Based upon my own journey through divorce, book research and work as a therapist, I say with certainty that those who are separated often crave validation and companionship to stave off loneliness. They often desire affection -- especially after cold marriages without it -- and sometimes, they desire just that: desire.
These feelings are completely normal, but what one does can either enhance or complicate the path in the weeks that follow. Keep these four tips in mind when dating during separation and divorce:
1. Learn to be alone.
There's a strong temptation to jump into the dating pool after being jilted by a spouse who may already have a significant other, or because suddenly when you announce that you're no longer attached, others in that same category flock to you due to the needs I listed above.
Because the validation, companionship, desire and affection have hands-down feel-good effects, your mood will improve and your fears of being alone may lessen if you date or hook up. The chemistry of falling for another person -- and their falling for you -- makes this happen. Yet for your own good -- not to mention that of your children and/or the legal matters ahead of you -- the priority is not to fall but to step into the next phases of your life, including matters of the heart.
Put another way, sometimes anyone who pays attention to you at this stage of the game will look perfect, but you may well trade one passive-aggressive or untrustworthy character for another with traits you've yet to discover. That chemistry has the capacity to blind you no matter how long you've been uncoupled, but you risk walking into the wall if you take that leap too soon following a separation.
Learn to be comfortable by yourself. Enjoy hobbies or outings you've put off or couldn't take part in, or merely watch reruns at 3 a.m. while crunching loudly on chips in bed with no one to tell you to shut out the light, be quieter or change the channel. The healthiest partner out there wants to complement your life -- not be your life. For that, you need to stand on your own first.
2. Set your standards.
Novels and certain cable channels (namely Hallmark or Playboy) provide escapes and fantasies. But real life has those four letters that make the world that we live in -- reality. It's okay to think about a few fantasy qualities in your next mate, but realize (those four first letters again!) if you search for perfection, you'll end up alone.
Where do you want your life to be in five years? Ten years? Fifteen? What conversations, hobbies, travel, and life goals do you want to engage in? Now, what does a potential mate need to have to complete, not complicate, that vision? What information might you need to make careful choices?
For instance, if would like to live debt-free or travel extensively, conversations about money and time creep to the top of your priority list. If you want to have a family, step into that discussion before you fall into infatuation.
3. Meet many, focus on a few.
When I wrote Surviving Separation and Divorce, I quoted Dr. Joy Browne from her own book in saying, "Hang out with friends, large groups, small countries." This allows you to socialize, assuage loneliness, learn about people and gather information. Most importantly, you also do not complicate your separation with even the remote possibility that a jealous ex will accuse you of adultery or become difficult in settlement negotiations. Believe that they wouldn't. Oh, jealousy is a powerful emotion!
4. Consider the kids.
Another book topic I have researched and see in clinical practice is Overcoming Passive-Aggression -- the get-back that estranged spouses exhibit, often inadvertently casting their children as pawns into their own game of "I'll prove to you." Take the disengaged father. Mom falls (not steps) into a new relationship, and next thing you know, new guy is hanging out at the house and meeting the kids. "Oh but the kids adore him," the Mom might tell her friends, or "I asked them and they didn't mind if he spends Thanksgiving with us."
Really? Try this one: Dad always felt Mom was more interested in the PTA and the children's homework than him come ten o'clock at night or even six the next morning. Once separated, Dad begins dating a woman minus 12 years his wife's age, complete with a grin that validates his attractiveness and self-esteem. Picture yourself hearing "the kids don't mind" or "they think she's pretty cool." Following a separation, neither of you is immune to that sensitivity.
Don't put your kids in no-win situations where you, as an adult, ask a child to validate your point-proving or post-divorce needs. Leave them out of it.
Children will always want to please a parent and protect the other's interests. Sure, they may tell you what you wish to hear -- if you put them in that triangulated, difficult spot -- but they will feel like crap after such manipulation. Sorry, that word seems harsh, but that is exactly what that behavior looks like.
Date on your own time, for many months, maybe even 9-12 of them while separated, before you introduce the kids. If you are officially divorced, the timeline might shrink but waiting a few months, perhaps 3-6 months, is important because hopefully you have cooled down, found yourself, and understand your values. As a result, common sense abounds and everyone's choices reflect the journey of that work.
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