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Divorce and Sex - Yes or No?

Maxine B. Cohen, M.F.T.

When I was first asked to write on the topic of sexuality during divorce, I declined. I'm not in favor of that so why would I write about it? But then I got to thinking, "Why not?" since, as we all know, sex has always been a fact of life and is here to stay. So I thought it might be helpful of me to offer my own two cents worth of common sense and professional expertise on this loaded subject.

The bottom line is, while you're divorcing (unless it drags on for years and years) and especially newly divorcing, it is my opinion that it's best if sex is left out of the relationship.

Why is that?

That's because divorce is such a devastating life passage that people's hearts are gravely wounded and they have too little equilibrium and self-support to be in another complicated relationship at the same time. Just as you would naturally protect a serious sore on your body from further harm, so, too, your heart. A wounded heart takes care of itself by refusing to let anyone close and being unable to trust. So there's great emotional and psychological distance in relationships that form too soon after the marital separation. It may not feel like lots of distance; typically the divorcing person literally falls into the lover for life support and sustenance. But the new union is frequently off again, on again, and both people are unable to commit in any real and lasting way.

Quite often , people leaving a marriage yearn for someone to love them wholly and unconditionally. Their heart has been ripped wide open from the deprivation of long years of living with a spouse who they feel criticized rather than loved them, from the pain of leaving the marriage or being the one who got left, and they are dying to find a person who will love them unconditionally and fill the gaping void inside. they're alone and lonely, psychologically if not in reality. And they are falling apart emotionally. Jumping into a new love relationship can be a way of self-medication, of easing the pain of marital loss, just as if they were taking a drug that calmed anxiety.

It can all get very mixed up!

It can all get very mixed up. For some people, sex is an analgesic. It's numbing and soothing. For some, it's a catch-all; all emotional needs get bundled together and labeled "sex." The need to feel good about yourself, to feel desirable, to feel lovable and loved, to be comforted and close, to stroked and touched and held, all get lumped together and satisfied by "having sex." This is true for both sexes but it is far more prevalent with men. As a result of their socialization, men have traditionally had difficulty allowing themselves to feel and express the softer emotions. It's manly and macho and definitely okay to want to have sex. It's less okay, and downright not okay for some men still, to be so "weak": as to want to be held, comforted, soothed, or petted. Having sex may work in the moment but it will not have any lasting effect on bolstering up your self-esteem or calming your anxiety. In fact, it ups the ante in the relationship, especially for the woman, and complicates greatly both people's ability to learn to trust again in a new relationship.

Maxine Cohen | 949-644-6435 |
Maxine Cohen is a licensed marriage and family therapist who has worked with individuals, couples, and families since 1989. She is an expert on all aspects of the divorce transition-from how to tell the children in the best possible way, to riding the emotional roller coaster and grieving the loss, to dating and rebuilding a life that is satisfying and good. Maxine is also a writer, having contributed columns to Orange Coast Magazine and the local editions of the Orange County Register and the LA Times (Daily Pilot) for the past 10 years. She is in private practice in Newport Beach.

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