Even though it can feel like some kind of bad joke to be thrown back into the dating world after going through a divorce, we have to remind ourselves that we know what we are doing.
“What do you like to do for fun?” he asked as we sat side by side at a local bar, craft beer in front of us. This seemingly harmless question made me freeze.
The last time I was single, my pink Razor phone was cool and social media didn’t exist. Now, freshly divorced and back out there, I was discovering that dating today meant mastering swiping and liking and selfies. It also meant having answers to hard questions like who I was apart from the life I had just spent years creating.
It was almost enough to make me miss being married.
After a while, though, I realized that being divorced was actually a dating advantage. I hadn’t failed at a relationship; I wasn’t damaged goods. Yes, I hadn’t dated in over a decade, but I did have a hands-on education about what it took to be a good partner and about what I wanted in a relationship (and what I didn’t).
I knew what it was like to be in a relationship while navigating sick children and work schedules and the mortgage and job loss. And I knew that conversations about emptying the dishwasher and squeezing the toothpaste were never actually conversations about dishes or dental hygiene.
Understanding that made this phase of life far less intimidating. I was not a beginner, after all. Did I have to spend time exploring who I was now that I was single? Absolutely. But I also knew more than I did the last time I dated and this experience was going to lead me to create an even better relationship. Admittedly, I learned this the hard way.
But these lessons have now become the roadmap that I’ll follow to get to a new destination.
Your time together is valuable.
As any parent knows, making time for yourself can be difficult. When you’re married, you also have to navigate the added challenge of making time for your relationship. This is an area where many of us may have struggled when we were married. In the daily chaos of raising children and taking care of a house and working, time for ourselves and time as a couple is sometimes sacrificed to “get it all done”. This can have a devastating impact.
Now, as a divorced parent, if I am making time for another person, it’s because I’ve chosen to do it. Gone are the days of being a 22-year-old, single girl in a studio apartment with time to spare. On weekends when my children are with their father, I could be working, catching up on the laundry or tackling my never-ending “To Do” list – all things that make life as a working mom much easier. If I decide to spend some time with someone I’m seeing instead, it’s deliberate. I’m making the time for it. And I’m assuming that the person I am out with is making room for me, too.
Ultimately, this is a good thing. A relationship that starts with both people appreciating the sacrifices each of them has made to spend time together is one in which someone is less likely to feel undervalued. It’s also one in which both people understand that sometimes they have to put time together above the myriad of other tasks that ask for their attention each day. And that’s the kind relationship that’s more likely to last.
What you want matters, too.
I like to make people happy. Often times, that means I’m likely to put someone else’s needs or wants before my own. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. In fact, I like to think that making people feel cared for is something that I do well. But in a successful relationship, there needs to be a balance between putting other people first and between putting your needs first.
I struggled with this while I was married and I think it’s common for mothers, especially, to do this. We often put ourselves last. There comes a point, though, where not being able to ask for what you want can have a negative impact. This is how resentment can build in relationships and how seemingly small issues become big issues.
So, now, when I someone asks me if I want to stay in and order pizza or go out for sushi, I know that it’s important to pick the sushi if I need a night out. Because it’s not about the sushi; it’s about making sure my needs matter, too, right from the start. And I’ll hope that he’ll respect me when I speak up, just like I would respect him if he did.
Good relationships are built on the needs of both partners being important.
This doesn’t mean never putting the person you’re dating first; it means finding a balance between both of your needs. Because in a relationship, if you always try to make the other person happy, no one will be.
Being vulnerable does not come easily to me, but vulnerability is what allows us to form lasting connections to one another, so it’s important to try. When we don’t let others see us in our weaker moments, it can negatively affect the bond we share. Researcher Brene Brown has spent years exploring the importance of being vulnerable. “Vulnerability is not winning or losing,” she says in her book Rising Strong. “It’s having the courage to show up and be seen when we have no control over the outcome. Vulnerability is not weakness; it’s our greatest measure of courage.” And it is one of the keys to lasting intimacy.
I admit it’s not easy for me to text someone first or be the one to suggest getting together. And leaning on someone I’m dating during more significant moments like when there’s a death in the family or when I’m experiencing a challenging moment at work is even more uncomfortable for me. This is the case for many of us, post-divorce.
Vulnerability can feel like a weakness, but we have to remind ourselves that it’s actually the place where our relationships grow stronger.
If you want others to be there for you, you have to give them the chance to show up. This doesn’t mean constantly sharing our life story with every guy we meet or becoming an emotional drain on others. But it does mean putting ourselves out there a bit more and being willing to let others really see us.
Now, while I’m dating, I’m trying my best to be more open, to have more courage and to take risks with my heart. It’s not easy, but I know that it’s essential to build the kind of relationship I want.
When people tell you what they want, believe them.
I dated my ex-husband for seven years before we were married. He kept saying he wasn’t ready and I kept waiting. (I know.) And in doing this, I overlooked things that I shouldn’t have. I’ve often found myself wondering if this is where it all actually began to fall apart.
I won’t make that mistake twice.
If someone I’m seeing says he doesn’t want a relationship or that he isn’t interested in dating a person with children or that he wants to be able to travel spontaneously, I listen. I don’t try to change his mind. I don’t get mad. I am grateful because it takes courage to tell someone what you want when you are dating. And knowing that a relationship isn’t important to someone else allows me to make different choices about my own life and what I choose to prioritize. Now, I know that when someone tells me what he wants, he means it. Because successful relationships happen when both people are in the same place.
Pay attention to the small things.
Like many women, I adore getting flowers, but having been married, I know that even smaller gestures can say more. Flowers are great. They are easy. They are beautiful. They can smooth over a multitude of issues. They are social media-ready (#blessed). And when you first start dating someone, especially after having gone through some tough times, they can be impressive.
But you know what is just as impressive? When someone goes out of his way to remember how I take my coffee. When he keeps Half n Half in his fridge, even though he drinks his coffee black, just because he knows I like it. Or when he turns up the thermostat to 65 and turns down the always-on television, without being asked, simply because he knows both make me more comfortable.
And this isn’t one-sided. I’ll leave the tomatoes out of the salad, or send a quick picture that I know will make him smile. Small gestures and small talk are the things that keep us connected to each other. This is why “How was your day?” is such an important question to ask the people we care about. Sometimes when a marriage ends, the first sign can be when we stop doing the little things; it’s when the small talk stops. So, this time around, I’ll look for a man who buys me Half n Half and flowers.
Even though it can feel like some kind of bad joke to be thrown back into the dating world after going through a divorce, we have to remind ourselves that we know what we are doing. We are not beginners. We have grown and changed and learned so much. And if we put this into practice, we can create the life and the relationships we want.
I was reminded of this recently as I was talking with a friend at a party. She, too, had been divorced but was now remarried.
“Marriage is even better the second time around,” she said. “Really.”
And I know why.
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