Divorce (or any breakup) is hard.
Dating after divorce is tricky too, and I’ve found some things I think are good indicators of how whole a person is, and how ready they are for a healthy relationship. Sure, your dating profile says something like, “Let’s be friends first and see where that takes us.” But most people I meet are really hoping that friendship takes us to the next wave of affection. I think we are mostly looking to be found and appreciated by another person while having the opportunity to appreciate them back. We want to become the most fantastic cheerleader for their hopes and dreams and we expect that positive affirmation in return.
We don’t need a relationship. We want one. We are fine alone. We have found our own way out of the desert of depression and despair. And now, standing strong and alone again, we are ready to dip our toes into the idea of being loved and loving again. It is a huge risk. And some people can’t get over it. Their divorce is still too painful, or their relationship with their ex is still too volatile. They are really not ready for a relationship.
If, however you begin to think your shit is sufficiently together to date again, some new boundaries are in order. And here is what I’ve found to be the indicators of a healthy start.
A Healthy Restart to Your Love Life
1. The relationship with the ex is business-like and drama-free.
If your potential partner is still dramatically engaged or enraged at their ex-partner, watch out. You are likely to take some of the “stand-in” damage for the anger that needs a place to dissipate. Irritation and conflict can always arise. But pay attention to how this person deals with these setbacks or conflicts. It’s likely this is how any future conflict with you might evolve, as well. Are they able to articulate what the problem is? Can they negotiate a solution and then let it go? The emotional baggage from divorce is huge. And it’s tough to get through all the processing that needs to happen before we can cut it loose and be free of the burden of our ex.
2. The other person puts their kids ahead of the relationship.
In my experience, I find a potential partner who has had kids (they can be older or younger than mine) is more likely to be accepting and accommodating of my relationship to my kids. When my kids call, they come first. Sure, it’s an interruption, and sure it puts the “special friend” in a secondary role, but it’s clear to me that my kids emotional and physical well-being is much more important than me having a girlfriend. At least at this point in my life, while they are still in school, and still very much under my influence. I have a deep respect for my role model as a dad, and as a man. I am showing both my daughter and my son how a man acts in the world. Even under duress, I am showing how I can remain calm, and make strong and positive decisions. And always, my kids come first. Especially in the early stages of a new relationship.
3. In meeting the kids, there are no major hangups or obvious attachment issues.
Divorce traumatizes all of the family members. And often this trauma causes us to revert to old and unhealthy defense mechanisms. And of course, as a divorced, and now-single parent, I am going to do everything I can to take care of my kids’ needs. BUT… this has to be carefully done. I have seen both men and women who were WAY to enmeshed with their children. Maybe the kid was a brat who was completely undisciplined. Or perhaps the child was overly shy and withdrawn, folding themselves into the parent. At younger ages some of this behavior is acceptable. But as the child ages, and reaches the end of elementary school they should not need to be coddled or babied, because the other parent is trying to make up for some loss. The single parent cannot make up for the divorce. But everyone survives and moves on. Both the kids and the parents need to return to healthy boundaries and healthy communication styles so that everyone can grow up, and let go of the stigma and shame of the divorce.
4. Conversations about divorce, parenting, or relationships are not tense.
In the early stages of a relationship, most of the time you want to hear, “What happened?” And this opportunity to share your story and hear the divorce story of the other person is a great time to listen for their repose. How have they accepted their own responsibility for the divorce? Even if the divorce was the result of some infidelity, have they been able to move beyond the anger? The best approach to the ex is to live and let be. Focus on the kids. Walking away from a marriage is hard work, and the way someone tells their divorce story is important. Listen.
5. Clarity of intention and honest expression of affection and desire.
You’d think that if someone is dating again that they are ready for a relationship. But that’s often not the case. You’d even imagine, that someone who puts up a dating profile online, and who talks about what they want in their next relationship, probably has some intention of being in a relationship. BUT, you might be wrong. I have been on quite a few dates where the woman had no idea what they wanted. I had one woman, who I connected with and had just spent nearly two hours talking to, tell me in the parking lot as she was getting into her car, “I can tell you at least three reasons I’m not right for you.” She didn’t, but she said she knew she had no real idea of what she wanted in a relationship. If you’re dating, be clear on if you want to “date” or have a relationship. I’ve heard that some people are into casual dating and casual sex. That’s never worked for me, but if that’s your thing, make sure that’s what the other person is saying as well. If the person cannot give you a good idea of what they are looking for, how their next relationship might look or feel, they may not be ready to be in a relationship. And if you can’t articulate what you are looking for, if you are vague, or simply lonely, you might want to keep working on yourself, and your approach to relationships before jumping right back into one.
6. Alcohol or TV are not constant sources of entertainment or escape.
Drinking together can be fun, but it shouldn’t be a lifestyle choice unless you are both into it. If the person doesn’t really open up until a glass of wine or two, you might be rubbing up against someone who has a hard time expressing themselves. In moderation, as a celebration lifter, a few drinks on the weekend are no problem. But if it’s every single night, and the glass of whatever becomes like the cup of coffee in the morning, a necessary lubricant, there is probably an issue there. And I’ve seen TV become the same sort of numbing or escaping addiction. I went on a few dates with a woman who professed addiction to reality TV shows. She also turned around and fought with me about the virtues of TV overall, and how TV was no less interactive than reading a book or playing a game with someone. Um… Yeah. Escapism should not be a common theme. You want clear and present as the normal relating condition between you and another consenting adult.
7. Affection that moves into sexual relations doesn’t change the overall tone of the friendship.
Of course, you’d like to be friends first. And if the chemistry is working, there may be a pull towards the bedroom. But of course, you need to know that if you are looking for a relationship, sex, while important, is not the most important aspect of a relationship. You are going to be spending a lot of time with this person, out of the bedroom doing other things, and you’d be better of seeing if your “out of the sack” experience is good too. Don’t get me wrong, good sexual chemistry is a powerful motivator. But don’t let the sex cloud your understanding of who the person is, and what other things you like to do together. You can’t screw all the time.
And initiation of sex shouldn’t cause major shifts in the relationship. Your friendship should still remain a focus in all of the stages of a relationship. Perhaps that’s part of what led us to divorce, we stopped dating our partners and began to take them for granted. We stopped cheerleading and became more of a negotiator or even antagonist.
Listen to yourself as you talk about the relationship as well. When you are describing your relationship to a friend, notice the words you use. How do you describe this new interest? What are the highlights that you are proud to share about this person?
And listen as you talk to this person as well. Are you open and free with your expressions of affection or desire? Can you say what you need? Are you holding back, or withholding some information for fear of upsetting the other person? All of these are clues that the relating part of the relationship might still need some exploration.
Relationships are fun. And now that we have our kids and our independence, we can be more intentional and clear about what we want in our next relationship. It doesn’t have to be about marriage, but can be more about learning to love and feel loved again. Take your time. Be intentional with your time, attention, and actions. And if things don’t feel right, move along. If you’re not in a hurry, there are plenty of fish in the sea, and plenty of time to find one that’s just right. Or at least better than what you’ve done before.
Note: this post was originally written in 2014.
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Back to Dating Again section
- There’s Something Missing
- (Singing) Find Me Somebody to Love
- In Search of the Ideal Woman: to Rescue, Restore, and Ravish
- The Head and the Heart: Getting In-Sync In Love
- My Failure with Online Dating Sites
- Your Sex Is On Fire: The Intoxicating Burn of Love
image: friend wedding, jessie clockwork, creative commons usage