Sex and the Single. (Or the Divorced. Or the Widowed.)

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"Re-entering the dating world after a long-term partnership has ended can be all at once very exciting and a bit overwhelming," said Justine Braford, LMSW, Counseling Associates of West Michigan.

As a sex therapist, Braford encourages her clients to explore their sexual values and how they may have changed since their last relationship. With the infiltration of dating sites and apps, dating is dramatically different today than it was even just five years ago. The number of potential partners can be overwhelming.

The goal?

Good, safe sex.

"In my office, we talk about 'good sex' as being consensual, non-exploitive, honest, protected and pleasurable," Braford said.

"For most, it has been a long while since any formal sex education has taken place. They haven't considered the ways conversations like pregnancy prevention, STI testing and safe sex practices might enter their new dating life."

"There is no intervention that can make sex 100 percent risk-free," said Nisha McKenzie, PA-C, IF, CSC, Grand Rapids OB/GYN and Director of the Center for Women's Sexual Health. "Communication is key. The ability to have open, honest, mature conversation with your partner is the strongest starting point for a relationship. After this, you are both able to fully consent, knowing all information."

Good, safe sex isn't just about physical protection.

Emotional health and safety is an important consideration, too.

"Sometimes after we've been hurt, or we suffer a large loss, we're just in a bad spot—a bad place emotionally, mentally, physically," said Kimberly Kanoza, Executive Director of Matchmaker Michigan, a personalized professional matchmaking service based in Grand Rapids.

The company serves singles ages 18 to 92 who seek long-term, committed relationships. Kanoza and her team interview clients in person before making matches; in addition to understanding each client's personality, they also assess emotional health and availability: Are clients ready for the relationship they say they're looking for?

"Anybody can get together and have sex and just have a short-term immediate attraction, but the purpose of intent isn't productive. It's an empty process. It's not long-term gratifying. You have to feel safe and know that person is going to be there the next day, and the next day."

Whether ready to re-enter the dating field or not, Braford notes that newly single women have an opportunity to explore a new relationship with themselves—to think about their body existing for their own pleasure.

"Getting comfortable with and loving yourself just as you are right now is work I encourage all women to undertake, but can be particularly powerful while single," she said. "For the first time in a long time, a newly single woman can allow her sexuality to exist the way she wants it, rather than as purely responsive to her partner's desires."

Braford adds that if a woman is able to relate to her body in a more sensual way, rather than through the "daily barrage of criticisms," she can talk more productively about the pain she and her body have suffered along the way, and about the ways she can still enjoy her body.

"In later partnered activity, she may feel more comfortable voicing how she likes to be touched—and how she does not like to be touched, for that matter—and can be more mindfully present in the touch she receives."

Written by Cassie Westrate, staff writer for West Michigan Woman.

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