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September 22, 2011

Reader Q &A: I would like a dating timeline, please!

Today's reader question is one I get frequently, and it comes up every time I write about dating:

I just have a question that you totally don't have to answer. I obviously read your blog, and I've got your books. I'm two years out post-divorce and still really struggling with the whole thing. He's moved on already (read: he has a new lady) and you had a post a while ago about online dating. I know it's different for everyone, but how long did it take you to feel like you were ready to date? --Julie

Here is another version:

I am SO happy -- and unhappy -- to hear that you have found a way to date again ... I know that sounds horrible, but let me explain. I have been divorced for 6 years (and separated for way longer than that) and have yet to be able to get myself back into the dating game. I do have a child, so for years I have been using that as an excuse....YES it is TOTALLY an excuse. Over the last few months a few of my other single mom friends have started dating and then I visited your site to see that you also were taking the plunge. So I hated it only because I felt like more of a loser that I haven't been able to do it. All of this on top of the fact that I think my ex-husband will be getting remarried within the next year. With all that said -- HOW DID YOU GET YOURSELF TO REENGAGE?
Love you,

Ladies, as much as I would love to give you a powerpoint slide with a dating graph and bullet points, I can't be your benchmark. What you read about me in a few carefully worded paragraphs each week is not a complete picture of my life. Comparing yourself to anyone -- especially a well-edited stranger -- is a recipe for disaster. One person could read this site and believe I got divorced and sat home alone for six years while another could read and believe I'm out every night of the week with a mystery man I keep private. Using another human being as your relationship pace car is a bad idea. The only person who can set your pace is YOU.

I could tell you my timeline in great historical detail but it wouldn't help. You will be ready when you're ready. That's the short answer.

One of the trickiest things about dating is all the input you get from well-meaning folks in your life. They want you to be happy, and they may believe the definition of being happy is being paired up so they urge you to pair up. "Date!" they say. "Go out, meet men, get back in the game! You'll meet someone!"

And sure, you will meet someone. It is not hard to meet someone, anyone can meet someone.

Loss and sadness and vulnerability are normal after divorce. After a split, you may feel empty, lost, sad, jaded, worried, restless, or all of the above. If you're picking a new partner from that vantage point, you'll make mistakes, like sleeping with a man too soon. Overlooking red flags. Agreeing to things you would normally hate. Ingratiating yourself. Focusing only on being asked on a second date. Pretending to be something you're not. Not even knowing who you are or what you want. Taking on another person's life (and drama) to fill a hole in your own. Picking men who aren't respectful. Looking for something to hold onto, even if it's a sinking ship.

You already know this. I'm not telling you new, groundbreaking information here. If you haven't been interested in dating again, there is probably a reason. You might not be ready. You might be happy with the life you have right now. You might be scared. You might be worried you're too fat/old/shy/busy. You might think dating is some big, huge life altering decision and that going on a date means you're ready to re-marry and settle down and that freaks you out.

Whatever it is, here are a few things to keep in mind about dating after divorce:

• You're not legally obligated to date again.
Yeah, I know, crazy, right? But you can stay single your whole life long if that is what makes you happy.

• Just because your ex moved on doesn't mean he is living on a love rainbow.
A man may move on five minutes before the divorce is even final, but it doesn't mean he is now living in a rose-scented land of unicorns and sparkles and bliss. It might mean he just upgraded to Bad Marriage Version 2.0 really quickly.

• It's a whole new world.
Right after a divorce you're still really focused on marriage -- even if you're focused on the demise of marriage, it's still marriage marriage marriage on the brain. This is a tricky spot. It's hard to see exactly what kind of choices are available for your future. After all, your choice was marriage and it ended and you're probably hurt and disillusioned. So what else is there? Perpetual divorcedom? That doesn't sound very awe-inspiring.

It takes time to let the possibilities percolate again. There are many different lifestyles that work for people -- living together, long-term dating, long-distance love, twice-a-week love, marriage, domestic partnership, friends with benefits, anything in between. Take your time with it. You may discover that what you wanted ten years ago when you were shopping for wedding dresses is not at all what you want or need right now. Give yourself some space to figure out what this new version of you might want from her life.

• You don't have to find THE ONE on your first date.
After my divorce I was a train wreck so instead of looking for The Next Serious Relationship Of My Life, I picked hot guys who were terrible relationship material but a whole lot of superficial fun. This is a totally acceptable strategy! And no one ever tells you about it!

Instead, people say stuff like, "Oh, don't worry, one day you'll meet THE ONE..." or "Just have hope, you're such a nice girl, and after my divorce I met THE ONE and now we're happily married with 2.5 kids and a beautiful home with hardwood floors and one of those kitchens you see in Nora Ephron movies." You will hear these things and secretly want to stab the person saying them. There is a time for many divorced women when the idea of remarrying sounds like the worst thing you have ever heard since they invented butt waxing.

My advice? Go on at least one date just for the hell of it. Go out with a man you never would have dated before you got married because he wasn't perfect husband material. How do you think I ended up at dinner circa 2007 with a 24-year-old Jamaican cricket player? And it was fun. Would I want to walk down the aisle with him and share finances? Of course not. You don't have to be on a marriage mission. It is actually completely healthy to just want to have light, superficial fun when you re-emerge back into dating.

• You get to define fun.
Women get panicked at the word "fun" when combined with the word "dating" because they think it means they have to sleep around. You don't have to sleep with any dude you go out with. It is perfectly OK to go out, laugh, hold hands and not fling your panties off on the first date or on ANY date.

I don't do anything I don't want to do with anyone I don't want to do it with and neither should you. People make too much of all of this. There's no date police out there about to cite you for going too slow or too fast. So keep your head on straight and do what feels right for you. If you don't know what feels right for you, you aren't ready to date yet.

• It's OK to retreat.
You may go on a few dates and abruptly decide you need to go home and knit a sweater for every person in your immediate family before you can go out again. It's fine. There is no graph on a doctor's wall with projected dating progress timelines. You get to take breaks.

• Avoid Dating By Committee
When you start dating again your friends and family may take it on like an art project. It's up to you to manage the amount of information they get about your personal life. It is your responsibility to listen to yourself and trust yourself and not make decisions based on the input of your friend who was last single in the Reagan era. If you think your choices can't be trusted because you've made such bad ones in the past, then get to yourself to therapy. If you cannot bear the idea of going against the advice of your friends or family, then keep your mouth shut and don't ask for their advice in the first place. Dating by committee is doomed to failure. Ask for advice when you need it, share stories when you want to, that's part of the fun. But don't look to a third party to make your decisions.

• And finally...
It's not brain surgery, this dating business. No one will just die if a date goes poorly or if you talk too much or if he's four inches shorter than you. The world will keep spinning on its axis.

I have met some genuinely great guys (both during the Inappropriate Guy time post-divorce and the more Appropriate Guy time of present day). I think people are endlessly fascinating, and I love that it's so much easier to meet people now with the internet -- not just dating sites, but think of hiking meetups, social meetups, any meetups. I'm old-fashioned and still prefer to meet people in real life (airplanes, church, my old standby the grocery store!) but there's a lot to be said for technology. For example, you get to text now instead of talking on the phone! This is technology gone right. No waiting around for the phone to ring, just send a text and be done with it.

Socializing is very hard for me. I'm naturally introverted and I get all nervous and dorky and speedtalk when I'm anxious. But while my natural inclination is to pull a full Emily Dickenson, when I push myself and force myself to get out of my shell I often have a really great time. I hope you do as well. I'm not sure where any of us are going with this, but every possibility is in play. Anything good can happen when you're ready. And only you know when you are ready!

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P.S. I'd like to thank reader Lesle for emailing me a link to this wonderful story in the New York Times, The Plight of American Singles. The title makes it sound more dismal than it is, read it for some interesting insight into the ways single people contribute to the health of a community.

Posted by laurie at September 22, 2011 12:35 PM