When the Ex-Wife is the Other Woman

04/05/2011 09:55 am ET | Updated Jun 05, 2011
  • Marsha Temlock Author, Your Child’s Divorce: What to Expect – What You Can Do

It's very difficult for many divorced couples to cut the umbilical cord. First, there are their children. Joint custody assumes that both parents will consult each other when making important decisions about their welfare. Even when there is a custodial and non-custodial parent, children, obviously, do best when they can maintain a quality relationship with both Mom and Dad.

Then, of course, there are the financial ties. Let's be frank. These cords can strangulate whatever breath was left in the relationship. Today more and more married couples depend on two incomes. When partners split, there are financial adjustments on both ends. Men complain about losing their kids, their house, and a substantial chunk of money, and feeling harnessed by their court-ordered financial obligations. Women are more likely to experience a decline in income, and be dependent on alimony and child support. The reins are there, for better or worse.

Not to be discounted are the emotional bonds post-divorce. Lingering sexual attraction is one of the most compelling reasons couples cannot let go. By and large it's the reason partners were attracted to one another in the first place.

Former spouses are not necessarily former lovers. Many couples fall into the pattern of sleeping together for old times' sake, because it's a means of control, there's the fleeting chance of getting backing together or because sex that is technically illicit is also more exciting.

Case in point: Jen has been divorced from Hal going on two years, and they both are in committed relationships. By her own admission, Jen is the other woman. "Sometimes, Hal will drop by with the excuse that he's worked late or he has an early morning meeting, and, since my apartment is closer to his office, it's more convenient for him to stay over. On those occasions we have sex. It's weird. I have to admit that sex when we were married wasn't that great. After we separated, we each found other partners. Now when we come together again, the sex is much better."

Neither Jen nor her ex has any desire to get back together. So how do you explain their behavior?

According to marriage and family psychologists, Bruce Fisher and Robert Albert (Rebuilding When Your Relationship Ends), "Most people going through the divorce process experience the evolution of becoming free sexually, in the sense that they are suddenly aware of who they are and what their sexual nature is. This is another growth aspect of the divorce process."

Initially, there is difficulty adjusting to the sex role, going from married to single. Partners who may have been monogamous during marriage feel sexually liberated. They are doing what they want to do, not what they should do. They feel more confident experiencing casual sex. This is even true for older divorced individuals once thy realize the rules of dating have changed so dramatically. It doesn't seem to matter if it's sleeping with the ex--as long as they both are in the mood.

The toughest part of rebuilding after divorce can be controlling the thinking and fantasizing about the past love. And while it takes two to keep the game going, it may not be easy to deal with the reality that the marriage bed is cold (especially if it was hot) even though the marriage was lousy.

How healthy is it for ex's to engage in sex together post-divorce? It depends. "Healthy divorce adjustment requires that you grow beyond an undue emphasis on physical sex and arrive at the point where you can understand the beauty of your sexuality as a special way of sharing and communicating with another person." (Fisher, Albert)

Sexuality is tied to individual codes of morality, one's culture, personality, attitudes, and emotional needs. It is possible to enjoy sex without being in love with a person. But it seems to me that the ingredients for a healthy sexual relationship include: communication, trust, understanding and mutual respect.

I have known divorced or separated couples to celebrate holidays and to take vacations together and with their children. They have remained good friends. I admire these adults because they are not investing unwisely in their past, sowing seeds on fallow ground. They are not consciously hurting the other to get even. They have moved on. Paradoxically, they have let go while staying connected. What a plus for their kids.

How unusual is it for the ex-wife to take on the role of other woman when her ex-husband is in a committed relationship with someone else? I wonder if it is really that uncommon. Would love your comments.