Tenderness and the Heart of Gold: The Gift of Dating a Single Dad

Tenderness and the Heart of Gold: The Gift of Dating a Single Dad

Single dads have lost everything once in their lives. The pretty life, the house, the marriage, perhaps even the white picket fence and two children. In one afternoon, over nine years ago, our future together was taken away. As a single dad, losing everything was a moment of crisis as well as a moment of truth. I felt depression, hopelessness, sadness. And still… Somewhere inside, an optimistic voice continued to pray for another chance at love.

In my subsequent years of being a single dad, I have been actively seeking a new life partner. And it’s been a long strange journey, this single dad thing, and at the moment I think I’m finally feeling “home.” And it is in the context of “home” that I discovered a deeper part of my pain. As a single dad I carry an additional level of care as I enter into the prospect of a long-term relationship. And with this “heart of gold” I am extra careful to be conscious of all of my actions and words towards my partner. Let me explain.

Feeling the Full Loss of Love and Family

At one point in my life, over 10-years ago, I had a wife, two kids, a nice house, and a hard corporate job that was paying for all of it. I also had a dream. In that dream, we lived together forever. The fantasy that marriage and the ring around my finger was going to strengthen my relationship, or give us some resistance to the harsh realities of the world, were false. I was in a dream state, but it was not real and did not reflect the state of my marriage. I believed, even at the end of my marriage, that we were still working on staying in love and staying married.

What a learned in that pivotal moment is that I was still in the dream while she had moved onto “what’s next.” As I reflect back on the endgame I can understand that I was expressing a good amount of frustration at the withholding of intimacy and affection. In a moment of truth, I paused my love radiation vibe and listened to see if her spirit would pick up the gap in our connection. What I learned was this: there was very little connection if I was not reaching out for touch, love, enthusiasm. My then-wife had gone into some state of crisis and she did not have the tools or the energy to reemerge.

It Takes Both Partners to Enliven a Relationship

Marriages are only slightly different than long-term relationships. Marriage with kids is another beast altogether. Did I stay for the kids after my then-wife was caught exhibiting some serious emotional infidelity? Yes. Did I keep trying to rope her back into the relationship for the last year of our marriage? Yes. Was I doing everything I could to reinvent myself, our marriage, and even our parenting commitments? Yes.

My then-wife was so unhappy she began making plans and spreadsheets to facilitate her upcoming divorce. She was mapping out the divorce while still sleeping in the bed with me. Sure, she was not allowing me any of the benefits of being in bed together, but she was not being honest with me in couple’s therapy either. If you’re OUT you owe it to your partner to give them a heads up, before you go and visit an attorney to figure out your “options.” If you are IN there are no divorce options to be explored.

I’m still not clear if my then-wife agreed to couple’s therapy for the second time as a way to distract me from her active preparation for divorce. Or if she wanted to reveal her divorce plans in therapy so I would not freak out. I guess I’ll never know. She doesn’t really speak to me anymore. (BTW: that’s not victimhood, that’s just a fact. When I ask her a question about our kids all I get is static and rage. I don’t ask anymore.)

Back to the Future of Relationship Building

As my life was completely upended, even my trust in women as a whole was broken. If she could lie so completely to me for over a year, how was I going to sense or defend against the same misdirection? The answer, as I have learned over the last nine years, is for me to be clear and honest about my needs and what I am looking for in a relationship. I learned after the first relationship (SEE: my book on dating and divorce recovery – Single Dad Seeks) that I would never again settle for someone who could not openly express their adoration as well as their passionate desires. What I learned from GF-1, as she is known in the book, is that people that can express joyful appreciations are joyful inside themselves as well. I was never going to settle for the stoic woman again, no matter how attractive or together they appeared.

Another law of relationship building that I defined for myself early on was: I will not date someone I don’t see has long-term relationship potential. And this YES or NO usually comes with the first “hello date.” I am not interested in dating, casual sex, or entertainment relationships. I want the real deal. I want 110% YES. No maybes, no almosts, no near misses. YES or NO.

This razor (SEE: Occam’s Razor) made my dating experience much simpler. It also placed a very high standard on my dating adventure. I have not settled with anyone. Not for a minute. Not for a second date. Not for the chance of sex. Nada. You are either IN or you are OUT. Kind of like my marriage. I was IN and she was OUT.

I’ve had one long-term relationship in my nine years as a single dad. I learned so many lessons along the way. And from this woman I learned about energy, physical fitness, and drinking. I learned that drinking was not going to be a WIN for me. Casual drinking is okay, might be okay, but regular and heavy drinking was never going to be part of my relationship DNA. With all the parts of the relationship that worked, the alcohol was a deal killer. I’m still mixed about this topic right now. (SEE: The Third Glass Series)

A Single Dad’s Heart of Gold

In the same way I have been honing in my optimal relationship I have become more aware of another aspect of my personality that has developed. I am always 100% in if we are together. When I’m in a relationship (even dating) once we’ve begun kissing, I’m exclusive and hyper-focused on our connection or misconnection. And here is why this is so important to me:

As a single dad, I have experienced a catastrophic loss. I enter a relationship with integrity and humbleness that is a result of that loss. I will always be faithful, I will always be courteous, I will always try to assume your actions are coming from the best intentions. (SEE: The Four Agreements) My tender heart may not survive another catastrophic loss, so I will make sure my actions will never be the cause of the crash. When you get a single dad into a long-term relationship, he understands the consequence of failure in a way that unmarried or childless men do not. Please be careful with the heart of a single dad. If you nurture and love him he will give back a lifetime of honesty and affection.

This honesty has been the guidestar for my dating experience post-divorce. I am going to tell you as clearly and directly as I can, “Here is what I need from you.” I might not always get it right, but I will constantly be striving to articulate my love and requirements for love. In the same respect, I require a partner who can do the same.

Can You Say Exactly What You Need?

It is important in life for us to get very clear on what we need and what we desire. The two things are not always the same, but the integration of needs and wants is part of our journey as loving human beings. When I don’t ask for what I need I build up resentment when I don’t get it. But if my partner is unaware of my requests, well… How can they fulfill them?

“Just tell her what you need,” was the amazingly simple directive from my last therapist.

“How can you be with someone who can turn away from you in that way?” (With alcohol)?

Those two statements have set me up for success. I won’t be quiet. I won’t push issues under the carpet only to feel anger and resentment. I won’t settle for anything less from you either.

A Simple Formula for Relationship Integrity

  • Say what you need.
  • Listen to what your partner needs.
  • Find a flexible balance between the two.
  • Find any unmet needs and bring them into the conversation.
  • Get your needs met.
  • Agree to be happy.
  • Agree to continue “working” on the relationship and love connection FOREVER.
  • When you need to exit the relationship tell your partner as soon as you know. You can either work on it together or agree to part.

Have 100% Integrity in All of Your Relationships

Don’t let any of your shit fester and darken your experience of life. Life is too short to be compromising with someone you don’t love 100%. Oh, and it’s your responsibility to love them at 100%. It is your intention and actions, for the rest of your life, that will determine the success of your next relationship.

Go for it. And go for it at 110%!

Always Love,

John McElhenney – life coach austin texas
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