The summer our daughter turned fifteen, her father (my husband of twenty years) and I separated. I found myself in a rebound relationship and learning about intimacy after divorce.   Having sex for the first time, where I needed to balance having a child at home and my desires. I had been married since the last millennium and suddenly found myself forty-something years old and navigating through the app-dating landscape.

 

That relationship taught me a confidence I never had in youth and also changed the sex I was having— I had the first opportunity to choose partners based on physical attraction and not on the emotional connection we had. My second post-marriage sexual experience occurred when I realized that sometimes chemistry can’t make up for immaturity, and this time I turned to an old friend who I never viewed as a potential lover.

 

This friend, whom I had known for a decade, was emerging from the devastation of his marriage when we had a frank discussion about our loneliness and our shattered hearts. And what connected us wasn’t even the prospect of a relationship, but merely a willingness to fulfill a need for companionship and physical touch. Sometimes we would cuddle on the couch and chat, and a few times we had sex. To this day, we occasionally go on a date. We know we’re not long-term compatible, which is sad because he’s one of my best friends.

 

Another mom, one breaking free of a 25-year marriage with three kids (one college-aged but still at home) told me the world had certainly changed— that for those of us in our forties and fifties, having sex had become the equivalent of meeting for coffee. She then added, “I’m more of an espresso myself” meaning that she is strong and bold. It’s easy enough to end up in bed but harder to negotiate the buzz of these new, casual relationships. How does someone separate emotional attachment and physical love?

 

After our talk, she launched an anonymous Instagram account, @coffeeanddating, where she posts her musings about her new-found social life very Sex in the City style.

 

But I have to ask— for those of us, in the throes of single parenting a teenager, how does one navigate exploring one’s adult sexuality and serve as a role model for the next generation? Has academia asked this question of how a mother’s dating habits impact an adolescent? How much do you share? Do you bring your new intimate partner home?

THE ADDAM’S FAMILY MODEL

I once read that the 1950s, black-and-white Addams Family when studied with a contemporary lens presented a healthier marriage than shows like Leave It to Beaver. The parents slept in the same bed, they showed affection and passion for one another, and they interacted with their children. That came from John Astin himself who first brought Gomez Addams to life.

 

Psychologists and psychiatrists wrote in a plethora of articles, that, while possessing a bizarre exterior, we were internally quite sound as individuals and as a family,” Astin wrote in an introduction to Stephen Cox’s 1991 book, The Addams Chronicles: Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About the Addams Family. “They said we were, in fact, the healthiest family on the air.”

 

 Marriage and family therapist Anisha Mause uses the framework from The Gottman Institute to explore this idea in her 2021 blog entry, “Weird but healthy: the Addams Family as Relationship Goals.

 

So if it’s healthy for Gomez to express his desire for Morticia in front of the children, is it also healthy for a parent to have open and honest communication with their teen children about navigating new sexual experiences? The parent in this case is experiencing a new world, a world that is even more new to the teen. The parallelism and teaching opportunities seem obvious.

THE HISTORY (BACK IN ‘MY’ DAY)

 I found one article, from 1994! I wasn’t even having sex in 1994. The article was “The Effects of Divorced Mothers’ Dating Behaviors and Sexual Attitudes on the Sexual Attitudes and Behaviors of Their Adolescent Children,” published by the National Council on Family Relations in The Journal of Marriage and Family. Now, the NCFR describes itself as “the oldest nonprofit, nonpartisan, multidisciplinary professional association focused solely on family research, practice, and education.”

 

 A literature review in that article determined that the research showed teens from single-parent households engaged in sex at a younger age and more often than those from “in-tact” households. The number of parents impacted the sexual behavior of teens more than socioeconomic status, race, or “religiosity.”

 

The article suggested one theory that teens see their mothers’ dating habits and “model those behaviors” in their relationships and that a 1987 study found that single mothers were “less restrictive” than two-parent households. But Whitbeck, Simons, and Kao, the authors of the 1994 article discovered that no one had specifically looked at a mother’s actual dating habits before drawing those conclusions.

intimacy after divorce

To rectify this, the team surveyed 210 divorced, dating (American but primarily of European descent and rural) mothers and found that “mothers’ sexual permissiveness” impacted girls’ behavior and attitude, less so boys’ behaviors, and not boys’ attitudes.

 

In looking for newer academic research exploring this question, scholars like to look at single-parent households and the impact lack of monitoring has on risky behavior or teen pregnancy but no one seems to have looked at the question that a single-parent might be a boon to conversations about sex or a way to model healthy behavior.

 

It has been documented that exposure to porn and other “sexually-explicit material” at a young age increases the likelihood of risky sexual behavior in adulthood. One such study was published in 2020 and looked at “emerging” adults.

 

 A Canadian study in 2018 looked at teens who started having sex before age 16 and whether gender played a role in “negative health outcomes” in adulthood. Among their results: “disrupted family structure or low family support were the characteristics most strongly associated with early sexual activity. Among boys, there was an incremental and strong relationship between hours spent in organised sport and early sexual activity. Among girls, poorer body image, lower socioeconomic status, and higher social media use aligned most strongly with early sexual activity.”

 

 No one is looking at the expression of sexuality in the home, at least not that I can find. There’s always this lingering undercurrent that sex is bad and societies need to stop kids from having sex. The “when” and “why” of having sex is a deeply personal decision, and there is no single rule of what is right.

 

As research explores issues of single parenting, dating, and the impact of such activity on children, the findings suggest that navigating this quagmire is stressful and that parents need to negotiate boundaries between “openness” and privacy. Researchers focused on how the role of confidante can put a burden on children. For mothers, the benefits of a relationship can offer relief from parenting burdens and expectations.

MY TEEN’S SEXUAL AWAKENING (AND MY OWN)

My child is a teenager, and in a few months, she will turn 20. I did not know how to show my teen the “best” way to approach the whens and whys of choosing a sexual partner. She and I have a long history of open conversations about sex. Once she turned 18, we visited an erotic toy store together. We watched the YouTube channel “Sexplanations” and I bought her her first dildo.

 

Why would I whip out the laptop, go online, and go dildo shopping with my teen? Because she wisely told me: “I want to put something in there before anyone else does.” How can I argue with that logic? I asked her if she wanted something realistic and she quickly replied, “Ew, no.” We decided on a small glass dildo with different sizes on each side. Easy to keep clean.

 

When it arrived, she promptly told me it was broken, because she couldn’t insert it. I had to stifle my guffaw. I suggested maybe she wait until she could handle a tampon larger than “light.”

 

 Since then, she’s collected a variety of vibrators (“It’s practical,” she insisted. “It helps me sleep.”) And she’d dumped out her sex toy drawer to show her college friends as they huddle together in her room to watch Netflix’s How to Build a Sex Room.

intimacy after divorce

LEARN FROM MY MISTAKES

I met my husband in college. I thought at that time I might consider working in Christian ministry (funny now that I read tarot cards and consider myself an animist pagan). My husband and I were virgins, and while we did not wait until marriage, we never experienced sex with anyone other than each other… for almost 25 years. The mom I mentioned at the beginning of this article— she’s Italian Catholic so she had sex (that she classified as “almost a rape”) with one boy before she married her husband.

 

And this is what some of us with older children are facing: the crumbling of the Judeo-Christian nuclear family in an age of swiping on people based on their looks and a trading card profile. We’re new to this. And we know that our children look to us for guidance and model themselves on our behavior. And sometimes feel they need to protect us.

 

I also grew up in a world where to find graphic representations of sex you had to buy a magazine, pay for HBO, or peruse books of erotic stories like those of Anais Nin or “how-to” books like Xaviera’s Supersex: Her Personal Techniques For Total Lovemaking. My mother hid both of those in her underwear drawer and I would read them when left home alone. Meanwhile, my daughter discovered Pornhub at the age of 12.

 

So I told her something like this: Look, not all of those things are real. And you never have to feel pressure to do those things. If it turns out you want to do those things and they feel good, great. But it’s okay if you don’t want to do them. Also remember, that you are a girl. And when you do things, it’s your body that gets penetrated and sometimes boys can be physically bigger than you so it’s easier for a girl to get hurt, even if it’s just your heart.

 

What made the whole process of navigating teen sexuality easier for me was communication. I learned that, in part, when my friend asked me to let me know if I ever wanted to play. It turned out that my friend had decades of experience in BDSM, as a switch, but his submissive heart thrives on masochism. We used BDSM-style negotiations to guide what we wanted from our relationship, setting boundaries, admitting desires, and stating limits.

 

It’s not that different from the advice I gave my daughter even before her father and I split up: If you think you’re old enough to do those things, then you are old enough to talk to me about them. If you’re not willing to talk about it first, you’re not ready to do it.

intimacy after divorce

 This is why I’m curious if researchers have looked at this aspect of the mother-child single-parent relationship. Am I doing something right? Or is the success of our relationship in this area due to who my daughter is?

 

Kiss & Tell, encourages you to have conversations with your tweens and adult children about sex, intimacy, and pleasure. Shame-free sex conversations start with you!

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