Finding Your Sex Life after Divorce

An advisory board discussion turned to our experiences as professionals supporting women who find themselves newly single, often after a divorce. I asked Mary Jo Rapini, one of our medical advisors, to share some of her observations and advice.

A divorce leaves most people confused, hurt, and angry. Sex with another person—or sex at all—may be the farthest thing from your mind in the midst of a divorce. Sex with an ex is more common than you might think, but it usually doesn’t last; it may help put closure on the end of the marriage. Sex with an ex usually reminds you why you split and reinforces that you are alone (one of the loneliest feelings is waking up after your ex leaves from a night that was nothing more than sex).

Be aware—both if you compare yourself to your partner and as you meet new people—that men usually have more partners after a divorce. Men suffer more from being alone. Their heart rate and respiration take longer to return to normal after an argument, and they have less of a social network to turn to for emotional support. Many times their attempts to find someone new quickly are driven by emotion as well as sex. Women have stronger social networks that help to emotionally support them. This is a benefit for women and also prevents them from feeling the “need” to begin dating right after a divorce.

For both women and men, there are new sexual adventures waiting after a divorce. On-line dating, texting, sexting, emailing, and social networks have all provided a virtual world of new suitors. If you have been married for a long while, this may seem overwhelming and intimidating. It may be one of the reasons you hesitate to get back into dating. I hear questions like these from many recent divorcees; “How do I date?” “Where do I begin?” “What do men or women expect now while dating?”

Before you begin dating, get comfortable with both your post-divorce body and your thoughts about sexuality. If you were married for a long time, sex may have become routine, and your body most likely was accepted for the way it was. If you don’t like your body, this is an optimal time to begin a healthier life style that includes taking time for yourself. Exploration of your own sexuality can be a part of that healthier life style. Rushing into dating before you know what makes you feel good, where you like to be touched, and how to touch you won’t be as successful as taking your time and knowing yourself. You aren’t the same person you were when you got married. Your body isn’t the same body, either. Here are some things you can do to understand your sexual self post divorce:

  1. Take at least one evening or morning a week to begin touching yourself. Sitting in a bath tub with nice music, bubbles, and a hot tea or other favorite beverage is a wonderful opportunity to touch your skin and notice where your body is most sensitive. If you feel numb since the divorce, watch for goose bumps. These are good indicators of areas on your body that enjoy touch.
  2. As you feel more comfortable with your own touch, introduce a vibrator. If you aren’t sure of which kind to try, begin with a vibrator you can take in the water. The water is relaxing and if you are still uncomfortable looking at all your body parts (many women and men have body image issues after a divorce) the water is a gentle way to cover parts you don’t like. Massage your neck, arms, breasts, chest, groin, thighs, and then gently introduce it to the genitals.
  3. When you are finished in the bath, gently dry yourself and begin looking in the mirror. Note the areas of your body that are sensitive to touch and appreciate those. Repeating a mantra or a favorite quote or prayer at this time is a loving addition to your body and will begin helping you feel more sexual and confident.
  4. After dressing, sit down and write down things that you appreciate about your body and list reasons someone would want to love you. Keep these writings in a journal where you can continue this practice. Writing will begin your healing process of self love, discovering your sexual self, and preparation to love again.

Whether you wanted the divorce or were forced into one, knowing your intimate, sexual self post-divorce is so important. The majority of divorcees do go on to have relationships and marriages. Many of these don’t work out, and it’s often because one or both partners rushed into another relationship without fully appreciating what they had to offer another.

If you didn’t want the divorce, it’s especially important to heal emotionally, as well as restoring your sexuality. These suggestions will help you get through the immediate months following a divorce:

  1. Talk to a counselor to help you navigate your feelings. Venting to your friends, parents, and children is not helpful and can actually isolate you. Children can be emotionally damaged when parents trash-talk an ex, so confide in a counselor and one or two close friends.
  2. Make exercise a part of your daily life. Exercise helps motivate you when you feel too fatigued to go on, and it restores your body image. If you can’t exercise by yourself, ask a good friend to walk, run, or go to the gym with you.
  3. Join at least one support group or a like-minded group. This will help you minimize your aloneness; it will also get you out into the community where—who knows?—you may meet new people, including, perhaps, someone you’d like to date.
  4. Minimize meeting up with your ex as much as possible. The more you engage with your ex, the more difficult moving on can be.
  5. Continue to enjoy the events you used to. You may not “feel” the same enjoyment at the same deep level, but eventually you will.

Going on with a new life you never wanted or chose is painful. Many times, the partner left feels revengeful, and although this is a common feeling (don’t beat yourself up for feeling it), you eventually have to give that up, too. Before you give up on that feeling though, remember: The best revenge is becoming the best version of you! This includes taking care of your emotional and spiritual health, your children’s health, and your physical health. You will make it, even though your heart may be breaking. You are strong, you will survive, and you will continue to grow, change, and love again.

Q: Why does my husband prefer porn to me?

This is such a tough question. I brought one of our advisors, Mary Jo Rapini into the conversation, since she's a therapist who often deals with this issue.

Two things we think it's very important for you to know: First, you are not alone. Porn addictions are becoming a very frequently seen issue in Mary Jo's practice. Second, this isn't really about you, so, as hard as it might be, do everything you can to recognize your partner's problem and work hard at feeling good about yourself.

Your partner may have sex fantasies that he isn't able to tell you about; he may not know how to talk about sex or sexuality. Pornography is so easily available--and requires no face-to-face contact, so it's easy to keep an addiction going and very difficult to combat it.

Both Mary Jo and I recommend couples therapy if your husband is willing, and counseling for you if he's not so you have support in seeing the situation clearly--and yourself as a worthy and lovable person!

Mary Jo has more resources on her website, starting with this article: "When Porn Gets in the Way."

Maslow’s Hierarchy and the Women of the Harvest

We all remember Maslow… don’t we? That noted psychologist who, in 1954, published his famous hierarchy of human needs that we all learned about in high school psychology?

Maslow determined that we all have basic physical and psychological needs that fall into an orderly hierarchy and are necessary to achieve happiness. But, he propositioned, basic survival needs for food and shelter had to be met before we’d benefit from higher levels of need fulfillment, such as the love and belonging or self-esteem.

To test whether Maslow’s theory would hold up under modern scrutiny, two researchers designed a massive Gallup poll of well-being. Almost 61,000 people in 123 countries were quizzed about fulfillment of specific needs and daily feelings of joy and unhappiness as well as on overall life satisfaction. Maslow was correct that people everywhere share the same basic needs, beginning with physical needs and ending with self-actualization (a “fuzzy” term that scientists don’t much like).

Perfection of character is this: to live each day as if it were your last, without frenzy, without apathy, without pretense.

However, this survey found that, although Maslow was on target about his list of universal human needs, he was wrong about their orderly nature. People seem to need everything all at once. People can (and do) enjoy the higher-level needs for love and friendship, for example, even if they may be lacking some basic needs. “They’re like vitamins,” said one of the researchers in a recent article in the Atlantic. “We need them all.”

So where do we fit in—midlife women who probably have our basic physical needs met, but who still are actively engaged in life’s endeavors?

While the Gallup researchers were revisiting Maslow, Jaki Scarcello, author of Fifty and Fabulous, was conducting a little survey of her own, interviewing older women between the ages of 45 and 102 around the globe. She wanted to find out what happens when women grow old. How do we evolve?

What she discovered was that many of us do indeed reach Maslow’s highest levels of human development. We become wise, accepting, purposeful—you know, self-actualized—and this at times despite living under difficult challenging circumstances at times.

“I think the Maslow link is that perhaps self-actualization and improved self-esteem are more available to us as we age, which, ironically, may be a time in our lives when our basic needs are once again threatened,” said Jaki.

Jaki calls these the Women of the Harvest.

“Many older women told me they were experiencing a confidence they had never felt before in their lives,” says Jaki, “that they had found their voice, they were daring to do things they had not dared to do before.”

Younger women, on the other hand, tend to look to external sources for validation, to be more invested in appearances, and to be more distressed when basic needs weren’t met.

This serenity and self-acceptance applies to our sexual selves as well. “And so our sexuality is still important to us, but it does not suffer as much interference from self-deprecating mind chatter and from external reactions,” she said.

So, despite the physical and emotional changes of aging, we may be more confident in our own sexuality and look to others less for approval and validation.

“If it seems that the sparkle in a Woman of the Harvest deepens with age, perhaps it’s because her fire is fed in part by the internalization of sexual energy. This beauty is truly no longer skin deep. Instead, it radiates from some knowing place inside a woman who has ceased to need the outer world to know herself,” writes Jaki in Fifty and Fabulous.

I Am Woman…

A while ago, a comment from a reader on one of my blog posts gave me some food for thought, and I’ve been digesting ever since.

“To me, sexuality = feeling strong and attractive and powerful and desirable,” this reader commented. “It’s important to feel like that with my man, but it’s also important to feel that way for me. And if I’ve ‘got it going on,’ it enhances my sexual relationship with my husband, too.”

So why is it important to feel confident and strong just for ourselves, and how is that connected to attractiveness and sexuality?

For starters, let’s just acknowledge that it’s darned hard to remain strong and confident as we grow older in a youth-and-beauty-crazed culture. At some point, the culture might have it, we’re not “hot” anymore; we’re not even lukewarm. We may be viewed (or view ourselves) as outdated and expendable. “…the fact remains that at midlife, women can feel invisible - or at worse, unattractive,” says psychologist Susan Quilliam in an article in the Daily Mail.

The good news, however, is that even in the face of such powerful negative messages, women seem to come into their own at midlife. While anecdotal evidence supports this surge in confidence, research backs it up as well. In several longitudinal studies, women over 40 reported feeling powerful, productive, and in control of their destiny. “I think middle age for everyone involves a sense of ownership of one’s self and clarity about who you are,” said Abigail Stewart, professor of psychology at the University of Michigan in an article in More.

So, despite negative cultural messages and what the mirror tells us, we manage to develop a sense of greater serenity, confidence, purpose, and productivity as we grow older. Research suggests that our emotions become more positive and stable as we age. We’ve weathered some storms. We’ve gained some perspective, even wisdom. We’ve “got it going on.” And that feels pretty good—just for ourselves.

But what does this have to do with sexuality? Or with better sex?

Sexuality—our “womanness”—is part of our essential nature. It’s our personhood. We can no more separate ourselves from our sexuality than we can cut out our heart. So, if we are confident and evolved as a person, it’s as a sexual female person, whether or not we are sexually active.

And if this confidence and maturity makes us attractive to men (and it does), we are probably also regarded highly by women as well. Also, when we are sure of our place in the world, we have the emotional energy to look outward; we can be empathetic and interested in others—and that’s attractive, too. “People of all ages love a confident woman, one who knows her own mind and can stand up for herself. Especially, it seems, the males of this world,” writes blogger Leslie Dowden for Fabafterfifty. “The point I’m labouring to make is that a confident woman is attractive to everyone, and draws people to her—no matter what her age. But I also know that with age comes even greater self confidence—for me anyway.”

Since most of us could use a little emotional pick-me-up occasionally, here are some suggestions for cultivating greater self-confidence:

  • Look your best—as you define it. Confident sexuality isn’t about looks or clothes, but being well-groomed makes you feel good about yourself. However, once you’ve completed your toilette for the day, put away the mirror and don’t look back.
  • Cultivate gratitude. Gratitude and its sister, abundance, can revitalize your experience of the world. You can’t be grateful and indulge in self-pity at the same time. Admit it, you have a lot to be grateful for!
  • Laugh. If nothing else, a good laugh releases endorphins, which are natural pain relievers and mood enhancers. But a sense of humor is also an attractive quality, and it helps you to see the glass half-full.
  • Write your own script. You are the author of your life. Only you can write it, and it’s never too late to revise. So no more excuses! You’re responsible and in control.
  • Act with confidence until you feel it. No one feels confident all the time in every situation. Sometimes, you just have to pretend. And sometimes, the very act of pretending gives you the confidence you need.