Recently, I went to the Santa Monica Playhouse to see Jack and Jill, a drama by Jane Martin centering on two divorcées who fall in love. They decide to marry, despite some obvious incompatibilities. Fighting ensues. Eventually they divorce. End of Act One.
“Where can they possibly go now?” my theater companions and I wondered aloud, during intermission. “Maybe they reconnect?”
Act Two. They reconnect, at an airport in New York City. Then they head back to her place to have sex. Which leads to a new round of misunderstandings and hurt feelings.
I could have seen this coming—both the sleeping together and the new problems it creates.
“The best estimate is that about one-third of folks have sex with each other after they get divorced,” said Barry McCarthy, a certified sex and marital therapist in Washington, DC. “This is bad science, but that’s our best estimate.
Is there anything wrong with sex with an ex? It seems innocuous. Not to mention fun. You might think, Isn’t sex with your ex better than having random encounters with strangers or jumping into a new relationship with the first attractive person you meet? This is the kind of reasoning that leads to the “friends with benefits” arrangements we’ve all heard about, and maybe tried. But divorce is rarely a light relationship free of emotional complications.
Sex after separation “usually fuels the fire of the bad divorce,” said McCarthy. In a good divorce, it can erode a sense of clarity about the the marriage’s end, and impede one's ability to move forward. We get along so well in bed, you might think, shouldn’t we just try again?
Maybe you should, but sleeping together won't necessarily bring that truth to light. Marriage involves many interactions outside of the bedroom. As with the characters in the play, sex can engender a deep feeling of connection that doesn’t necessarily translate into the compatibility necessary to make a marriage work.
“When I talk about a good divorce, I mean that the emotion that most governs the couple is acceptance and sadness. Conviction that this is the best decision, and sadness that this didn’t work. Then they focus only on being good co-parents, and stay out of each other’s lives,” said McCarthy.
While openness is key to a good marriage, divorce calls for being closed in new ways. It requires what I call a "non-porousness," an ability to remain considerate of your ex without absorbing his problems, values, or judgments as your own. Some people so thoroughly vilify a former spouse that they’re never plagued with concern for his well-being, but those of us who like our exes must still prioritize our own needs.
If our need is for physical intimacy, well ... that can be a hard boundary to set (if there's a willing ex-partner). But other boundaries are challenging, too. Some people need better emotional boundaries, a wall between themselves and their former love. Some need more of a sense of ownership in their own home. Some need new, independent ways to manage household tasks or last-minute childcare. Los Angeles-based collaborative family attorney and mediator Forrest Mosten encourages co-parents to organize “blind transitions,” one parent dropping off a child at school and the other picking her up—rather than in-person hand-offs that can lead to fighting.
In the play, the man goes back to California, where he presumably continues his attempt to address the “faults” his once-second-wife cited. Cooking school? Check. Education about plumbing and basic household duties? Check. The ex-wife undergoes a much more needed, deeper transformation. She lets go of the anger she had toward men in general, gains confidence in her value as she matures and has real career success. They reconnect one more time. This time, it may actually work.
* This post originally appeared on Wendy Paris's website, Wendyparis.com.
Wendy Paris is the author of Splitopia: Dispatches from Today's Good Divorce and How to Part Well (Simon & Schuster/Atria, 2016). Splitopia and her work on divorce have been covered by The New York Times, Real Simple, The Washington Post, The New York Post, The Globe & Mail, Psychology Today, The Houston Chronicle, Salon.com, Parents.com, Family Law Quarterly, PsychCentral.com and radio and TV shows nationwide. She has an MFA in creative nonfiction writing from Columbia University, and is an advocate for family law reform. She is divorced, and lives in Santa Monica, California, a few blocks from her former husband, with whom she has a warm co-parenting relationship.