Sex in marriage is generally routine, comfortable and safe. Sex after divorce is unpredictable, awkward . . . even scary. After divorce, some take their time, forming relationships before sex. Others jump in. Whatever the situation, the popular consensus is that sex with someone new after years of marriage is a bit like becoming a teenager all over again.
"I felt like it was the first time," said a 42-year-old Santa Monica nurse, who waited four years after her divorce before having sex. "I felt like I didn't know how to do it. He was nurturing and treated me like it was the first time. There was a lot of anxiety leading up to it and in the beginning. Then after we got going, it was great."
She wasn't ready for a long-term relationship, she said, but needed the six-month relationship to realize that "I could be with someone other than my ex-husband." She had seen her ex for sex about a month after the divorce because it was safe, comfortable and always available (just the way it was when they were married). Once that ended, "It was the whole breakup and rejection thing all over again," she said. "The sex keeps you so you don't want to move on."
If the sex in a marriage was unsatisfying or repressive, new sexual relationships are an opportunity to make up for lost time.
"I was like a kid in a candy store," said a 36-year-old Santa Monica mother of two, who had felt emotionally and sexually estranged from her husband a year before initiating the divorce three years ago. "When I finally had sex with someone new after 11 years of marriage, it was wonderful. He was a friend for eight months, and it was a complete sexual healing. It felt natural. I was mentally ready. I was excited and scared."
Although it may not feel like it at the time, sometimes divorce provides a sexual and emotional springboard.
"When I was with someone new, I had to open up again, which was hard since my wife had pretty much made it clear that I was worthless," said a 53-year-old actor and screenwriter who had been with his wife for 14 years when she initiated divorce 11 years ago. "It was a big deal. It was weird seeing other women's bodies naked and not knowing them intimately like I had my wife, whose likes and dislikes I knew. If the emotional connection didn't happen with women, I couldn't be a good lover. Then there was birth control. I was expected to have condoms on hand or else."
But once he'd slogged his way through the pain of his divorce, he said, the reward was liberation: "My wife in my fantasy was the perfect woman," he said. "When it turned out she wasn't the perfect woman, I could explore different women and sexual attitudes that did not turn on my wife."
Until 10 years ago, that is, when he met his current wife, whose sexual adventurousness proves that marriage and passion are not mutually exclusive, he said.
There is always a risk of using sex to regain control or to mask feelings of abandonment, rejection, anger and depression, the emotional fallout of divorce, said Ron Levine, a Van Nuys clinical psychologist and human sexuality expert. Casual sex is not an effective way to deal with unresolved emotional issues. No matter how exhilarating the romp, unreconciled feelings will be there like a hangover the next morning.
"The underlying yearning is wanting to feel desired," Levine said. "Sex can become an artificial means to being desired. Sexual and love feelings often are confused. But if sex is just an event, then when the sex is over, the relationship is over because it wasn't there in the first place. Then you are left with emptiness, loneliness and bitterness and 'What the hell did I do that for?' "
Birds & Bees is a weekly column on relationships and sexuality. Kathleen Kelleher can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.