Wednesday, Apr 27, 2011 1:01 AM UTC

How getting divorced revived my sex life

At 38, I thought that part of my life was over. Actually, it was just beginning

How getting divorced revived my sex life

At 38, my libido came roaring back. Its return delighted me in ways that cannot be overstated, because what came before that was a period of mortification.

I met my husband when I was 24 and he was 26. We married two years later, and except for nights we spent apart, I can’t remember a time in the first nine years when we weren’t physical. We lived in the Pacific Northwest, and we hiked often, finding it impossible not to stop and fool around in the many meadows and forest beds we created. When we decided to get pregnant, I had read that it was best to wait 36 hours between bouts of intercourse, and it became a running joke that we were the only couple we knew who had to have less sex in order to have a kid.

But things changed.

No one is to blame for where that piece of me went for the five or six years when sex felt like an obligation, instead of what it had been in my 20s: fun, an expression of pleasure and love, and did I mention fun?

Certainly, I played a part. Just before giving birth to our second child, I had blown a disc in my neck. Chronic pain, pregnancy and prescription painkillers are not a recipe for erotic bliss. Instead, I found the closeness I’d always craved holding my children, nursing, carrying an infant. My husband’s job sent him out of town once or twice a month for days at a time, and I was in a high-pressure graduate program when I wasn’t caring for our children.

By 30, I had turned into an invisible woman. I grocery shopped in sweatpants and hoodies. I glided through public space not making eye contact with men, sure that, as an older woman in a college town, I was past my prime. Why would another man find me attractive when, most days, I wasn’t even sure my husband lusted after me? Toward the end, my husband didn’t even pretend anymore.

One day, I had gone to Victoria’s Secret with my 4-year old daughter. I had lost 40 pounds, and I needed new bras. While there, I tried on a teddy for the hell of it. Later, over dinner, I told my husband I’d been tempted to buy it.

My youngest spoke up: “Mommy, you are littler but you still have a fat tummy.”

My face froze.

“You can’t blame the kid for telling the truth,” he said.

Something in me broke off, like an iceberg from a glacier. I didn’t want this man to touch me anymore.

The separation was just a couple of months after this.

But something else happened at the same time. My chronic pain problem had been sorted out with major medical intervention, and, while I was at home recovering, I rediscovered my real love: writing.

I had cast aside writing years before that to pursue a graduate degree in history. It was the responsible thing to do. Saying “I am a writer” would have taken a level of confidence I did not possess as a young woman. It was easier to drape myself in the armor of being an Ivy League grad student in a respected field. But during my recovery, I found myself sitting at the computer, rapt with attention. What started as a short story was turning into a novel, and in the few months that I was home, I wrote well over a hundred pages. The characters revealed themselves to me little by little, and as they did so, they brought to the surface truths about my own life that I had perhaps known but never acknowledged. That is, as much as I had once loved my husband — as much as he was still a good man, a great father — I wanted out.

Just after my 38th birthday, I left him. 38 marked my resurrection.

Although I couldn’t know that initially. I was too busy trying to make sure my kids were going to be OK. When I considered “me,” I figured I was done. That no man would ever find me attractive again. As a single woman at 38, I was in virgin territory. My parents were (and are) still together. My husband and I were one of the first of our cohort to divorce. The only examples that I had for how a divorced woman in her late thirties was supposed to behave were the stereotypes of the bitter first wives who never, ever had another relationship and who disparaged their former husbands in front of the kids. I refused to be either one of those things. But I began to grieve the idea that, like so many women in this culture, I was washed out.

But instead of a dead end, I found writing revitalized a part of me that had been sublimated for years. I would get up in the morning thinking about the story. I would wake up at night and scribble a sentence on a notebook I kept next to the bed. I knew this feeling, even though I had lost it for a while: This is what passion felt like.

And then, alighted with that passion, something amazing happened. Everywhere I went, people stared. It’s possible I had never noticed before, but it felt like it was happening for the first time in over a decade. But this part definitely was new: Now, when a man looked at me, I stared right back.

To my astonishment and delight, the first man I became involved with was 24 — 14 years younger than me. For more than a year, on the weekends when my children were with their father, I spent a lot of time in bed with this young man. We shared a love of words, a similar need to touch and be touched, and an intense connection. I still remember moments on the subway, the two of us leaning against one another as the city flashed by behind us, and in the windows was reflected back a couple in love. It felt, sometimes, as if we radiated it.

I did not need him to tell me I was sexy. Something inside me knew that. I still did not look in a mirror and think I was pretty, but instead, what I saw was a woman with a spark about her. Had that spark always been there? Had I had been too caught up in the mundaneness of married life? Had I really been yet another one of those women who had given away her identity when she said “I do?” And I don’t mean “I do” to marriage — but rather “I do” to adult responsibility, jobs, children, mortgage, graduate school, paying bills. Where was the me in all of that?

When I was a kid, I had always needed to touch things — it was as if my way of understanding the world was through my skin. Somehow, as an adult I had to ask myself — that core instinct of mine, that desire for a tactile, sensual relationship with the world, how could I have let that go? Even as I sought to build a whole new world with my writing, I realized how narrow my own world had been.

My last date with the young man was on my 40th birthday. We were not going to end up together, and it was time for him to start dating women who were potential marriage partners. I knew I had to let go of him, but I wanted to hold on to this newfound sense of myself as I moved on dating men my own age.

There’s a decade’s worth of stories between now and then, but I can still say that my libido has become a permanent, prominent part of who I am now, just a few weeks shy of celebrating my 48th birthday. I’ve read with interest many stories about women my age having sex: the current (and rapidly waning) hype about cougars, and more recently, stories and discussions about Meg Wolitzer’s “The Uncoupling,” when a group of older women all lose interest in sex, or the debate over “women’s sexual dysfunction” and the fight over female viagra. But I feel frustrated at how our culture still tells women in their 30s and 40s that they no longer matter sexually.

For some women, that may be fine. But the great gift of getting older is being confident enough to embrace passion — however it’s defined. I know women who haven’t had sex in years, but who have come into their own as artists, as entrepreneurs, and yes, even as mothers. Choosing not to have sex is not the same as letting your sex drive die. One is a joyful, empowered decision, and the other — well, for me, it was a tragedy. No one should let themselves be bullied and neglected into cronehood. There is always hope for a new life, always.

For the past three years, I have loved and been loved by the man I assume to be my life partner. As I approach 50, my desire for him has not waned. We encourage each other to pursue our  endeavors, knowing that what lights the creativity in our own lives helps fuel our passion for each other.