, try writing a history of your body: how it looked from early childhood to present day. Maybe your dislike of your body began with a teenage case of acne, or with a sudden weight gain when you started taking birth-control pills, or with a critical boyfriend. Pick up a copy of The Body Image Workbook: An 8-Step Program for Learning to Like Your Looks by Thomas F. Cash, Ph.D. for help.
Men are not immune from feelings of low self-esteem or poor body image, either. “Men feel very much like this, too,” says Monica Morris. “Especially older men, although younger men also experience this. They’re afraid they won’t measure up, that they won’t be able to deliver. This seems to be a constant problem with men at any age.”
What Men Want
There’s an old saying that sex is emotional for women and physical for men. Although it’s dangerous to make generalizations about the way all men are, researchers have found that men are aroused mainly through their senses: particularly through sight, although sound and smell play their parts, too. And, as male arousal tends to be generated by physiological rather than psychological stimuli, men are far more likely than women to be ready for sex very soon after divorce.
The impetus to get involved again can be strengthened by a man’s need to fill the emotional gap that has been created by loss of a partner: having sex means that men can be intimate without having to talk about their feelings. It’s also a validation of their egos, which is especially important when the ego is bruised. Hence, many men are interested in having sex as early as the first date. “Sleeping around to build up self-esteem is a common mistake,” says Debra Burrell. “They’re seeking attention to make them feel loved and lovable, but ultimately, it always backfires.”
Frank asked his wife for a divorce after he discovered that she had been cheating on him with one of his best friends for over a year. He felt deeply betrayed and hurt by both of them, and ended up having a string of one-night stands in an effort to reassure himself about his attractiveness to women – and to make himself feel better. “At first, it was great,” he says. “Going to bed with different women made me feel like some kind of stud – and I was also trying to rub my ex’s nose in the fact that I had multiple sex partners. But after a while, I realized that sex with virtual strangers was not ultimately fulfilling: sure, I wanted sex, but I also wanted to fall asleep with my arms around a woman I loved.”
Frank discovered that he missed the emotional intimacy and touching of marriage as much as he missed the sex, and decided to stop sleeping around until he found someone with whom he really “connected.” He also started going for regular therapeutic massages, which he found lowered his stress level and filled some of his need to be touched by another human.
For men, a desire to have sex doesn’t necessarily translate into a desire for a relationship. For women, however, having sex tends to have different, more powerful implications.
What Women Want
Women are more likely to glean a sense of being loved from non-sexual behaviors – having flowers bought for them, receiving loving letters, or having a man demonstrate his feelings through appreciative gestures – than through the mere act of having sex. They’re also more likely to want to sort out their post-divorce issues before getting involved sexually again.
For women, sex is usually more than physical gratification. It’s an emotional investment – what Jill Fein calls “opening your heart.” Most men are able to walk away after sex and go about their business without a second thought, but women are left wondering where they stand. If her break-up is very fresh, the potential damages of becoming involved sexually far outweigh the potential benefits.
Respecting these differences makes sense, especially for women. Hence, a good rule of thumb should be: “What’s the hurry?”
Learning to Trust Again
Having sex can be one of the most intimate acts we can share as human beings. By its very nature, the sexual act makes us vulnerable to one another. And divorce has everything to do with the loss of our faith, idealism, and our trust in others and in relationships. Getting involved again is about learning to trust once more and, before we can do that, we must first heal, deal with our emotional issues, and get a positive sense of self.
Whatever you’re doing sexually, it should feel good, have a sense of “rightness,” and enhance your life with fulfillment and well-being. If you need help getting to that place, don’t be afraid to ask for it. Above all, it’s beneficial to have a healthy awareness of the sexual differences between men and women – this awareness will enable you to celebrate them in yourself and in your new partner.
Angel La Liberte is a writer, broadcaster, and relationship counselor who founded “Single Again,” a U.K. organization and publication for individuals who had lost a partner to separation, divorce, or death.