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Harry K Wexler

Harry K Wexler Ph.D.

Dating Your Ex-Spouse: Proceed with Caution and Hope

Is there hope for dating an ex-spouse?

My previous blog ("Should You Date Your Ex-Spouse?" dated 1/17/11) made the audacious proposal for considering dating an ex-spouse, since the likelihood of strong, positive feelings when getting married could create a positive basis for a renewed relationship, if both parties have matured and stopped blaming each other.

Dating an ex-spouse should not be simply a response to loneliness, a matter of convenience, and/or lack of alternatives. Deciding to take such an unconventional step needs to be done carefully since there are many ramifications for children and friends. You wouldn't want to get children's hopes up, and your choice can confuse friends who have accepted your accounts of the divorce that typically frame the ex-spouse in a less-than-positive light.

Basic requirements for ex-spousal dating exploration include a significant duration between divorce and dating, a strong belief in change, and considerable courage to go back into a potentially stressful relationship with "old baggage" that may trigger unresolved bad feelings, no matter how good one's intentions. Between divorcing and deciding to date, a highly important personal development needs to occur—what psychologists call "separation and individuation."

This maturational process resembles what children go through as they separate from their parents and take responsibility for their lives. Prior to healthy separation, teenagers often blame their parents for their unhappiness, feel like victims, and angrily cite their parents' shortcomings (e.g., "They're too self-centered," or "They don't understand me") as causes for their problems. Doesn't this sound uncomfortably similar to the fighting of marital partners as they are breaking up?

Negative Relationship Patterns

Negative relationship patterns are the reoccurring interactions that form the basis of ongoing complaints. The complaint is often stated in extremes and absolutes, such as: "You're too cheap," or "You always waste money," or "You always need to be in control," or "Things always have to be your way." The complaints are partially based upon actual behaviors, but usually include heavy dosages of anger, disappointment, frustration, and a sense of hopelessness as divorce looms on the horizon.

All relationships include positive and negative feelings about one's partner, but when the negative relationship patterns accumulate and overwhelm positive feelings, divorce is a common outcome. Some say that the old marriage is like a black hole with its powerful gravitational pull that sucks all into its center, including light. Metaphorically, if there is to be hope (i.e., light) for ex-spouse dating, participants must find ways to break negative relationship patterns and open up new ways of communicating.

Hopeful Story

Couples who have tried dating their ex-spouse report common challenges and kinds of behaviors that either lend encouragement or indicate that a truly changed relationship is out of reach. Here's a hopeful story about a couple who had a long-standing fight when they were married. The woman would tell rather long, involved stories as she presented her "anxious case" about a relational problem. The man would feel tense, because it was hard to keep track after hearing the first few points (especially when "under the gun"), and would invariably interrupt, leading her to accuse him of being disrespectful and never letting her finish.

After a divorce and almost 10 years of living apart, they met to discuss a few child-rearing issues, and sure enough, the stereotypic communication fight commenced. This time, however, when accused of being disrespectful for interrupting, the ex-husband responded by acknowledging the ex-wife. He was able to say that her first few points were so important that he needed time to consider and respond to them so that he could better appreciate her other important points.

She was visibly moved and felt affirmed (instead of disrespected), was receptive to his request for time to process her initial points, and was able to listen. With the old, negative pattern broken, the couple was able to engage in a meaningful conversation that introduced hope that "things" could change and opened the door to their consideration of dating.

Ex-spouse dating explorations face a series of negative relationship pattern "tests" that provide opportunities to create new, healthy interactions or to be drawn back into the negative patterns alleviated by the divorce. Upcoming blogs will discuss action strategies to help those interested in dating their ex-spouse, and others generally caught in negative relationship patterns with a significant other, to navigate the difficult passage.


About the Author

Harry K Wexler

Harry K. Wexler, Ph.D. is a research and clinical psychologist and the director of the Center for Aging Sexuality and Meaning in New York City and Laguna Beach.