By Andrea Sachs
Bob Thomas / Corbis
Clinical psychologist Judith Sills is one determined woman. “I’m kind of on a mission about this,” she declares. Her goal: to help women get back into the world of dating and romance after a long absence. Her new boldly titled book is Getting Naked Again: Dating, Romance, Sex, and Love When You’ve been Divorced, Widowed, Dumped, or Distracted. TIME senior reporter Andrea Sachs spoke to Sills, a frequent TV guest and writer of the Workplace column for Psychology Today, about “turning single,” Internet dating and why there are good men out there.
What brought you to write this book?
These women did. They have worked hard, made tremendous contributions to their family, to their life, to the workplace, to the community, and they find themselves standing alone. Maybe deliberately and maybe through the death of a spouse. And they are saying, “I want to add a little romance to my life”…[But] when it comes to the world of dating and romance, they are quite uncertain because it’s been awhile. What does a man expect? Who pays? Who calls? What do I reveal about myself? (See pictures of the 20th century’s greatest romances.)
Women who are getting a divorce are in a much different situation than women who are widowed as far as their reentry into the social world. Could you talk about that?
Widows struggle with the idealization that naturally comes when you lose a spouse, because love — and quite often guilt — floods that space. Divorce is accomplished most typically through rage. You don’t need death to separate. You need anger. So you are likely to be angry rather than guilty. Widows are accorded a tremendous sense of social respect, as well they should be, because they are weathering a life passage that’s very injurious. Divorce is a stigma that says somebody failed somewhere. So from that perspective, your wound is different, and the way the world views you is different. At the same time, loss is loss.
You use the phrase “turning single.” What do you mean by that?
To become single involves more than the absence of a partner. It is a wardrobe change. It is a social status change. It’s a financial change. It is a change in your whole sense of self. So in order to be part of the new romantic world, over time you have to become a single woman and see yourself actually walking into a party and having a person say to you, “Would you care to go out for a drink after this party,” and leaving the party with him. What an odd thing, to leave a party with someone you didn’t arrive with. You haven’t done it since you were 23.
What do you say, then, to women who say there are no good men, I can’t meet someone?
Is there a woman who does not say that, who hasn’t said that from the time they were 17? Same old story, different era. But actually, what I say is, you are so right. There is no perfect man who is that honest, loving, financially secure, generous, athletic, sexually functional, socially sensitive charmer who allows you to live your own life, matches your needs exactly, and doesn’t have a pot belly. There are very few of those, but there are lots of guys. Saturday night guys, good guys to travel with, guys who will take you to restaurants but will never take you to bed. There are guys who will be sexually interested but are never going to get past once a week, and guys who will want to move in and live your life. There are all kinds of guys, and they all have something to offer. (Read “The Biology of Dating: Why Him, Why Her?”)
What do you think about Internet dating for women returning to the social world?
The plus is, nowhere in your community can you find a pool of single people who are seeking something similar to what you’re seeking. And it’s a very [large] pool. The negative is, it takes an unbelievable amount of time and attention in order to weed through the whack jobs in that pool. And the time, the 85 emails — you have to have the energy to do it. That’s the downside. Also, you have to be aware that one of the great things about Internet dating is, it’s practice. So for many women who are first beginning this, and men too, these are flirtations you’re having. You e-mail a few practice e-mails and maybe you don’t want to go past that. That’s fine. It’s a great place to practice your social resume. (See the best social networking applications.)
What if your adult children are totally freaked out by the thought of you going out on dates?
As a basic rule of thumb, your father has sex, your mother doesn’t. It’s not clear how we all come to think this. For those people whose adult children are uncomfortable with this, number one, are you yourself handling this in a way that suits your value system? If the answer to that is yes, which it often is, I think the kids are going to have to adjust.
What about your friends? How do you integrate a new man into your friendship group?
Of course, they did know your husband. Your friends are very similar to your children in their discomfort level and so on. When there’s a loss due to divorce or death, it doesn’t just affect the partner. It goes through the whole community, through the whole family, through the whole friendship network. And when you bring someone new in, everybody has to kind of move a little bit to the right or left to make room. So there’s a period of adjustment.
You give a couple of categories of transitional partners that women find. What, for example, is a palate cleanser?
The palate cleanser is that boyfriend whose quality is usually in some important way the opposite of the relationship that ended. So your husband was one of these demanding, angry type guys, and you got used to walking on eggshells. And amazingly, the next guy is really laid back. Or you had a sexually numb marriage and you haven’t been in any kind of state of erotic awakening for longer than you can remember, and somewhere in there, your trainer starts to look good. It’s someone who presents the aspect of the relationship that was an unmet need.
What about the functional guy?
It’s the person who drives at night. It’s the person who goes with you to talk to the auto mechanic so you’re not ripped off, and you think he’ll be less likely to be. This person falls right into the hole in your life, in the role of partner, fulfilling the functions of many of the functions of the partner you lost.
A variety of the functional guy, but in a much more intense way. You are at a really vulnerable, pained spot in life and he steps in to help you put your life back together. So he’s talking to your divorce lawyer, helping you figure out the settlement, reading the documents, making sure you get to the doctor, helping you figure out the kids. Your kids are acting out and he’s there disciplining the kids or talking about what he might do. Helping you because you’re injured.
You write about people who opt out, who decide they like their freedom and really don’t want to get re-attached. What about that?
For sure, it is not for me to tell any woman that she needs to be open to romantic connections with men. So if you say, you know what? I’m 45, I’ve had my kids, and I’m done. Fine. Okay. Or, I’m 75 and I’m done. Great. But to the degree that that opting out is code for, this makes me too anxious, I’m too fat, I’m too old, I’m too tired, I don’t like any of those men anyway, all the good ones are taken, all that negativity…to those women I say, men hold up half the sky. They are really a wonderful group of people with whom to have contact, and you can have the contact that feels good to you. You don’t have to shut that out of your life.