You may not see it this way, but relationships are what happens between the dates.
I’ve been married and divorced twice, so I know a bit about relationships, but I’m not all that good at dating … at least not yet. I mean, it should be easy, right? At least in theory. I’m just supposed to be myself. But doing that is harder than it sounds—much harder—because … because I don’t really know how to BE, or how to be just me on a date. I have trouble sitting back and letting things flow. I’m too involved, too hyper, too talkative, too … too much. I also don’t listen as well as I should. But the root of my impatience, which I’m just now understanding, is my need to preemptively project a potential relationship with my date, to focus on an imaginary future of couplehood. What I mean is, I’m so obsessed with getting the relationship, I find it nearly impossible to stay present in the date. Am I the only one this happens to?
The fact that I spent most of my post-college, adult life married is a good place to start. Like many of us who married on the young side, I’m new at dating, or at least at dating for a relationship. When I was last on the scene, my goal was sex, not establishing relationship compatibility. I suppose I could date for casual sex now, but those kinds of hookups are not what I want. It’s become clear that if I’m going to date for a relationship, I need to drop my assumptions and reframe my expectations about the whole dating experience. And I’m betting there a lot of divorced men in the same place I am. So I’m going to share what I’ve learned about post-divorce dating, to help solidify (for me) and simplify (for you) the issues I’ve been working through as I recalibrate my dating style. Here are my five secrets to awesome post-divorce dating.
1. Before We Ever Meet
The process of meeting potential dates these days is “easier” but also more distracting. We’ve gotten online dating down to a “hot or not” process. And I’ve met plenty of “hots” who were not. And more women who were attractive but had nothing in common with me. The question, “Why am I here?” was a constant refrain in my early dating experiences, as I jumped at the opportunity to meet anyone who looked interesting. Notice the emphasis on look.
Looks are deceiving. Of course they are, because outward appearance has little to do with inner reality. And with most of these “pretty dates,” I never even started my relationship projections, because I lost interest in the first five minutes. It’s sad when all someone can talk about is work, working out, and television. “But her profile seemed so lively,” I thought. Upon returning home I’d go into forensic mode and scour the profile to see what I’d missed.
What I’ve decided about online dating recently is that it’s a distraction. Profiles are full of positive messages just like your fortune cookie after a nice Chinese dinner. You see things in the words and pictures that cn fire up your imagination, but it’s 100% made up. Until you meet, there is no such thing as chemistry, or connection. All the texting and flirting via email and even phone calls are moot the second you meet in person. If I’m going to schedule a date these days, the woman has to absolutely amaze me—and I don’t mean her photo—before we meet. THEN we might have some touch points in the real world. “Meh” dating is done.
2. On the First Date
I believe you can tell almost immediately whether the chemistry is a “yes” or a “no.” Your gut instinct tells you, and you just know it. In the first minute, two people size each other up in their animal brains, and you either get a tail wag … or a droop. It’s a lot less about what type of person we think we’re attracted to and a lot more about these dog-like reactions. If you both start out with a tail wag, you’ve got the potential to be partners. When the scent is strong neither of you will have to ask or wonder, “What’s next?”
But for me it’s what happens after the tail wag that’s definitive, because even in those first minutes together my mind is jumping ahead to the future. I can’t stop myself, and I don’t think we can help projecting. My brain on “yes” skips ahead to all kinds of questions, from “does she play tennis?” to “how would she look in a tennis skirt?” to “is she creative?” to “does she have other passions that can balance our time together?” At the same time, my animal brain locks onto physical characteristics: a dark glint in her eyes, a soft vulnerable spot on the side of her neck, a whiff of her perfume … and the intimacy these unlock.
To come back to the present and focus on who my date is (not what I might do with her), I continuously pull my attention back to the conversation, even as my blood is rushing downward instead of up to my brain. I use little tricks to keep track of what she’s saying. Often, I repeat a portion of what she said, as a place marker for me and to bridge the conversation. “Yes, I love the Spanish poets too.” To stop the projections, I use an internal mantra: STOP, LOOK, LISTEN, REPEAT. It’s not that mechanical, but I’m aware of how whacked out a “yes” date can get me, and repeating these words helps to center me. I do my best, but once my animal brain is turned on, it’s a constant struggle. And if we’re both a semi-intoxicated, I know I have to move slowly and carefully.
3. Following Up
As we are wrapping up our date, I pay attention to how she is responding. Is she smiling, or is her face tense with anxiety? I want to confirm a mutual tail-wag, but I don’t ask directly. The signal is in the “what’s next” question, and if you don’t have to ask it, that’s the best signal of all. When there’s a pull to connect, both people will make space for the next date to happen. As you say goodbye, do you feel warm fuzzies or a cool lack of resonance? The mood at parting is your best indication of where things are going. Words can mislead, but expressions rarely lie. “OK, see ya later,” can mean “probably not,” but wide eyes and upturned lips mean you’ll probably being see her again … soon.
4. Getting Into the Groove
Beyond the dates comes the relating. You may not see it this way, but relationships are what happens between the dates. Dating is a performance, a show, a courting and wooing process. But once you’ve courted and wooed (or been courted and wooed), and you’ve seen enough of the other person that you’d like to give it a go, you now have an opportunity to just be together. Now the mundane life tasks are what reveal your partner’s approach to a relationship and the bonds and boundaries you can anticipate as things move forward. To get a feel for how things will be in the relationship, do things you would if you were already in one. For example, you might start sharing meals that aren’t dates. “I’m heading home in about 10 minutes, would you like to come over, I can grab some salad at the store.” What a warm feeling that gives, being a natural part of the plan.
As you move into relationship you will also want to include your partner in your normal activities. Sure you want to spend weekends (as available) together, but what about all those other evenings and nights? (Single parents have another priority that can be seen as a gift or a complication.) You’re past the chemistry and past deciding whether you like each other. Now, in the ongoing negotiation of more casual time together, you will start to uncover the fundamentals of relationship compatibility. Does your partner freak out when something comes up and you can’t get together? Can you enjoy a simple, low-key evening? What if one or the other of you is too tired? Is that acceptable? Disappointments are part of life; how does your new partner deal with them? Does she roll out of bed on the positive side of life or is there a sigh and struggle in the morning to get on with it? Dates are not real life. We need to see each other under the duress of real life to understand how we deal with real life. Storms are inevitable, and ships break and run aground. A healthy relationship finds easy repair. The trick is to be co-captains in the navigation of dark and stormy waters as well as the high-noon,-high-wind happy times.
5. Back to the Drawing Board
Having returned to the dating scene fairly recently, I’m still learning these truths about myself. I’ve also become aware that there were many things I overlooked in my two previous marriages. Now, as a divorced dad, I’ve got a pretty full schedule, and a built-in priority around my two kids, but I also have my own needs as a man. One of those is to create a space for nights and weekends with someone special. Since I haven’t found that person yet (though I’m confident she’s right around the corner), I’ve been able to spend my alone time reflecting. I hope the wisdom I’ve shared here will serve you well in your own dating adventures.
back to Dating After Divorce
- The 6-Step Relationship Strategy
- Unlocking Touch – The Love Language I Speak
- How Long Will it Hurt? Divorce Recovery, the Road Back to Happiness
- Ready or Not-Ready for a Relationship: The Dating Game
image: random date at maudie’s, john mcelhenney, cc 2014