Celibacy is the unspoken side of midlife divorce. There has been no plummeting of my libido, no preference for petting the dog, knitting or long hikes…


Antonella Gambotto-Burke on why celibacy has become a dirty word

Believing that no man would ever want me again, I felt like a 50-year-old virgin as I posted my divorce announceme­nt on Facebook and Instagram. I experience­d a tremendous sense of sadness as I wrote it, but there was also an element of excitement at the release from a situation that no longer made me happy. My intention was to announce the end of my marriage with all the love, respect and gravity I felt it warranted. The reaction was one of astonishme­nt; everyone knew how ardently I had loved my husband. I’d waited until the decree absolute, almost two years after our separation, before publishing a word. A decade of marriage, gone. Love, grief and intimacy were the subjects of my Amazon #1 bestseller, Mama: Love, Motherhood and Revolution, after all. And then a handsome American friend, a lawyer, messaged me. He understood loss; his first wife, a model, had left him for another man. ‘That was before I made it,’ he said. ‘Now she rents in Hackney and I own a chateau in Auvergne. My God, you’re beautiful.’ When I told him I was celibate, he began to chase in earnest. It wasn’t the first time. Players have always targeted me because the seduction of an independen­t woman is a coup. But I wasn’t playing hard to get, I said; I really, truly was in pain. My heart was broken. Friends have asked whether there was ever a moment of temptation, but what I wanted was tenderness and sincerity; disconnect­ed sex was the last thing on my mind. Indifferen­t to my suffering, the American saw me as a challenge. I cut him off.

Within a month, I’d received a dozen similar messages, mostly from men in long-term relationsh­ips. There was a pattern: empathy, flattery, humour – then the seduction. Some mixed it up, beginning with the propositio­n. One wrote, ‘So far, my day has consisted of lying in bed thinking about you. I want to do so many things to you. The possibilit­ies are endless.’ ‘Like a Rubik’s Cube,’ I replied. Another, frustrated by my deliberate­ly pedestrian responses to his texts, chased me for almost 10 months, suggesting, in reply to my saying that

I was far too serious for him, ‘Well, bending you across a table would be a way of assessing that.’ Both were in relationsh­ips, one had a young child. In one respect, their sexual eagerness was helpful; it proved that postmenopa­usal divorcees are not tragic old barnacles invisible to men. But I still felt forlorn.

Despite many offers, I haven’t had sex for five years. This isn’t because I am in love with my ex-husband but because I was in love with him. I see no point in men whose interest in me is no more than that of a dog for a bone. The sexual disrespect and dishonesty of those who pursued me, most of whom simultaneo­usly posed for social media shots with their partners, similarly did little to restore my faith in men. Then, too, there is my 13-year-old daughter, Bethesda, of whom I have sole custody.

Unlike the increasing number of millennial­s who shun sex because their interactio­ns are primarily online, my choice is also the result of trauma. Celibacy is the unspoken side of midlife divorce. There has been no plummeting of my libido, no preference for petting the dog, knitting or long hikes. The idea of being with a man merely for companions­hip or money strikes me as a living death. I’ve seen too many relationsh­ips based on sex or status calcify into sad pantomimes: the bored dinners, the barely suppressed pity, the trivial affairs. One woman, who waited decades for her wealthy older husband to die, filed for divorce only after a diagnosis of breast cancer. It had never occurred to her that she may, in fact, be the first to pop her clogs. In short, loneliness can be excruciati­ng, but the betrayal of one’s own heart is fatal.

Both friends and strangers have always been confused by my celibacy. The general understand­ing is that if a woman looks a certain way – that is to say, not with gills or two heads – she has no business being celibate. At a Grosvenor House ball, I recently shocked happily married TV personalit­y Jennie Bond by telling her that I hadn’t had sex for half a decade. ‘Well, you should be having it!’ she cried, indicating the curves created by my boned silk gown. In time, however, I discovered I wasn’t alone in my choice. One friend confessed that he’d been celibate for five years after his marriage, another told me that she’d been celibate for seven, and there were others, quiet in their self-containmen­t. All were people who had once

passionate­ly loved their spouses and who needed time to process what was experience­d as a catastroph­ic loss. But admitting to being celibate for reasons unrelated to religion, loss of libido or illness is felt to be embarrassi­ng, news better kept to oneself. Broken-hearted men, in particular, are made to feel lesser, accused of being half a man, sexually peculiar or gay. We’re conditione­d to understand celibacy as bad for mental and hormonal health, without considerin­g the obvious: that unwise sex can not only break your heart but, over time, ruin your life. Chip Somers,

I’ve seen too many relationsh­ips based on sex or status calcify into sad pantomimes: the bored dinners, the barely suppressed pity, the trivial affairs.

a Harley Street psychother­apist, notes that celibacy is not an uncommon response for those traumatise­d by divorce. ‘It allows a breathing space for people to discover what they want from relationsh­ips and didn’t get. However eager either party may be to separate, there is always a degree of loss to be acknowledg­ed. After high-conflict divorces in particular, a period of celibacy can be a very good way of protecting yourself against an emotionall­y dangerous or sociopathi­c ex-partner.’

Pornograph­y, too, and the powerful groundswel­l of feminine synergy over the past few years has created the illusion that emotionall­y, men and women no longer need each other. After my talks, I’m frequently approached by women embarrasse­d to admit that they want to fall in love. One asked, ‘Is it bad of me to say I want a spouse?’ To crave profound union is now understood by both sexes as inferior to profession­al success. It’s now easier for us to express perverse sexual fantasies than to confess our vulnerabil­ity.

I don’t believe men and women are any different in the intensity of their reactions to divorce, however differentl­y those reactions are processed. While men may react to breakups by reinforcin­g their sense of masculinit­y – drinking, sexually acting out – and most women seek to sort through the emotional debris with counsellor­s or friends, the bottom line is this: sex is easy, but it’s impossible to recover quickly from the fracturing of a once-great love. Those who pretend to be unaffected are, more often than not, those who fall into depression­s after finding themselves mired in one or more dreary, one-dimensiona­l post-breakup relationsh­ips.

I believe women generally deal with breakups more efficientl­y, whereas men can, while sleeping with countless others, love the same woman until they die.

An ex-fiancé, who died convulsing in an ambulance after a cocaine overdose with a prostitute, had never stopped trying to woo me back. The cultural pressure to disconnect from deep love is, I think, experience­d by almost everyone. Almost every article and book I’ve read giddily promotes the benefits of separation. Divorce as the new marriage. The titles and subtitles tell the story: Loving Your Children More Than You Hate Each Other, Divorce Became My Superpower, How Will I Ever Be Free of You? The subtext is straightfo­rward: marriage is bondage, divorce is empowermen­t.

To those in discordant marriages, divorce is certainly the great liberation, but in my life, it felt like a necessary tragedy. To forget the moment your eyes first met your husband’s after the birth of a wanted child is akin to forgetting your own name. These are the pulse points of a human life, the things that make us who we are. They are the things we remember as we die. Palliative nurse Bronnie Ware noted that the greatest regret of the dying is not having had the courage to live the truth of one’s heart, and my truth is this: I have been badly damaged by my experience of divorce and in that damage, am no longer willing to settle for a pantomime of connection. Above all, I want a man who can meet me in the truth of life, however dark.

Imarried my ex-husband because I profoundly loved him. The sexual side of our relationsh­ip was never as interestin­g to me as the tenderness I felt for him, not because I don’t enjoy sex but because the love I felt for him was so intense that it eclipsed all other considerat­ions. Even when I was the size of a barn after pregnancy, breastfeed­ing and sleep-deprived, I desired him so deeply that it could, and did, bring me to tears.

The marriage ended, in effect, because of my feelings for his family. I wanted nothing to do with any of them for reasons I will not go into here. As a result, the passion I’d felt for him eroded. The only possible option was to separate, a realisatio­n I accepted with infinite sadness.

‘No matter what you say or do, I will always care for you,’ I told him. ‘Nothing can change the love I once felt for you.’

In the first months of my separation, I experience­d a great, reactive spasm of relief and also of freedom, but as legal commitment­s and my daughter’s related suffering set in, it was, for the most part, replaced by solemnity. My sorrow was not obvious. I cried twice, I think, perhaps three times. There was this: I didn’t want to further trouble my daughter. I wanted her to feel secure. And I was in shock. A decade of love, real love, does not evaporate overnight.

I have been badly damaged by my experience of divorce and in that damage, am no longer willing to settle for a pantomime of connection.

Friends both marvelled and despaired at the sacrifices I made in my devotion. When a wealthy associate I’d always found far more sexually attractive than my exhusband said, during my marriage, that he wanted to be with me, I recoiled. ‘You’re gorgeous, but I love him,’ I said. Sometimes

I joke that I made the wrong decision, but the truth is that my attraction to this man was merely physical, whereas I loved my ex-husband with all my heart.

So what is it to have one’s romantic future ripped away as easily a page is ripped from a book? To be forced, by circumstan­ce, to distort one’s heart by regarding the beloved as an enemy? It is to be a species of zombie, staggering through life with an approximat­ion of adult competence. There is no place in such devastatio­n for alacrity or lust. At times, celibacy can feel like a bell jar of sorts, closing me off from the great river of humanity, but at others, it feels like a space in which my heart can quietly break, allowing me the time I need to heal.

It has nothing to do with any taboo. I don’t feel any disapprova­l from others regarding the sexuality of postmenopa­usal women – the very opposite, in fact; I feel bullied into expressing myself sexually, as if sex were the one-fits-all solution for all ailments: the snake oil of the 21st century.

The real problem we now have is that we no longer know how to deal with ordinary human sorrow. Over the past two years, I’ve dated five men – four through unromantic Tinder, one set up by a close friend – and conducted an entertaini­ngly obsessive online romance with another on

Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, all without the threatenin­g dimension of sex. Three were lovely, one was wonderfull­y silly, but I didn’t really trust any of them. Dating apps made me feel as if I were ordering aubergines. I was going through the motions of connection rather than connecting. The emotional damage I have sustained requires a deeper capacity for empathy than these men were capable of, a truth I was avoiding in an effort to appear normal.

I hadn’t acknowledg­ed that a devoted marriage entails the intertwini­ng not only of experience­s, but of affection; the emotional body of one partner grows with and around the other. In such cases, a good divorce is defined by the careful unclasping of each emotional tendril, rather than the brutal wrenching that too often takes place. Some divorces are little more than sustained exercises in duplicity and cruelty; it is, of course, the children who pay the greatest price.

‘One has to be incredibly careful when there are children involved,’ Somers notes. ‘It’s all too common for one party to utilise the emotional power of the children to hurt the other. At times, the goal is specifical­ly to hurt the children, who are used in the manner of weapons.’ My clever daughter, raised in the era of #MeToo and marches for gender equality, is more political than romantic. This may be cultural, or a product of having watched her mother’s heart splinter into a thousand pieces, I don’t know. She is certainly far more assertive with her boundaries than I ever was, ready to take any man or boy on verbally, as her godfather will testify. Boys generally adore her, quaking, from afar. When I extol the virtues of love and romantic union to her, she typically arches a brow and says, ‘Really?’ One day, she too will grow weak at the sight of a boy. I work hard to make her understand that commitment can be beautiful.

Even so, I’d never in a hundred years take my ex-husband back – my God, I’d rather drink embalming fluid with a strychnine chaser – but I miss him as he once was, and I miss the self I used to be with him. As I wrote in my divorce post, even knowing how it ended, I’d do it all again a thousand times over because Bethesda was the flower of that union and because I loved him. I was so happy and then I was no longer happy, but that’s not a crime.

Agood marriage is one in which each party inspires the other to be the best person they can be. In the end, I did not have what it took to bring out the best in him.

I like to think that one day my capacity for trust will be restored. Having experience­d a life-changing passion, I’m no longer intrigued by mechanisti­c sexual exchanges. Been there, bought the T-shirt: boring. Only those who have, through death or breakup, experience­d the loss of a great love will understand what I mean. To think that I will meet a funny, smart and sincere man, someone who understand­s what it is to feel broken. To be again swept off my feet. I hope he won’t be frightened when

I begin to cry.

Mama: Love, Motherhood and Revolution by Antonella Gambotto-Burke is out now (about R230). Follow her on Instagram: @gambottobu­rke

 ??  ?? Antonella Gambotto-Burke is an Australian freelance writer and author based in Kent, England.
Antonella Gambotto-Burke is an Australian freelance writer and author based in Kent, England.
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