It is popular to offer advice to the newly divorced by those who have been through it. There are maxims that most of us should heed, but I don’t know how many really do. I never picked up a self-help book about the do’s and don’ts of dating after divorce. I wasn’t beyond or beneath words of wisdom but I didn’t have the energy for them either. I wanted relief and reassurance, and I didn’t believe I would find that in a book telling me what I should and shouldn’t do right then. It might have helped. Too late to know that now. At this point, I have been single for longer than I was married. I divorced when I was 34, married for 12 years, and now I am 50. It is not to say that I haven’t been in relationships since then. I have been in a few long-term serious relationships and several brief dalliances – many of which comprise a lot of the content in my memoir, Broken Whole.
Maybe I wouldn’t have written a book had I been less stubborn and more capable of heeding the advice from the number of how-to books available about grieving and recovery during divorce. Hard to say. I have no doubt they are valuable in their own right and friends of mine have actively sought them, but I wasn’t looking for reassurance from a book. I wanted someone to say, “You’re okay and you’ll get through it.” I wanted it that clean, that simple. Or, that’s what I believe now that I wanted then with the expanse of 15 years in between. Retrospect is wonderful. Could I say then, “All you need to do is to say this to me and I’ll be fine”? No. I was a blubbering, complaining, guilt-ridden, self-doubting, navel-gazing lost soul, and those friends and family who could stand to listen to me circle the drain uncountable times earned fairy dust and angel wings in an alternate universe. The last thing I wanted to be told was what to do or how I could fix it. I had traded in my identity of wife for meandering, shapeless and rudderless, and in the process bumped and hob-knobbed with men who were just as misguided and blameless as I was. Irrefutably, there is a self-help book out there about dating after divorce that steers one away from dating too soon or in getting into a relationship with someone who is just as freshly discombobulated as you are. I ventured into Speed Dating six weeks after I was divorced and I dated a man I met there for six months. He was shocked I was out looking for someone so soon after. I rebuffed that with “I was window shopping.” And I might well have been better off keeping it at that not serious, just looking level, but his shock did not dissuade him, and I was curious. Although he had been out of his marriage for thirteen years, he could lapse into spouts of rage over its dissolution, still fresh and comfortable with lashing out at his ex-wife’s phantom self clear before his minds’ eye. ‘Soon’ was a relative qualifier.
I ignored a lot. I traded in this ignorance for mirrored misery disguised as a perfect match. And, it was. It didn’t mean I didn’t have a good time or that my misanthrope partner and I weren’t laughing along the way. It’s easy to enjoy the veil of unresolved angst so long as you never lift it. That could go on for lifetimes.
Kissing cousin to the maxim of not dating too soon is not dating before you’re ready. Soon and ready are muddied by desire. How do you know you’re ready until you’re in the middle of something that you don’t like? This was my steady gauge used to measure when it was time to move on. I refused to learn quickly. As long as I had the energy, the next date would fix what ailed me. A typical break from dating lasted about six weeks. I felt the incessant magnetic pull to be with someone and was too impatient to make a list of what I had to have, wanted, and could live with. I believed myself impervious to the need to do this. Other people needed lists and I needed to go with whatever felt strongest at the moment. Naturally, trusting your instincts when you’re nervous about being lonely does not foretell ‘good’ choices.
Was he funny? Did he think I was funny? Did he like me? Was I attracted to him? These bumbled in as my top four usually, though not intentionally. Other things got triggered when they were missing: good lover, generosity, follow-through, making time to be together, financial stability. I rarely asked if he could be a good father figure to my son because my son had a good father. I rarely introduced my son to any possible suitor and preferred to keep the two sequestered from one another until I felt confident there was going to be a relationship worthy of them getting to know one another. More often than not, something detrimental reared its head and the relationship ended before any such meeting took place. I didn’t see the point in generating insecurity for my son. It was bad enough I couldn’t sit still long enough to really think about what I wanted. It seemed irresponsible to heap my impulsiveness onto him as well. With a 50/50 parenting schedule, there was plenty of time for me to date and not intermingle my life as mother with my latest relationship. This was the only thing I was certain about. I know I lost at least one companion due to this rule.
One man wanted our sons to meet right away, even though he had confided that after he had broken up with his most recent girlfriend, his eight-year-old son was a mess emotionally because he could no longer see his ex-girlfriend’s son. Another boyfriend accused me of having “another man” in my life, referring to my son who was five at the time.
The strongest love I had for any male in my life was for my son. It was unshakable and indelible. I longed to create that clarity for my choices in partners. My pendulum of good enough and point of no return quivered and was only beat out by the best gauge of all: fatigue. When this roved its eyes above the horizon, I knew I had reached an end and needed to change course, if however small or shallow. The tide had to deposit me on the beach of my mishaps for a few years before I was able to get comfortable with the idea of enjoying my own company, and remembering how much I longed for that.
Everything I liked about being alone got shoved to one side in the pursuit of a companion. Although I declared many times to suitors that I needed time to myself, the priority was always companion first, solitary time second. I believed if I had the companion, I could give myself permission to have time to myself. It felt injurious to be handed solitude as an inevitable remainder of rejection. But the more it happened either by me or the other person, I was discovering that time alone was exactly what I wanted. Anyone else’s care for me was a capricious variable, contingent on all things seen and not seen which encompass the landscape of relationship. What was becoming clear was that the route to firm footing and stability was in believing in what I could create, and that was something I needed time for myself to imagine. The unconditional love I sought from someone else needed to come from me and I was only going to get there by developing habits and patterns that yielded content. This was the ingredient that would attract what I wanted and dampen the pull toward the mutually lost and needy. I had to let go of the belief that another person should make me happy and complete me.
Fortunately, I knew of a lot of things I liked to do by myself: walking, swimming, writing, painting, going to movies, reading. I also loved being with friends. The balance of spending time doing what I liked and in spending time with people who truly cared about me became the gauge upon which I could measure what would work in the next companion. My internal clock ticked evenly once this rhythm grabbed hold.
If there is any advice to dole out to the recently divorced, it is this: give yourself the time to discover answers to questions you perhaps didn’t know you had and discover and renew interests in things put off to one side. It is worth the investment.