Mary Kay Blakely once described divorce as “the psychological equivalent of a triple coronary bypass” – a more apt analogy than you might think at first glance. Yes, divorce may seem as painful as heart surgery – but it also shares the quality of being an increasingly common procedure, with impressive survival rates. As you begin the recovery process, the challenge now is to keep your heart healthy while making the most of your chance at a new life.
How soon is too soon?
One of the most common questions that come up following divorce is how long one should wait to begin dating. Consult folk wisdom and you’ll find many answers giving a precise number of months or years, or maybe even a math formula based on how long your previous relationship lasted.
Many of us find such numbers reassuring – a concrete rulebook to guide our decisions. But ultimately, the boring but inevitable answer is that you should begin dating whenever you feel ready. And being ready is not about measuring external time, but sorting your own internal emotions. Being single again is not the death knell it may seem – in fact, it heralds fresh opportunities and a brand new start.
The new normal
That said, there are some guidelines to help you assess whether you are ready. An obvious one is that if you find yourself often thinking about your ex or wishing to get back together, you are clearly not ready to start another serious relationship.
And while some people find that casual dating or flings help accelerate getting over an ex, the increased emotional vulnerability following a breakup also means that if you are unsure of what you’re looking for or unable to establish clear boundaries, you may risk winding up even more confused and hurt.
Whatever approach you feel comfortable with, the goal to keep in sight is moving along in the healing process and accepting your newly single reality.
In some way, it might make sense to want to replace the ‘missing piece’ of your life as soon as possible. But after divorce, it’s often the whole puzzle that needs to be rearranged. You’ll need to adjust to handling responsibilities such as housing, financial matters, and perhaps childcare on your own.
But you will likely also have new opportunities to try things that would have been harder to coordinate while married, such as extended traveling, a new career, or simply pursuing new hobbies or spending more time with friends – especially since social networks that revolved around your married life may need to be rebuilt or replaced.
If you focus on your life holistically, you may find that the question of whether you’re ready to date might be replaced with whether you even have time for it!
If and when you do take the plunge into the dating pool, it’s important to have an idea of what it is you want, and what you’re willing to put up with. Many recent divorcees suffer from low self-esteem, undervaluing themselves and pursuing unsatisfying relationships, believing that they need to lower their standards in order to have a chance.
But according to research by economist David Anderson, undervaluing yourself also signals a lower ‘social value’ to potential dates, acting as a self-fulfilling prophecy. By contrast, boosting self-confidence and pursuing personal development so that you actually do have more to offer in a relationship, will project higher social value and give you the confidence and ability to pursue the relationship you want without settling for less.
However, there is a difference between knowing the core values important to you in a relationship and being uncompromisingly rigid about precisely what such a relationship should look like. Consider that the times have changed since you were last single.
This includes the way people meet, with internet dating offering many advantages to adults who may not have a large social circle of single acquaintances. But it also includes social norms and dating etiquette, as well as the increasing acceptance of alternative arrangements such as commuter marriages, unmarried cohabitation, or even open-relationships, which offer more options for those who have decided traditional marriage is not for them.
It’s up to you to determine how flexible or open-minded you can be, but it’s good to know what’s out there.
Just as there is no fixed number for ‘too soon’, there isn’t necessarily such a thing as ‘too late’ either. The silver lining to the high divorce rate is that there is a large pool of singles at any age – even in the retirement home – and the Internet makes them easier to find than ever.
And if you find your new life fulfilling enough without a partner, that is an option too – according to the New York Times, more and more people over 50 are deciding to stay single after divorce, either continuing to date casually or focusing more on other parts of their lives.
Ultimately, life after divorce is what you make of it. A good counselor can help you not only to deal with negative emotions about the past, but to approach the future with the clarity and self-confidence that you need to discover its opportunities for happiness.