Sex and the Single Mom
My Divorce Devastated Me. How Do I Make Room For My Permanent Grief And Move Forward With My Life?
There is no end to healing — we can spend our entire lives moving forward without ever having fully moved on.
I believed I had a beautiful, fulfilling, and relatively equal marriage until the day my husband of 14 years came home and told me he was leaving me for another woman. For the last three years, I have grieved, learned to be a single parent to my two kids, leaned on my friends and family for support, and become competent and (relatively) successful on dating apps as a 40-something. I respect the fact that, for many women, divorce is an act of liberation; for me, it has been devastating. I have come to terms with my situation and no longer need to cry myself to sleep at night, but I find that divorced dating is full of partners who are happy and excited to be done with marriages that they found toxic or unfulfilling. They frequently tell me about how much better life is now or how much better it will be in the future. I can envision a fulfilling life for myself either single or re-partnered (probably in a situation that does not involve living together), but I simply do not see this version of my life, or any future possible version, as better than what I had. Even after years of therapy and healing work and plenty of good dating, sex, and relationship experiences, I wish I had my old life back. I loved having two kids and two parents living in one house and cooperating on life together. How do I make room for my permanent grief at the loss of this version of my family, which I simply cannot recover, when the world at large and the people whom I date want me to believe that the only path to being OK is to declare what I have now is better, more free, or more fulfilling?
First of all, I want to thank you for this question and for so vulnerably sharing an experience that is not isolated. I think it’s wildly brave to acknowledge your grief in this way, to say, “I wanted what I had and I lost it and it sucks.”
Your honesty — both here and with potential future partners — will only benefit you, even if it doesn’t necessarily benefit the relationship. Falsely declaring what you have now as “better” is not only disingenuous, it’s unfair to potential partners who deserve honesty in the same way you do.
I spent so much of my life with this sort of fake-it-til-you-make-it mentality. I even went so far as tattooing that exact sentiment on my body, only to realize that after years of doing my best to stay positive and act like “this is what I want because it’s supposed to be what I want,” I finally had to admit that it didn’t work. Enabling a false narrative creates a foundation of dishonesty — not just with our partners but with ourselves.
We are all someone else’s ex and our histories with other people — the love and the loathing and the letting go — makes us who we are.
I do think your honesty will give future partners permission to share a more nuanced take on their experiences as well. You don’t need to pretend that what you have is better and you shouldn’t have to. I think its incredibly common for people to want to go back to their glory days — of marriage, of physical youth, etc. — and that expecting anyone to be elated to be on the other side of something they loved is a projection at best.
We are all someone else’s ex and our histories with other people — the love and the loathing and the letting go — makes us who we are. We can separate ourselves from our past with time but on a cellular level, I think we’re always attached to the people who we grew to become ourselves with.
Two years ago, I started dating someone who was still completely in love with his ex and never pretended otherwise. I was in the throes of a long-distance relationship myself, and had no desire to be in a monogamous relationship, so I received this information without flinching. He was still in love with someone and I was also in love with someone and it felt equitable. Over time that changed, of course. And I went from being unbothered and supportive of his broken heart to envious and frustrated that he was still pining for an ex. But our relationship was never meant to be anything other than what it was, and in the end, I learned a lot from him about myself and what I needed to feel secure in a relationship. I also appreciated his honesty and vulnerability and it was transformative for me to feel like I could also hold onto feelings for exes while simultaneously building something new.
Expecting each other to be clean slates instead of messy humans is impossibly naïve.
I also think that the pressure to cohabitate with partners, especially when we have children at home, is far too intense. At the moment, I cannot imagine wanting to live with another person. I have been called detached because I refuse to even entertain the idea of cohabitation until my kids are out of the house. I understand why you would miss your old life; beyond the grief you feel for your marriage, it’s fucking hard being the only adult in the household, with or without support from friends and family.
There’s a saying that the best way to get over someone is to get under someone else. While that did work pretty well for me, I know that for many people, the opposite is true. Anyone who has had their heart broken knows that having a new person in or against your body who doesn’t feel like home pushes the pain closer to center. So maybe spending some time alone is preferable right now. Three years is nothing compared to the fourteen you spent happily married, and I think leaning into your unresolved feelings as opposed to trying to ignore them may be the way to go for now.
I believe very strongly in the fluidity of people and situations, that what we want and need can and will change over time. I also believe that there is no end to healing, that we can spend our entire lives moving forward without ever having fully moved on. Expecting each other to be clean slates instead of messy humans is impossibly naïve.
No one has to understand the way you feel, but I think it’s absolutely possible to find people who are willing to meet you where you are in your truth. So long as you’re willing to meet them back in theirs. And if you’re not? Take some time, delete the apps, and make some space for the grief you have felt pressured to shrink instead of facing head on.
I want to answer any and all questions you all have about the exhilarating, terrifying, and wonderful experience of dating and having sex with new people after becoming a parent. Send me your questions at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Rebecca Woolf writes Romper’s Sex & the Single Mom series. She has worked as a writer for more than two decades and is the author of two books, Rockabye: From Wild to Child and All of This: A Memoir of Death and Desire. You can subscribe to her newsletter, The Braid, for more. She lives in Los Angeles with her four children.