Eighteen months after my marriage ended, I jumped into a heady, sexually intense year-long relationship with a fellow writer and parent who was 20 years older than I was. In hindsight, it was no surprise it ended — his kids were grown, mine were tiny, our lives were at different points. But that did not make me love him any less, and did nothing to tamper the absolute devastation that pummeled me when we broke up.
Even months after we split, Sundays when my kids are with their dad and I would have otherwise spent with my ex-boyfriend, I instead engaged in unseemly behavior like walking around the streets of Manhattan while bawling uncontrollably, listening to John Legend on a loop and reading the Wikipedia page on Carrie and Mr. Big. Not only was all this embarrassing, it was also incongruous with the events at hand. Something else was at play.
So I called one of my best friends. I've known Kirsten for 12 years, and even though she lives on the other side of the country, we remain very close and she knows all my shit. Kirsten did what a good friend does: she listened. As I talked and sobbed and blubbered and talked some more it all came out. Besides the end of my relationship, my mom has been unwell. My mom, who adores my kids second only to their parents. As my children and their needs as people grow, it seems that our circle of people shrinks – and the pressures of being a single mother mount. I am just one person responsible for two human beings. It feels like too much.
“We’ve all watched you over the past few years be so strong and amazing,” Kirsten said. “But I said to myself, ‘I hope this girl can find time to process it all. Because sooner or later it will catch up with her.’”
It has caught up with me. When my husband fell off that cliff three years ago, I slipped into survival mode: I jutted my jaw, made sure the kids and my business and the money and the divorce and the house were all in order. Trust me, there were plenty of late night crying fits and trips to therapists and a wonderful support group for loved ones of brain injury victims. But I’m not sure I fully felt the gravity of my loss – our loss. The loss my whole family suffered.
Finally, I recognized that three years’ worth of grief had come knocking. For months after that conversation, I gave myself permission to mourn. Those sad Sundays were committed to indulging the emotion and grief and healing that had eluded me.
Funny thing, how empathy blooms. At bedtime after coming home from her dad’s on Sunday, I laid next to my then-4-year-old daughter in her twin bed. She was riled up after the transition, which is not unusual, but it spiraled into something else. “Why can’t our family be like other families?” she cried. I worry I dismiss the grief my kids might feel over the divorce. After all, Lucas wasn’t even born when we separated – Helena not yet 2. “It’s always Helena, Lucas, Daddy – and Mommy separate. Or Helena, Lucas, Mommy – Daddy separate. I want us to be like Eleanor’s family.”
I wasn’t sure what to say. So I held her head in the crook of my neck and listened and let her cry and cry. “Thank you for telling me how you feel,” I said. “It’s important to get it out. Because sooner or later it will catch up with you.”
Listen to my Like a Mother episode about this topic:
It seems to be a universal experience: When that first relationship after divorce ends it just kills. When that relationship ended, it hurt like a motherfucker! Holy shit did that hurt. Ouchie!! Owwie ow ow ow! Mommy! Make it stop! Please, ow ow owie ouchie ow I can't take any more!!!
It took me a long time, and a lot of interaction with other, divorced people to figure out why post-divorce rebounds are akin to your body dripping with infected hangnails while, at the same time, a rusty scythe strikes your guts. Again. And again. And again.
Even more than an ending love, all that pain and torment is really about contending with unresolved heartbreak from divorce. You are likely as I was: needing to go through that rebound and the subsequent pain. It served as a critical point of reference through which I dealt with the dissolution of my marriage.
- Divorce often robs us of the opportunity to mourn the romantic relationship itself because there is so much practical and logistical hell to contend with at the time of the split. Including:
- Your children's care and feelings
- Worry you will be be destitute
- Worry your children will be forever neurotic/hateful of you/incapable of love
- Real estate transactions
- Lost relationships with in-laws
- Lost relationships with mutual friends
- Divvying of personal items (make sure to sell your diamond engagement ring and don't make it part of the divvying)
- Removing names from bank accounts and mortgages and wills, credit cards, utility accounts and car notes
- Acclimating to visitation schedules
- Acclimating to living alone
- Figuring out how to live on far less money
- Figuring out how to make way more money
- And on and on
Divorcing people are also forced to face the loss of dreams of family life, and what the rest of your life will be like. And there is a ton of fear about all of it.
All this upheaval and stress can leave little room to deal with simple loss of love. When you are contending with a 360-degree life barf, there is scant space to sit quietly and feel the weighty grief of no longer spending nights with a person who you at least once — likely still — loved very much. Not just the absence of somebody. The absence of him.
Which is where the rebound breakup and all its gory hurt come in. If you're like me, that relationship was just that. Someone who I cared very much about, knew my kids, but was a lover — no more. He was not my partner. We were emotionally, intellectually, sexually intertwined. But our lives were completely separate. We owned nothing together (though I'm still kind of annoyed with myself for never retrieving that La Perla nighty from his apartment, but I'll live), and did not even share friends. When we broke up there was nothing to contend with but grief.
Which is another reason why we do not mourn the love for our husbands immediately after divorce. Divorce often comes after months and years of a really unhappy relationship. By the time the four-way lawyers meetings start, you've forgotten about the emotional, intellectual and sexual connection you once shared with that man. It was likely missing for a very long time — which is exactly why it is so intoxicating when we find that connection again in a rebound. And, if you're like me, you consciously appreciate those mutual feelings so very much more — which only adds to the scythe bludgeoning once it falls.
Nothing so easy as catching a heart on the rebound.
–Mary Russell Mitford
A recent amour and I were chatting.
Me: “I've been thinking about how the first time you sleep with someone, you're not really sleeping with that person – you're really sleeping with all the other people you've had sex with before them.”
Him: “That's right. You're really sleeping with your point of reference.”
In essence, before you get to know a new lover's body and preferences — as well as how your own body and preferences fit with that person — each of us is really just sorting through all of the bodies and preferences that came before in order to truly enjoy current company.
Relationships are no different. And this analogy holds most true in a rebound relationship.
There has been plenty written on the perils of the rebound. The old maxim suggests that the recently heart-broken is too angry/vulnerable/hurt to be truly open to a new love. The rebounder is at risk of attaching too quickly to the wrong person, and those dating a rebounder are subject to wandering into the line of fire of scatter-shot devotion.
When that relationship ended, it hurt like a motherfucker! Holy shit did that hurt. Ochie!! Owwie ow ow ow! Mommy! Make it stop! Please, ow ow owie ouchie ow I can't take any more!!! Even more than an ending love, all that pain and torment was really about contending with unresolved heartbreak from my divorce. But I needed to go through that rebound and the subsequent pain. It served as a critical point of reference through which I dealt with the dissolution of my marriage.
I just called off a month-long liaison with a man so recently divorced that his clothes were still packed in the suitcases with which he removed them from his marital home. By all outward appearances we should be planning our second marriage by now: In addition to the crazy chemistry, we're both creative, ambitious people who share sensibilities about money, child rearing, politics, travel, style — and a love for divey ethnic restaurants. He is one of the most brilliant people I've known, open, affectionate, thoughtful and physically gorgeous in all his points of reference.
But no matter how much I tried to stay true to my belief that anything is possible in love, there was no escaping that I am three years out of my marriage while he is a mere three weeks. This guy's giddy openness about starting life anew reminded me of just how I felt at that juncture. I also sensed a vulnerability and neediness that was woefully familiar — in this man I could see myself two years ago when I, too, first ventured into post-divorce dating. It evoked being on a third date with my own rebound boyfriend. Anxiously, across the table in a dimly lit West Village restaurant, I stammered: “Are you dating anyone else? Because I'm not.” My barely salvaged heart could barely stand the risk of being dinged yet again.
Today, I feel differently about emotional risk, heartbreak and dating. On the one hand, bring it on! You don't get to the good stuff in relationships without putting yourself out there emotionally. But now I don't feel quite as vulnerable and needy. I am feeling strong and free and optimistic about love in a different, more grounded way — one that allows me to see obvious love landmines before I enthusiastically dance on one – Gangnam style. As such, I couldn't figure out how to make my own phase of divorce jibe with that of my recent amour.
So in a breakup email exchange, I shared more or less what I said here. I added that I hoped we could stay connected in some way, keep open the possibility of finding each other in other phases of our journeys. What I got in response was one of the most touching compliments I've received in a very long time. It said:
“I can't think of anyone I would rather have lost my divorce virginity to.”
How about you? How did you get over your post-divorce rebound? What did you learn from the experience? Share in the comments!
Emma Johnson is a veteran money journalist, noted blogger, bestselling author and an host of the award-winning podcast, Like a Mother with Emma Johnson. A former Associated Press Financial Wire reporter and MSN Money columnist, Emma has written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Forbes, Glamour, Oprah.com, U.S. News, Parenting, USA Today and others. Her #1 bestseller, The Kickass Single Mom (Penguin), was named to the New York Post's ‘Must Read” list.
Emma regularly comments on issues of modern families, gender equality, divorce, sex and motherhood for outlets like CNN, Headline News, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Fox & Friends, CNBC, NPR, TIME, MONEY, O, The Oprah Magazine and The Doctors. She was named Parents magazine’s “Best of the Web,” “Top 15 Personal Finance Podcasts” by U.S. News, and a “Most Eligible New Yorker” by New York Observer.
A popular speaker, Emma presented at the United Nations Summit for Gender Equality. Read more about Emma here.