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London - Elaine Clarke is smart, accomplished and attractive. She has a loving family, a daughter she adores and, as senior cabin crew for an airline, the sort of glamorous job others covet.
Yet since her divorce, Elaine’s confidence has deserted her. She hankers for a settled, loving relationship, but the idea of being physically intimate with a new man appals her.
“I’m a successful woman with a lovely family and friends who all assure me I’ll meet someone else,” she says. “But I’m terrified by the idea of a man wanting to see or touch my body.
“I’m afraid I’ve dealt with the break-up by over-eating. I tell myself: ‘I’ll just have this or that; it will cheer me up.’ But, of course, it doesn’t. Instead I’ve just piled on lots of weight. I don’t feel strong enough to take control and do something about it. So instead, I’m hiding myself away.”
Elaine, 47, and her husband separated ten months ago. They had been married for 17 years and have a ten-year-old daughter. Recently, well-meaning friends have urged her to start dating again. But Elaine, who lives in Sussex, is terrified at the prospect.
“The thought of being naked with a new man is really scary. I’m also out of practice with sex. When you’ve been with the same partner for so long you get comfortable - you don’t suck your stomach in or panic if you haven’t shaved your legs or aren’t wearing matching underwear.
“Being with a new man would require all that waxing and preening again. Every little imperfection I see in myself would be magnified in the bedroom.
“Friends tell me I’m being silly, that I’m attractive, funny and a good catch, but I don’t feel that way. I know I’ll never let a man near me until I can change the way I look and feel.”
Elaine is not alone. Legions of women who divorce in mid-life share her fear of exposing their bodies to new lovers. The sexual confidence that often accompanies youth recedes when your body shows signs of wear and tear.
Cellulite, broken veins and the spreading girth that invariably comes with middle age do little to foster self-esteem and having lost the comfortable familiarity of a stable partnership, many women would prefer to forgo sex entirely rather than risk further rejection.
Chartered psychologist and relationship specialist Dr Lynne Jordan confirms that divorce often leaves women feeling physically and emotionally exposed.
“They’re used to having someone at their side and suddenly their life has been turned upside down. They often feel they don’t know how to start dating, so they prefer not to,” she says.
“If we start to feel invisible and ignored, then we lose confidence and devalue ourselves.
“Sexual arousal and awareness drop away: the physiological and psychological are intertwined.”
Indeed, Elaine is now a size 18 and her self-esteem is so diminished she is terrified of letting a man see her body. “My lack of confidence means I think men would run a mile,” she says.
She has not always been besieged by such fears. When she was in her 20s, she felt confident and attractive. She says: “Sex was important to me then. I was slim - a size ten - and my job imparted its own glamour.
“I had several relationships and I don’t remember ever feeling anxious about sex. Fast-forward 20 years and it terrifies me.”
Elaine was 28 when she met her husband. They enjoyed frequent sex and “a wonderful honeymoon period”. Their daughter arrived when Elaine was 36, and a traumatic birth, combined with their busy lives, meant that their sex life became lessactive.
Her marriage ended with a gradual drifting apart, and Elaine felt abiding sadness. She tried to assuage her unhappiness by eating and went up several dress sizes. Her sexuality went into hibernation.
“I still take pride in my appearance,” she says. “But I know that until I feel better about myself, I’m not going to be able to contemplate having sex again.
“It’s not just a case of looking in the mirror and thinking I’m fat. I feel a huge sense of disappointment for allowing myself to get like this, which is also influencing my lack of interest in sex.”
It does not help that she feels middle-aged men tend to look for younger women. Moreover, she believes men seeking partners put a daunting emphasis on slimness.
“I glanced at the lonely hearts column and I’d say 80 percent of the men were seeking a ‘slim’ woman. Society equates being slim with being attractive and sexy.” Yet Lynne Jordan, like other relationship experts, points out that sexual attraction is as much to do with personality and confidence as appearance.
Suzy Miller, 48, a divorced mother of three, recognises this, but when her husband Chris left her abruptly after ten years of marriage almost nine years ago, her self-confidence took a battering.
She felt so bruised by his desertion she was frightened to embark on a new relationship. She was also acutely aware of the changes three pregnancies had wrought on her body.
“Chris hadn’t had an affair, but he had met another woman who was the catalyst for our separation,” says Suzy, who lives in East Sussex.
“He left without warning; I was traumatised by the shock. My self-esteem leached away, and my over-riding thought was: ‘Who is going to want me now?’
“I was approaching 40 with three young children; I felt old and unattractive. And I was also terrified of becoming emotionally attached to another man.”
For Suzy, who runs her own business, her concern was whether or not she could trust a man again.
“After a divorce you have to be so careful because you’re so exposed emotionally,” she says.
“In those early months it would have been easy to go to bed with any man who paid attention to me, just from the relief that somebody found me attractive.
“But thankfully I’ve never been able to separate sex from love and feelings so I wasn’t tempted.”
Suzy had slept with only two men - her husband and, before him, a long-term partner of seven years - so sex for her was irrevocably bound up with commitment.
After her marriage ended, she recognised how much she craved a physical relationship, but did not want to detach it from emotions.
Eighteen months after her divorce, she met an “eligible bachelor” in her village pub. She did not expect a long-term relationship, but she could see the potential for companionship and fun.
Sex, however, was the problem: Suzy suffered agonies of fear and apprehension before it finally happened. “I’m not deluded - I’m not in my 20s any more - so I knew my mind and personality were what made me attractive to him.
“What petrified me was not the physical act, but this terror of being hurt again. I thought I’d burst into tears if we had sex.”
In the event, however, her fears evaporated with her inhibitions.
“It was the most wonderful surprise to find that, two weeks after we kissed outside the pub like teenagers, I had sex with this new man and it was fun.
“It wasn’t the insurmountable hurdle I’d anticipated, and with it came a genuine, enduring friendship.”
However, in those early days of her new relationship, Suzy recalls feeling acutely conscious of her physical flaws.
“I made a mad dash for the bathroom in the morning to apply make-up before he woke up. And I’d pull on a T-shirt under the covers before getting up to walk to the loo.
“I didn’t want him to see my legs - I have a bit of cellulite and some unsightly thread veins.”
Though the relationship ran its course after a year, as Suzy suspected it would, it did so by mutual agreement without any heartbreak.
“That first relationship after my separation was like medicine. It restored my self-esteem and confidence,” says Suzy, who is single and happy to defer having sex again until the right man comes along.
When 36-year-old Marina Pearson’s husband Andrew ended their five-year marriage in 2006, like Suzy, she was “frightened” of having sex with a new man. But she also feared loneliness.
In the end, despite her deep insecurities, she allowed herself to embark on a relationship with David, a cameraman she met at a divorce support group.
She and David had similar needs: he was also emerging from a bruising divorce. Becoming physically close to another man terrified her.
“It was strange having sex with a man who wasn’t my husband; a man I hadn’t committed my life to,” says Marina. “When you’re married you know how a physical relationship feels with them. Suddenly, I had this huge sense of trepidation because I was embarking on the sexual unknown.
“There were days, too, when the lack of familiarity exacerbated the sense of loss I felt at the end of my marriage, simply because he wasn’t my husband. But at other times the newness was exciting. Sex with David reassured me that I was attractive.”
Marina, who does not have children, has left her job in the music industry to work with people recovering from divorce. She believes that while her relationship with David didn’t last, it left her better equipped emotionally. She has met Marc Summers, 38, an IT consultant, and they are engaged.
According to psychologist Dr Sharron Hinchliff, a lecturer at Sheffield University who has spent 12 years researching female sexuality and ageing, women in mid-life who are apprehensive about venturing into new relationships because they lack confidence in their bodies should take heart - men are not impervious to the passing years, either.
“The women in our study reconciled the awareness of their own expanding waistlines and ageing bodies with the fact their new partners might have a bit of a paunch or a bald spot,” she says.
“It’s quite possible they also had their own sexual hang-ups and difficulties, such as erectile dysfunction. Women often overlook the very obvious fact that men age, too.”
It should be a lesson to all women whose self-worth has been eroded by ageing and the trauma of divorce: men also have fears about rejection and physical imperfections.
And who’d want a relationship with someone so shallow they can’t accept - and forgive - a few insecurities? - Daily Mail