“I’m 47 years old and the idea of exposing myself to another man in any way fills me with dread.” The psychological hurdles of getting naked again after divorce or bereavement.
Melanie frowns whenever she mentions Tony’s name. It’s over a year since he moved in with the mother of a child in their daughter’s dance class. The humiliation has affected Charlotte, 12, very deeply and she and her two brothers refuse to have any contact with their father. Melanie hasn’t had a single night to herself since he left and she can’t see that changing in the immediate future. Though her family and friends think it is time she tried to move on, she insists she isn’t ready. Tony’s betrayal came out of the blue and she says she says she doesn’t trust her instincts any more. “I’m 47 years old and the idea of exposing myself to another man in any way fills me with dread. I am just too terrified of being rejected again.” Laura, 55, feels the same. Over the course of her thirty-two year marriage she went from a size eight to a size eighteen and when her husband left her for a size twelve she took it very, very personally. When Dr Helen E. Fisher, PhD Biological Anthropologist, and Research Professor in the Department of Anthropology at Rutgers University put 15 people who had been dumped by their partners into a brain scanner she proved what anyone who has ever been dumped already knows. Fischer found intense activity in the regions of the brain that are ordinarily associated with craving and addiction and concluded that “when people feel rejected they really, really suffer.”
So how can Melanie and Laura move on? According to clinical psychologist Dr Judith Sills, the only way a woman who has been rejected by one sexual partner can make herself feel better is to find herself another one. In her book ‘Getting Naked Again: Dating, Romance, Sex, and Love When You’ve Been Divorced, Widowed, Dumped, or Distracted’ Sills suggests that women who want to reintroduce sex into their lives should find themselves a ‘sexual mentor’. For some, this man will be a kind friend, for others he will be a kind stranger, but either way, Sills believes that once a woman gets over the psychological hurdle of getting naked and having sex with a new man, she begins to feel better. About everything. The most famous example of a mature woman’s search for a sexual mentor is Jane Juska. A retired English teacher, Juska 67, began therapy and it was her psychoanalyst who suggested that she get back into the dating scene. She ran an advert in the New York Review of Books which read: “Before I turn 67 next March I would like to have a lot of sex with a man I like. If you want to talk first, Trollope works for me.” Her adventures became a bestselling memoir ‘A Round-Heeled Woman’ in which she recounted what she did with the 67 men who replied to her adverts… and I mean exactly what she did. Prior to running her advert, Juska had not had sex since she divorced, thirty years earlier. She described herself as ‘depressed, gaining weight and de-prioritizing sex in her life’ to the point where she wondered whether she would ever have sex again.
No man would ever spend 30 years without a partner but it is all too easy for women to allow a negative and defeatest mindset to crush their entitlement to intimacy and sex. It is a fact that older women have a much harder time finding a man. The number of females to males in the population increases with age and by the time a woman is ninety, the ratio is three to one. And according to Mark Penn, pollster, political advisor and author of ‘Microtrends,’ “around three per cent of women are now left on the shelf because there are not enough straight men to go round”. The fact that men nearly always date downwards doesn’t help either. As Melanie says “ men my age are looking for partners who are in their early thirties.” It is also true that the arrival of Viagra has created a mismatch between pharmaceutically enhanced male sex drive and the naturally declining female libido. This causes problems for married couples too. In fact Dr Abraham Morgantaler, author of The Viagra Myth believes that the anti-impotency drug is increasingly a factor in relationships breaking up.
The most significant change to the dating scene have taken place online, but Melanie is convinced that any man using the internet to find a relationship is only after one thing. Fischer caution against that presumption. “There is alot of misunderstanding about men. Sure, they suffer less emotional distress if a casual hook up doesn’t work out, but they fall in love faster than women and they have fewer male friends so they depend more on their partners more. They are also more likely to remarry and they are 2.5 times more likely to kill themselves if they get dumped.” Both Sills and Fischer agree that the notion that ‘men want sex and women want love’ is a myth. Fischer even cites a study by graduate student Justin Garcia at the University of New York which asked 500 students to give their reasons for initiating a one night stand. Surprisingly, more men (52%) than women (50%) said that they hoped it would trigger a long term relationship.
Laura admits she is keen to find a new man because she “desperately does not want to be alone.” The risk for her is that she will latch on to the first man who shows any interest in her and manufacture a fantasy relationship from her own hopes and desires. Melanie on the other hand says she feels that time alone is essential to her healing process. Judith Sills disagrees. She says “I’m not a big believer in the idea that you need to spend time alone. Personal development doesn’t work to a formula and the idea that you can ever know what you want before you go out and find it is a kind of shopping mentality which I find to be untrue when it comes to evolving love.” Melanie is a classic example of this. Though she says that “a few margarita’s will be all it takes for her to feel comfortable once she meets the right guy,” when I ask her who that ‘right guy’ might be, I quickly realise that she needs miracles not margaritas. “ I have very low expectations” she declares and then goes on to say that she just wants “a guy who is decent and kind. Someone my age, who is looking for someone of my age. Not someone with a history, or kids, or a load of emotional baggage, and possibly widowed rather than divorced because that shows he can sustain a relationship.” She also wants him to be “a better role model for her kids than their father” and obviously “he will have to be prepared to let me put the kids first.” Judith Sills describes women like Melanie as “wanting to find a guy who has all the good traits of my last partner, but none of the bad ones.”
Identifying ‘the right person’, a.k.a. creating a shopping list of unrealistic expectations is a great way of avoiding having a relationship. So is breastfeeding your baby until he is three. When Barbara, 45 was seven months pregnant her partner was killed in a motorcycle accident. Her baby became the centre of her universe and even though he was eating meat and two veg, she continued to breastfeed him. “He was the only child I was ever going to have and he really enjoyed it, or at least that’s what I told myself.” Looking back now she realises that she was maintaining the physical bond as a way of coping with her loss. She also admits that the prospect of a sexual relationship had almost become a phobia for her. Two prolapses after her son’s birth meant she had “no idea what state I was in down there” and she had “no intention of letting anyone else have a look.”
Unlike Barbara, Laura has been very proactive since her marriage ended. She has lost weight and joined several online dating agencies but she is nervous about meeting guys face to face. She says she knows all the stuff about telling a friend where she is going and meeting in a public place but says she feels clueless about everything else. “It’s been thirty two years since I went on a date and I don’t know whether I am expected to go halves on dinner? Or when I should agree to have sex? I’m scared because I’ve only had sex with three men in my life and I can’t even remember two of them” ” These confusions are completely normal. Helen Fischer says that when “women come back onto the market after divorce or bereavement they panic because they don’t know what is expected of them, but what they don’t realise is that no one else knows what to expect either.” In the past there were certain commonly held beliefs about how men and women should behave during courtship, but there are no rules anymore and you just have to trust your instincts and deal with each situation as it arises. Indeed, Fischer herself has “ been on the dating market for eons” and says “I run into men who haven’t kissed me after 10 dates and others who want sex after a cup of coffee.”
Besides her research and writing work, Fisher is also chief scientific advisor to the US dating site ‘Chemistry.com’ for whom she has devised a series of questionaires which attempt to match individuals on a more scientific basis. She says the simple advantage to online dating is that it allows women to broaden their social network because “any woman over 35 has been through everyone in the office and his brother.” “Yes,” she admits, “people do lie in their profile’s (apparently women lie about weight and age while men lie about height and income) but guys lie when you pick them up in a bar too.” Most people, however, are relatively honest and the ones who are looking for casual sex tend to bring the subject up straight away at which point the exchange can be terminated. Also, for women like Melanie who are afraid of rejection the internet is an easier re-entry to dating because Fischer’s studies show that users tend not to experience strong feelings of rejection when very little emotion has been invested in the exchange.
Though 8 million British singletons went on 24 million first dates last year and 69% of them were arranged through the internet, older women in particular, have apprehensions about online dating. Barbara, for example, never felt it was for her. “It made me feel like I was selling myself and I didn’t like the idea of anyone I know stumbling across my picture and thinking I was desperate.” Still, eighteen months ago she joined Friends Reunited to look up old school friends and Jim, a guy she dated when she was 17, got in touch. When they started dating she knew the relationship had real potential but even so, she made him wait six months before she would agree to have sex with him. “I was just so self conscious. I had convinced myself that it would feel weird for him and that he would recoil in horror.” He didn’t, and they are still together.
Fisher urges women to remember that all the insecurities they feel cut both ways while Judith Sills says “there is so much over analysing, and so much angst about how hard it is to get back into dating and sex, but very little attention is paid to the remarkable exhilarating sense of fun you can have. Sex is the only way you can turn the clock back. It’s cheaper and less painful than plastic surgery and it makes you look and feel nineteen again.” She’s right. Dating is a process of trial and error. When you cast your line there is no telling whether you will reel in an old boot or a pearl, but what is certain is that a new sexual relationship will turn your frown upside down.
Seond Time around do’s and don’ts
• Be positive, be yourself and be open to new opportunities.
• Recognise that your personal history will influence your behaviour to a much greater extent than it did previously. The fear of being alone forever can make a woman mistake interest for passion, while the fear of making a mistake can prevent her taking, what she perceives to be, a risk.
• Be sensible (http://uk.match.com/matchuk/help/safetytips.aspx) and practice safe sex (www.nhs.uk/worthtalkingabout/Pages/sex-worth-talking-about.aspx). Between 2002 and 2006 there was a 50% rise in Chlamydia and a 139% rise in Syphilis in men and women aged 45 – 65 in the UK.
• Get fit. Death, divorce and dating may be the best diets on the market but exercise will focus your mind, improve your mood, boost your libido and make you feel more confident about taking your clothes off.
• Kick start your sex drive. Work your pelvic floor (www.mayoclinic.com/health/kegel-exercises/WO00119), invest in some good lubricant and buy yourself a vibrator.
• Say no to any opportunity to meet new people. The bigger your social circle the more likely you are to meet a partner.
• Choose internet dates based on photos alone, or spend too long exchanging emails. In a phone chat, you’ll get a better sense of whether your personalities click.
• Feel pressurised into having sex before you feel ready.
• Do anything that has the potential to cause long term damage to your life such as letting him move in, lending him money, getting married or getting pregnant.
• Presume that a successful second time around relationships has to end up in cohabitation or marriage. Companionship and regular sex may be all that both of you want and need. In fact one million couples in Britain live apart – but are not separated.