Just because you left a significant, long-term – possibly decades-long – relationship, does not mean you know every trick in the book when it comes to sex. Nor does your ex, despite how good they think they are in bed (eye roll). With a million ways to turn, the things that you’ve been accustomed to in the bedroom, things you’ve even actually enjoyed, just may not still be the dream 5, 10, 15, or even 20 years later. As a psychotherapist and sex therapist, Carli Blau has studied sex for 10 years. She obtained her master’s in sex education and is finishing up her Ph.D. in clinical sex therapy. So when it comes to sex and relationships, she’s your girl…for straight-talking advice.
First off, redefining sex over time is very important, whether you have a partner or not. In almost every relationship, it can likely grow into a state of monotony, where life almost feels like a boring train ride — no climb to the peak, just constant straight movement on the tracks.
According to Carli, “we get into these places where there’s a climax, and then you plateau, and then there’s a climax, and you decline, and there’s a plateau, and we get into this whole cycle. We need to be mindful that this happens in all relationships.” So if you’re thinking this sounds familiar to your own experience, don’t be alarmed at all. Everyone has their own sexual experiences, but the real question is, how do you keep it hot and heavy forever?
Jessica says that her eyes were truly opened about sex after her first divorce. She explains, “I think we were just really young. We got together in college. It was what it was, but afterward, as an adult, I think I really realized what it could be. That changed everything, I think, in terms of all future relationships.” In other words, you can’t know you’re settling unless you know you’re settling, right? During her first marriage, Jessica just thought this is what sex is. It really wasn’t bad, it had just gotten rote over the years, which she assumed was normal. They never had major dry spells but they also never had conversations about what could or should be changed in the bedroom.
RED FLAGS OR NOT?
When you’re having new first experiences, you’re not sure what to expect. Now years after her first divorce and several significant relationships later, Jessica is very vocal about sex and its importance in a relationship. For her, a partner’s willingness or unwillingness to discuss it is a potential red flag. She likes having a “post mortem” chat after a session about “what did you like, what didn’t you like, what could we do better?” Not a serious in-depth analysis, but sharing the best parts with each other can create even more intimacy and give you more to look forward to the next time. To some, wanting to talk about sex a lot can be an issue, and it’s good to know where you stand on the idea so that you can determine whether you and someone else are compatible. If you like to talk and be open about sex and your partner really doesn’t, then it may mean that trying to give or get guidance is difficult, and then no one gets what they wanted.
Sex after divorce adds another element of challenge, which is that you have been doing certain things for so long because your ex really loved it but – spoiler alert – not everyone loves the same things. This just means that no matter how good you think you are, or how experienced you are, the key thing when having sex with someone new is listening, talking, and being open to direction. It is not an insult and you should not feel like there’s anything wrong with one of you gently guiding the other to do something the way you like it most. But it’s easier said than done, right? Having these conversations can be hard, no pun intended.
Carli suggests lightening the conversation by lessening the amount of “you”s being used – for example, “what do you like in bed? What do you want to do? What do you like about what I do?” She says those words can put someone on the defensive no matter how nice your inflection is. An alternative to this would be to explain what YOU like in bed, what you need to orgasm, and gently teach them what you like. Suddenly, it makes them feel less targeted and more eager to learn how to please you.
Pro tip when going out into the dating world again: don’t do things for the sake of being liked or because you feel you should. Carli is very direct about there being an assortment of things to choose from in the bedroom, some of which you may not be used to, including choking, spanking, sexting, role play, swinging, etc. You don’t have to like everything. And you should never be with a partner that pressures you to do anything you’re not comfortable doing. The ideal situation is being in a relationship where you are open and honest enough with your partner that you are willing to try new things if it’s something they like and have expressed to you that they’d like to try it with you. Just be sure to set your own safety boundaries and communicate about where you’d like to stop.
Carli says you have every right to say no to anything you aren’t into. But something she sometimes says is, “If you want an answer right now, the answer is no. If you want to give me some time to think about it, I might give you a yes.” Your time is precious, whoever’s asking can wait. Even if they’re waiting patiently, they might not be fond of your answer. This works as long as you’re advocating for your rules and boundaries, not theirs.
FINALLY ON YOUR OWN
Repeating the same patterns that didn’t work so well in your marriage is setting yourself up to fail, again. You now have the ability to understand what did not work sexually in the first place, and what kind of things you do want. For example, if making out is one of your favorite things and it’s important to you and really turns you on, then you should be with someone who is very affectionate and also loves lots of kissing. Because if you decide to ignore what you need, you’re going to find yourself unhappy with the new precedent that you allowed to be set.
Carli says her mentor explains this as blindness, “If you’re going to choose to go blind to what you know you like and need sexually because it’s satisfying something else, that’s on you. Don’t make the same mistake you made the first time.”
To quote J. Cole, “Fool me one time, shame on you. Fool me twice, can’t put the blame on you.” People don’t want to take responsibility, but it’s all a part of the growth process and you’re the only one in charge of yourself. Start recognizing that you make mistakes sometimes, but if you choose to continue “being blind” to what you really need, then maybe you don’t know what you really need.
Of course, in the earlier months of a new relationship, you could be caught up in the honeymoon phase, and then once you hit a certain point, it might feel like it’s fizzling out. This is where open conversation comes into play, and Carli says it’s ok to speak your mind. It’s ok to say something like, “Hey, I really liked how much we were making out at the beginning of this, and I really liked how you played with my hair when we watched TV…and you don’t do that stuff anymore. Is that something that you like doing? Or did you think maybe I liked it so you were doing it? Because that’s something I’m really into. Can you continue that?” It’s really about holding yourself accountable for expressing your wants and needs. Just like when you first rode a bike, you didn’t immediately know how to ride it, right. The same goes with sex; figuring out what works and what doesn’t will just help you learn. So instead of complaining when you start to notice something isn’t working, advocate for yourself, because who else will?
THE TRUTH AND MYTHS ABOUT SEX
Can we just have this conversation? To start, get yourself tested. We’re all adults here and we all know the risks out there, so don’t be naive and think nothing could happen to you. Carli says “sex is still sex, and the body is still a body, and sexual health doesn’t discriminate. It’s an umbrella that we all fall under, no matter how old we are, no matter what our ages, or how young we are, whatever our age is.”
If you’re hyper diligent about getting a covid test, why wouldn’t you care as much about being sexually safe and disease-free? It’s interesting how you can find yourself in a situation where you’re considering the most intimate sexual acts with a person, but it feels taboo to ask or suggest getting tested beforehand. How is that the case? And for the guys out there that say they can’t use a condom because they can’t keep an erection with one? Carli laughs, “take your ass to CVS and find one that works for you then because my vagina is not taking risks with your penis just because you don’t want to use a condom.”
And if you have an open conversation and decide together that you’re not going to use a condom, then you should discuss other options, like being in a committed monogamous relationship and using birth control. Or maybe not having unprotected sex until you’ve both shown each other negative test results. Or even if there is something positive, you’re able to be transparent and proactive about the situation and at least you’re making an educated decision.
“DO YOU HAVE AN STI?”
If you’re coming out of a marriage, you may be a little surprised to find out that it’s more common than it used to be more open about whether you may have an STI (they’re now called sexually transmitted infections, for anyone that used to know the expression as STD). In fact, some will even post it on their dating profile. Jessica has seen multiple men online that include the fact that they have herpes, and she actually respects them for it. Her take is that it lets women decide on their own whether or not it’s something they’re willing to pursue, and in talking with friends she’s even been intrigued to find out that some women she knows have been with men who have herpes. It worked for them because all the information was disclosed beforehand and they were able to make an informed decision. It’s all about being clear about your situation.
And for those who don’t know, HSV-1 is typically oral herpes and HSV-2 is genital herpes. Carli is really open about the necessity of people understanding the risks involved and says while there are some medicines that can help reduce the risk of transferring the herpes virus, like Valtrex, many people don’t know that a person with oral herpes – a cold sore on their lip – can actually be transferred to the other person’s genitals through oral sex. Normalizing, “Do you have cold sores?” before someone goes down on you, may help you out in the long run. You don’t want to be like Jessica’s friend who got “strep crotch” after a guy went down on her with strep throat (yes, this really happened).
This is why it is so important to continue to get tested. You may have a dry spell or choose to be abstinent for a while, and not realize the last person you were with gave you herpes. Or if you have sex with several people and wait months to get tested, you may not be sure who you got it from, and so you have to go back and speak to all of your former partners. And for anyone who dealt with a spouse’s infidelity in the marriage, then you may find yourself in the same situation as T.H., who went in for an annual check-up after and was notified to do a full panel When it comes to being tested for STI’s, doctors will only test you for a few as part of a “routine” test, and that does not include herpes. But if you are sexually active with multiple partners over time, speak to your doctor about getting a full panel, which includes herpes.
One thing to make clear, having an STI doesn’t make you dirty. Unfortunately, herpes comes with a lot of shame but it does not make you any less of a person. But just because you can’t see what’s going on does not mean it isn’t happening. About 80% of people don’t show symptoms of STIs…shocking right? Carli reminds us that if you continue ignoring symptoms, it can lead to pelvic inflammatory diseases, “Chlamydia and gonorrhea very often don’t show symptoms, or the symptoms might be that of a yeast infection, or a urinary tract infection, or some cramping.” And not only the development of diseases, but it could also damage the opportunity for reproduction.
There is plenty of newness when you first start exploring what you’ve been missing. 15 years off the market? That’s a long time, so it’s okay to feel like a fish out of water. Or maybe you met someone at a young age and weren’t able to dip your toes in the sand before someone put a ring on it. You may not be the same person you were when you first started having sex, but there’s no reason not to fully enjoy learning who you are in the bedroom now.