Twenty years into a marriage that included children, a minivan and three cats, my husband announced the following:
Obviously, I haven’t been in love with you for several years.
Have you given any thought to how soon we can see other people?
I’ll start working on your severance.
He meant to say “settlement,” but he’s a finance guy, and that’s the kind of lingo they use.
In reaction to the divorce that followed, I came up with the idea of taking five lovers over the course of a year. This was not the typical response for a woman about to turn 50, a matron rejected by her husband who had been married for most of her adult life. But I knew I could not rebuild my self-esteem on a diet of yoga and middle-aged friends commiserating about the scarcity of decent partners.
What I needed is embarrassing to admit because it sounds egotistical, but it is the truth, and it went deeper than ego: I wanted men to desire me. The problem was, after two decades off the market, during which time I had focused on raising our children and rarely worn anything but socks and flannel pajamas to bed, I was clueless about where and how to find available men, whether they would like me, and which of them, if any, I would want to keep for good.
I lost 20 pounds, straightened my hair and started wearing lipstick. Despite some graceless early attempts, finding applicants was easier than I thought. But here is the key (millennial women take note): I had to take the initiative every time.
First, I met an explosives expert in an airport, a man 20 years younger who looked like a combination of an Abercrombie & Fitch model and every country music star on my Apple playlist. I was elated Mr. Blue Eyes did not run away screaming when he saw my naked body with cellulite across my belly.
“You have nothing to be embarrassed about,” he promised. He went on to explain certain men fantasize about older moms, which was good news for me.
Although here is a secret: Our lovemaking was as tense and fumbling as you would expect from two virtual strangers. It did not matter. I was overjoyed to be having sex again, even awkward sex. And it made me regret all those times I ridiculed divorced older men who rebuilt their self-esteem by sleeping with younger partners.
It may not be a recipe for a healthy partnership, but as a surefire boost to a crumpled ego, it worked awfully well.
No. 2 was Gorgeous Yoga Man, a muscular single dad who I chatted up when he took my spot at vinyasa. A few dates in, after long talks about poetry and parenthood, he confessed he had had a heart attack and said he could not have sex. We kissed all night instead, and I whispered good night to him believing we would meet again the next day. Eight months passed before I heard from him. We remained friends, but if I wanted a man who ignored me, I would have stuck with my husband.
No. 3 was an adorable 30-year-old professional acquaintance with razor stubble who flirted shamelessly whenever I had meetings in his office. At age 15 or 25, I would have found it gross, or possibly traumatic, to encourage this brazen male attention. But now, there was no reason for alarm; this man-boy could not deny me a promotion or pressure me into sex. And he wanted me. Me. Our flirtation turned into sexting, which transmogrified into a wildly erotic daytime tryst.
Two hours after leaving my bed, he sent me the following text: Babe, that was incredible. Totally mind-blowing. You are unforgettable. But . . . I have a girlfriend. I don’t want to ruin it with her. So, I think this has to be a one-time thing. Are you okay with that?
That was the first time he mentioned his girlfriend.
Then in another airport, I gave my card to No. 4, a tan, uber-fit Marine devastated by a recent divorce. We rendezvoused in different cities and texted avidly during hockey games despite living 400 miles apart. Nota bene: Airports are a heck of a good places to meet interesting men. Much better than bars or online dating sites, which I tried only once, because once was enough. But airports? My pulse races thinking about the men lining up for TSA PreCheck.
Finally, along came No. 5. He had been a high school boyfriend, painfully shy at 16, a unicorn who had never married or had kids. My therapist cautioned that the first serious relationship following divorce can outshine the marriage itself, because you are flooded with hope that the new romance will make up for everything you lost. She was right.
I fell in love like slipping off a cliff, free-falling into the intimacy and adventurous sex I had craved for decades. Then, after months declaring his eternal love, that same sweet boy who had been my friend for over 30 years snuck into my computer, broke up with me because he thought I was cheating on him and confessed he was the one actually cheating.
It was really quite a year.
You might think five dead-end boyfriends in 12 months would turn me off men, or off dating after 50, at least. That I might join those women who, perhaps logically, declare there are no men out there. Not so.
Even though I remained single, the year transformed me. Despite my tears, I got what I needed most: hope that I could love again. More fabulous sex than I had had in the 30 years prior. Who would not be grateful for hope and great sex, at 50 or at any age?
Post-divorce, these transient men showed me the naked truth that I am comfortable in my skin, even if it is not smooth any longer. I can, in middle age, own what my feminist self could not in my 20s or 30s: I have always loved men. I am not suggesting all women need men in this fashion. But in my case, feeling wanted by a man has revitalized how I view parenting, work, money, death, sex and myself as a woman.
Negative cultural messages decrying the lack of “good” men capable of valuing me as a woman convinced me, ironically, to settle for subpar matches. But the problem has never been a dearth of men. There are men everywhere. (And women, too.) At every age of our lives. On sidewalks, in airports, supermarkets and yoga studios.
Every man I dated taught me something fundamental. That life deepens and scars all of us. That I can feel beautiful and sensual at any age. That no matter how much I enjoy boy chasing, the true relationships that nurture me most profoundly hinge on my children, my friends, my relationship with myself and my work.
While it may seem contradictory, my year of the five boyfriends also reinforced the folly that one idealized partner would complete me permanently. In the end, finding true love is rarely a good measure of how much you deserve it. That gift, you give yourself.
This piece was adapted from Leslie Morgan’s latest book, “The Naked Truth: A Memoir,” which will be released this week. She is the author of the New York Times best-selling memoir “Crazy Love” and also “Mommy Wars.” Morgan lives in Washington, D.C. and New Hampshire.