Dating after Divorce

The rate of divorce in America remains high, leaving many adult men and women alone, available and wondering how to maneuver on the playing field. After years of being in a relationship, putting yourself back in the singles market can be a daunting endeavor. Here, David A. Anderson, Ph.D., offers advice gleaned from his own research and that of other experts to help you get back into dating mode.

After 19 years of waking up next to the same person, Yolanda*, a marketing consultant, suddenly found herself greeting mornings alone. Recently divorced, she was overwhelmed by the mere thought of dating again. Yolanda's self-esteem was so damaged by her tumultuous breakup that she worried about her ability to start a new relationship, not to mention her rusty dating skills. And the pool of single men looked more like a droplet compared with the ocean available to her during her younger years.

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Yolanda may have felt alone on the playing field, but she was far from it. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, approximately nine in 10 people will marry, but about one half of first marriages end in divorce. The number of women living alone has doubled to 14.6 million, and the number has nearly tripled for men, jumping from 3.5 million to 10.3 million.

With so many single adults out there, one might guess that there's also a lot of dating going on. Instead, it seems that the older we get, the less we date. In one study conducted at the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research, social psychologist Jerald G. Bachman, Ph.D., found that nearly 50 percent of 18-year-olds go out at least once a week, compared with only approximately 25 percent of 32-year-olds.

While it's true that some people simply choose not to date, others want to but don't know how to go about it or can't overcome their negative self-thoughts. So how can those who are struggling with these obstacles successfully and healthfully re-enter the dating arena? First, it's important to set appropriate personal standards. In particular, will you play hard to get or be an easy catch? I call the manifestation of these standards one's "social price." The more you have to offer in a relationship, the more you can expect in return, thus increasing your appropriate social price. Factors that help determine your social price include your ability to bring desirable traits such as inner strength, kindness, intelligence, and affection to a relationship.

Working with Shigeyuyki Hamori, an economist at Kobe University in Japan, I researched methods for estimating the qualities and contributions of marriage prospects. We hypothesized that singles seeking relationships assess unseen qualities in others based on social price as it is reflected in actions, body language, and verbal communication. We concluded that those exhibiting self-confident assertions of dating standards are perceived as holding relatively more promise as marriage partners. Conversely, those who appear insecure and desperate, call a love interest excessively or engage in sexual activity too soon, send signals that they hold inferior unseen traits.

So just as we tend to assume that expensive cars are better than similar, cheaper ones, we may also conclude that those demonstrating high social prices have unobserved qualities superior to those with lower social prices. But be wary: Overselling also occurs. For instance, individuals with a substantial income but little else to offer may exaggerate their social price. And as with any type of price misrepresentation, true quality eventually surfaces. In the dating market, this can translate into a broken relationship.

At the core, inaccurate social pricing is a by-product of low self-esteem and other negative self-emotions. "Fear absolutely devastates some people," says clinical psychologist Michael S. Broder, Ph.D., a former radio-talk-show host and author of The Art of Living Single. "It can be the fear of being hurt, rejected or involved, and it can stem from a history of having been hurt or of traumatic relationships. People can be very proficient in other parts of their lives, but the fear of dating can make them stay alone or pine for the relationship they left."

Others rebound or get involved in another relationship too soon. Their desperation usually stems from sadness, guilt, anger or anxiety about being alone. "You get this feeling that you're in the worst possible situation in your life," Broder explains. "Then you may do what you later consider desperate: a one-night stand, calling the ex or ignoring intuitive warnings and jumping into a bad relationship you would never choose if you weren't feeling reckless."

Fortunately, it is possible to avoid these and other pitfalls when seeking out a new partner. If you're ready to get back in the saddle again, here are five key tips to help you on your way.

  1. Develop A (New) Support Group

    It's natural to turn to old friends for support. They know and care about you, and they typically have your best interests in mind. But more often it's new friends who will better help you adjust to your new life. That's because friends shared with your ex often unwittingly take sides, and either alliance can prove a hindrance when introducing someone new into your life. Old friends may lack the proper interest or compassion, and they may even be jealous of your newfound freedom.

    "My divorce split our extended families and friends," says Yolanda of her and her ex-husband. "But my new friends had a fresh perspective that helped my self-esteem. Those who were single had confidence that was contagious; that really helped me when I started going out again as a single person. And sometimes they offered good advice."

    Do use discretion when listening to others' words of wisdom, advises Broder. "Solutions that worked for a friend may be a disaster for you. If you don't want advice, be assertive and let people know that advice giving is off-limits unless it's requested."

    For the most part, however, friendship is a vital ingredient in the recovery process. "Facing things alone can take a toll on you," says Broder. "Friends can help you see that dating doesn't have to be so serious."

  2. Assess Your Self-Worth

    People with low self-esteem tend to create relationships with others who evaluate them negatively, suggests one study on self-concept done by William B. Swann Jr., Ph.D., a University of Texas psychology professor. If you're suffering from a negative self-image, it's vital you take steps to create a positive, healthy self-concept.

    Begin by making a list of your positive qualities, then hang it in your home where you'll see it regularly, suggest Bruce Fisher, Ed.D., Robert Alberti, Ph.D., and Virginia M. Satir, M.A., in their book Rebuilding When Your Relationship Ends. Sharing your list with your support group and asking for honest feedback will help you to work on clearing up any discrepancies between your self-image and the real you. Broder also recommends making a list of new beliefs and affirmations that you'd like to incorporate into your thinking system. Read aloud these new self-concepts often, regardless of how you're feeling, to help solidify them in your mind.

    For Yolanda, a brief relationship five years after her divorce made her realize she had to adjust her mind-set. "I felt ashamed about all of the times I'd say yes when my answer was really no," she says now. "The consequences were painful, but I didn't believe I could completely change the pattern. Then I took the advice you hear about in 12-step programs and turned it over to God—my higher power. Moving forward and forgiving myself became easier."

    People who feel victimized after a breakup may do well to develop a bold—or even defiant—attitude. Psychologists at the University of Washington and Canada's University of Waterloo recently found that feelings of resignation and sadness make people with low self-esteem less motivated to improve their mood. "When you feel defiant you become excited, confident, and ready to take action," says Broder. "You take care of yourself, making it pretty clear that you are not going to be ruined by divorce. It's a very healthy thing to do."

  3. Plan Activities

    You won't find a new mate—or even a new friend—while sitting on the couch, your television on, curtains drawn. Consider your post-relationship time as an opportunity to do the things you couldn't do while you were with your ex. Create a list of 20 activities you would enjoy doing with a perfect partner, then give the list a second look. "Rarely do people have more than three or four things on their list that they cannot do if they're not in a relationship," says Broder. "Be active; don't feel like your whole life is on hold."

    Today's singles are finding luck—and love—in nonconventional ways. After her 17-year relationship ended, Lili*, a writer, re-entered the dating arena by joining a telephone dating service. Instead of meeting men for dinner, she invited them for daytime walks in a well-populated park. "They weren't dates; they were interviews," says Lili, who admits that taking the first step was difficult. "If I liked them, we went for coffee." Laura*, a financial adviser, also missed companionship after her 24-year marriage dissolved. "I don't sit with problems for very long," she says. "I knew what I wanted and went after it." Laura joined an online dating service and eventually met her soon-to-be second husband.

    Joseph Walther, Ph.D., an associate professor of communication, language, and literature at Troy, New York's Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, found that people who use Internet dating services such as Match.com may achieve more beginning-stage emotional intimacy than they do in face-to-face situations. Single surfers don't have to worry about common first-impression concerns such as bad-hair days and wrinkled clothes, Walther points out. Plus, they don't see body-language cues such as shrugging and smirking that can create barriers in communication. Currently, cyber researchers believe that as much as 33 percent of friendships formed online eventually advance to face-to-face meetings.

  4. Curb Unhealthy Cravings

    When we are in emotional pain, our feelings often don't coincide with our intellect and instead manifest themselves as cravings that can prove unhealthy and self-destructive. Cravings usually plague people who have zero tolerance for a single lifestyle and want to jump into a new relationship as soon as their breakup is final. Also susceptible are individuals with low self-evaluation who are convinced they can't make it alone. Fortunately, while such cravings may feel overwhelming and unavoidable, Broder asserts that they don't have to be.

    Take Julie*, a middle-aged student in Southern California whose need for immediate passion led her to make decisions despite intuitively knowing they were unwise. "I kept going out with men who did not have the potential for a long-term relationship," she confesses. "One had problems with his ex-wife, another wouldn't marry outside of his religion. After getting hurt many times, I finally decided to be more careful when choosing men. I'm still prone to my old behavior, but I'm more apt to say no to men who are a poor match for me."

    To short-circuit cravings, Broder suggests doing something that actively breaks the pattern and makes you approach the situation in a healthier way. Call someone in your support group, share your unwanted tendencies and ask that he or she invite you out when you fall into bad habits. And consider keeping a journal of the things that successfully distract you from your urges, such as renting a funny movie or going for a long walk, that you can turn to the next time cravings crop up.

  5. Prepare for Pitfalls

    Certain times of the year—holidays, anniversaries and birthdays, for instance—are harder to navigate than others because they are loaded with expectations and memories. After a separation or divorce, social configurations change, making feelings of loss and loneliness more intense. Perfectionists tend to struggle most during the holidays, according to Broder. High expectations lead them to dwell on favorite memories of their past and compare them with current situations.

    Garrett*, an optometrist in his 40s, remembers that his first Christmas alone was a tough one. "Weeks prior to the holidays were extremely difficult because the traditions were highly disrupted," he says. "Not being in my own home and not having a closeness with someone was difficult, and I felt very much afraid of not finding someone again."

    To cope, Garrett stuck close to his family. "You stitch together the connections that you have," he says. "It was piecemeal and patchwork, but it was critical for me. I also looked for other ways to divert my attention. I organized a staff party, participated in a musical and cooked at other people's homes."

    Garrett got it right, according to Sally Karioth, Ph.D., R.N., an associate nursing professor at Florida State University and an expert on stress, grief, and trauma. Karioth points again to planning as the key to reducing stress and meeting new people. Don't be afraid to ask for help organizing new activities, and break tasks into smaller chores to fend off feelings of being overwhelmed. Broder also suggests avoiding holiday comparisons and focusing instead on the enjoyable aspects of current and future ones. "You'll get through, and then you won't fear it anymore," says Broder. "It may not be the best of your life, but it may not be the horror you thought it would be."

    Ultimately, the best tip for re-entering the dating game is to explore various action strategies and choose those that are most comfortable for you. For some, getting into the right frame of mind before taking the leap is essential. For others, simply trying something new or even uncomfortable works. You know yourself best, so trust your inner wisdom. If you are ready to find new love, take heart: More than 40 percent of weddings in America are remarriages. But don't feel obligated to rush into another marriage, either—the U.S. Census Bureau reports that 60 percent of second marriages end in divorce. Now that you're single it's perfectly acceptable to remain so if that's what you prefer. As Broder says, "What you do with your life now is up to you."

*Names have been changed.

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