Divorce often doesn’t sever a relationship, even sexually

Q: I have a recently divorced friend who believes the only reason her ex wants to linger in the relationship is because he misses regular sex. She believes that’s the only thing he valued about her. How can you tell the difference between lust and love? If a woman is attractive, how can she be certain she is loved as a whole person or as only the object that keeps on giving? And, for that matter, how can a man tell if he loves a woman for more than the sex he can have with her?" — LJO, Las Vegas

A: So much to answer here. First, your recently divorced friend’s observation: Her ex wants to linger.

So, is he lingering? And how can he linger unless she participates in the lingering … which means she’s lingering, too.

This would not surprise me. Divorced and divorcing people linger. Said another way, while legal divorce is as simple as banging a gavel, psychological divorce is a long, arduous and often never-entirely-completed journey. Years later, put two formerly married people in a room together, and you can "feel" the bond that still remains between them. This is especially true if the marriage yielded children.

Next, I want to examine the possibility that your friend has postulated this scenario prejudicially. I mean, why shouldn’t regular sex be indeed one of the things to grieve about a divorce? Would she feel the same way if he lingered in the relationship because he missed his hiking buddy? His country dancing partner? I don’t think so.

I’m saying that sex is almost never the issue. It’s us! When two people are in love and a man makes a direct, single-minded randy overture, the woman is flattered and welcoming and loves being the focus of the man’s frenzied desire. She’s the Siren. The Queen. But when the relationship is stressed or estranged, then his desire is suddenly a call for critical dialogue: "Can you believe the only thing he misses about me is sex?"

I think the average person would be surprised to know how many divorced and divorcing people are still having sex, at least for a while. Let me say up front that, when patients report ongoing sex in a divorced or divorcing scenario, they can count on me to push them to examine this behavior. Divorced/divorcing sex is, in my opinion, an impediment to healing and wholeness. A contradiction. It creates a kind of psychic confusion for identity. I don’t recommend it.

But the behavior is not at all uncommon, and several factors can be at play. For some people, the radical vulnerability implicit in a permanent, exclusive commitment paralyzes their freedom to surrender to great sex. Once the decision to divorce is made, there is an ironic, renewed access to this freedom.

In some cases it is "consolation sex." A kind of "I feel bad this didn’t work out and I hope we can be friends." Other times it is passive aggression. The couple engages in a defiant "I’ll give you my body but don’t think for a moment that you’ll ever again get to my heart" sort of thing. Still other times it’s just plain mean: an editorial that mostly says, "I want you to know what you’ll be missing out there."

Other times the sex continues because love continues, because the two parties are riddled with ambivalence about the divorce. Here’s a newsflash: People tend not to divorce because love has died. They divorce because the work of love has overwhelmed and exhausted them. Years later, one will weep when the news of the other’s death arrives. Spouses in a second marriage often come to accept and respect that a previous marriage will always be a living part of their mate’s psyche.

I’m saying that, despite the popular view of culture, there really aren’t that many men out there who merely want to be "serviced" and don’t particularly care who does the servicing. I’m saying that your friend’s critical protest may reveal as much about her own malaise in the marriage as her ex’s — the things she’s still working on and healing and growing in herself.

Lots more to say about your remaining questions, LJO. See you here next Tuesday?

Steven Kalas is a behavioral health consultant and counselor at Clear View Counseling and Wellness Center in Las Vegas. His column appears on Tuesdays and Sundays. Questions or comments may be sent to skalas@reviewjournal. com.

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