My first post ever (on this or any other blog) was “dating as research,” and in it I laid out my theory that dating after divorce is a useful way to really get to know yourself again — who you are in a relationship, what you seek from it, what you can or cannot abide in another person. I still believe the words in that post, and I am grateful for each and every man along the way who has taught me a little bit about myself, no matter how short our interaction.
I have a couple of good friends who are wading into the dating pool after their divorces for the first time in many years. Listening to their first, tentative successes and failures, hopes and dreams, has inspired me to contemplate what, if anything, I’ve learned over the last 3 1/2 years since my separation. And I discovered that I’ve actually learned quite a lot. So I’m going to share my observations with them, and with you.
1. Not every relationship is supposed to be The One.
Not every relationship is meant to result in a love story that rivals Scarlett and Rhett or Napoleon and Josephine. Some are meant to teach us things, reinforce things we already know, or even correct a course that isn’t working for us. Most of the time, I think it’s hard to know what a relationship was supposed to be until you look back on it from a distance, but sometimes it’s apparent quickly. Either way, it still has value to me.
In America, we equate divorce and breaking-up with failure — why couldn’t we make it work? what was wrong with that relationship? But not every culture sees things this way. Lots of people are able to see the bigger picture… the idea that people (and the relationships we form with them) come into our lives for a period or time or for a particular reason, and then leave in the same fashion. The fact that they left does not in any way diminish their impact or value to our lives; it simply means that life has other plans that don’t include them anymore.
So don’t force it. Let it be what it’s supposed to be and be grateful for whatever it gives you. Then move on.
2. Don’t assume anything.
No matter what they tell you or how they act or what you think you know, none of us can truly know what another person is feeling. What one person means when he says “I love you” may be a very different feeling from what another person means. Sometimes we assume (or believe) things that lead us to think we are involved in a Hollywood-worthy love affair, when in actuality our mate doesn’t feel particularly deeply about us at all. Other times we assume (or believe) that our partner’s feelings are relatively superficial, only to discover that they are stronger and more persistent than we had suspected. Our brains can’t know, and our hearts are blind; only our intuition can accurately detect the truth in any given moment. And, more often than not, that intuition is drowned out by a host of other feelings, wishes, and expectations. Ask questions, listen closely, and don’t get defensive with what your intuition is telling you. Deep down you know the answers.
3. Almost everybody seems great for the first month or two. Only time and experience will tell you what you need to know about a relationship.
Lots of dating has helped me discern when I’m feeling infatuated, really “in like,” or truly in love. I’m not often confused, and I’m not in a hurry to cross the Love Finish Line. Because the truth is that you can be infatuated with lots of people, but only time and bumping past some rough spots will give you a real sense of what kind of emotional connection you have with a given partner. Neither one alone is going to show you everything you need you know. And if you find yourself “falling in love” with everyone you date, it might be time to take a big step back, spend some time by yourself, and really evaluate what you know about love and how you define it.
4. Relationship envy is a waste of time. Appearances are deceiving, and love is more than window-dressing.
You’d think that after spending so long in a marriage that looked picture-perfect from the outside, I wouldn’t have had to re-learn this one, but I did. Repeatedly, in the last three years. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve observed new couples who have all the appearances of the “perfect couple,” and yet there was a vague sense of something being off…. like they’re going through the expected motions, but without any real depth. They do and say all the right things, but something feels…. a little forced, a little false… Like I’m watching a show more than witnessing a love affair. Sometimes it has made me second-guess my own choices; after all ease and perfection can be very seductive. But then I snap out of it and realize that I’d prefer deep and messy over shallow and placid any day of the week. And usually, when those “perfect” couples break up, you see pretty quickly how imperfect the relationship really was.
5. Figure out what you want in a relationship and don’t let anybody talk you out of it.
Nobody has to live your life but you. Period. You, and you alone, have to live with the full force of the consequences of your actions. You are responsible for the repercussions, be they good or bad, and recognizing that is the first step toward something that really suits you and your life. Opinions and advice of friends and family, however well-intentioned, are only opinions and advice. Don’t let anybody tell you what’s right for you. Only you can decide that.
6. It’s good to date lots of different people.
I sat down and counted recently: since my separation I have been on dates ( at least first dates) with 28 different men. I have dated men of various colors, shapes, and sizes. Some have been brilliant and some dumb as a box of bricks. Some have been mouth-wateringly handsome and others not so much. But they all have a story, and they all have a perspective, and I learned a little bit more each and every time. When I date people who haven’t dated much, I can immediately sense the chasm of experience between us. The world is home to billions of people. Meet lots of them. It’s good for you.
7. You cannot control other people, their feelings, or your own.
Control is a big thing for a lot of us. By the time you’re in your 40’s, you’re likely running a family, a career, a household, and any number of other responsibilities, obligations or commitments. It gives us a false sense of being able to set our own destiny, exactly how we want it, exactly when we want it. Of course, in our brains, we know this isn’t true, but accepting it in our hearts is another matter entirely. Relinquishing that control, learning to sit with patience and without holding too tightly to outcomes is an enormous challenge. But it’s important. Maybe the most important relationship lesson we have the opportunity to learn as an adult….
8. When considering past hurts, you usually have a choice of being righteous or being happy. Not both.
It’s very easy to get stuck. To decide that you simply cannot get past some pain that you’ve endured due to a relationship ending. It’s easy to cling to it and feel that you are entitled to your pain and to your injuries and to expect the world around you to bend and accommodate and account for what you’ve endured. But in my experience, that posture is a lonely one. Friends and family quickly tire of propping up a victim who appears unwilling to move forward. New people will always be aghast at your tale, but then they, too, will grow weary of it and move on to those who inspire and motivate them. Being happy is a choice. I don’t happen to believe that it’s an overnight choice or as simple as a pithy poster, but I do think that it’s about making choices that lead you to your best and highest self. And I’m pretty sure that no one’s best and highest self includes bitterness, rage, or vindictiveness.
9. Dating — searching for that “just right” relationship — should be a side dish at your life’s table, not the main course.
I know of a woman who, when she is single, attacks dating like a part-time job. She goes out almost every night, she attends a wide variety of functions, and she devotes countless hours to online dating. And you know what? She’s never single for very long. But you know what else? She doesn’t have much of a life outside of her relationship and her work and familial obligations. She never really took the time to develop one after her divorce, despite the fact that her lack of an individual life was one of her primary complaints in her marriage. Now, I don’t have a crystal ball, but I would suspect that this doesn’t bode well for her 5 or 10 years down the road in a long-term relationship. See, it seems to me that the people who maintain the longest and best relationships are ones who are partners in life, not conjoined twins. So start right now, when you’re first dating after your separation, to build the life that you want to have. Fill it with people and hobbies and experiences that feed your soul. The rest, including a great relationship, will likely follow. And if it doesn’t? Well, at least you’ll have that great life you made for yourself!
10. Love is not a race.
I remember when my girls were babies, and some of the moms were hyper-competitive about when their children had hit various milestones — sitting up, crawling, walking, talking. Around that time, I saw a movie in which one of the characters pointed out that none of that mattered because none of us as adults still wears diapers or drinks from a bottle. Everybody gets there at their own pace, but they do eventually get there. And simply doing it first doesn’t mean you do it best. I’m pretty certain this applies to relationships, too.
Bonus Tip: You will be okay.
There have been many moments in the last few years during which I have quite seriously contemplated how many times a single heart can break. The answer? Infinitely. But no matter how many disappointments we might suffer or tears we might shed, somewhere on the other side there is a place called “Okay,” and we’ll all get there someday. All we have to do is want to.
So I guess I’ve learned to just slow down, smell the rose bushes, drink the pinot grigio, and learn as much as I can from this journey. Because while I can manipulate the variables and control for some factors, the outcome of the dating experiment is beyond my control.