In my 18 years in my divorce mediation practice I have gained insight into how dating during our divorce mediation program changes the dynamics for the worse. The introduction of that new relationship seems to pour gas on the emotional fires making it much more difficult to resolve their legal/financial differences in our divorce mediation program so they can move on. Since those fires already burn much hotter for those who hire separate litigation attorneys to “fight” their way through the courts, I can only imagine how much additional time, money and stress is created.
Recently in our Newtown, PA office, we had a couple who came in on a fairly amicable and trusting basis. When one of the parties began dating and the other party found out, the dynamics changed for the worse and every step was more difficult for all concerned. Eventually, they successfully completed their divorce mediation program but were not able to return to their prior amicable relationship.
This experience made we wonder how dating relationships are impacted when one or both parties are going through divorce. I asked the best expert I know, Gayle Crist, M.S., who coaches individuals in Doylestown, Newtown and our other Bucks County area offices. Here are her responses to my questions:
What are your thoughts about people dating before their divorce is complete?
I dated after about 3 months of physical separation, though my husband and I had been emotionally separated and living separate lives for about a year. At that point, however, I was still not really over the feelings of resentment and hurt I had experienced at the end of the marriage. So, I didn’t realize that I was still pretty needy and vulnerable emotionally, which quickly derailed the first couple of relationships I had with new men. I learned the hard way that it’s not wise to date if you’ve only been separated a short time. I now counsel my clients in this situation who are thinking of dating to consider only going out to hobby and singles events to have fun, not to look for dates. It’s a good time to practice talking to the opposite sex again and getting comfortable meeting new people, especially if it’s been decades since they dated before their marriage. But it’s not a good idea to go out to find someone to try to help them forget their spouse. I tell them how important it is the PREPARE for dating again by addressing their own “baggage” (how they contributed to the breakup of their marriage), with the goal of getting to a healthy, happy place in their lives—which means making sure all their “ducks are in a row” with house, kids, job, etc. Only then will they feel good about themselves and their lives, see themselves as a “great catch,” and have the time and energy to focus on searching for dating prospects. Also, if they’re emotionally and psychologically grounded and centered again, they won’t NEED someone to date to complete their lives, but, instead, a new person will be the “cherry on top” of their wonderful life. I often recommend they read and do the exercises in a book called Spiritual Divorce: Divorce as a catalyst for an extraordinary life by Debbie Ford.
For those who want to date online, I suggest listing their status on their profile as “separated” and only contacting other separated people, so that both people are in the transition phase, looking for companionship rather than long-term commitment. This helps them start off slowly, as friends, and discourages either party from getting “serious,” thus preventing possible heartache down the road. In general, I tell all separated/not-yet-divorced clients to wait if they can and to use the time while the divorce is proceeding to get to know themselves again and what they enjoy doing, to create a happy life without a partner—to get involved in things that are fun and enriching for them as they embark on a new chapter of their lives. I strongly recommend they give themselves permission to heal from the relationship that just ended (and to get therapy if necessary, especially for self-esteem issues), so they won’t wind up attracting the same type of partner again and grappling with the same issues that they didn’t resolve with their spouse.
Are prospective dating partners generally open to dating someone who is going through divorce?
Most female prospective dating partners who are already divorced themselves are definitely NOT open to dating men who are separated/still married. They know that such men are totally not ready for any kind of long-term relationship and are often more interested in “playing the field” and/or having some sexual adventures. On the other hand, I’ve found that my divorced male clients are fine with dating women who aren’t yet officially divorced. I think this is because they often don’t realize or understand how important it is to heal from the last relationship before getting into a new one. I think they also assume that a woman who’s experienced months or years of the end of a marriage might be open to those aforementioned sexual adventures. Experience has also shown me that men who have been left by their wives often rush out to meet someone new in order to get over the hurt of being rejected. They don’t realize they have unresolved anger or sadness and would be wise to get a therapist’s help before going back out there. Lots of men, though, are reluctant to reach out for help, thinking they can handle such matters on their own and/or wanting to “be strong” and not leaning on others.
However, I don’t like to generalize or stereotype men vs. women, so I should also say that people of both genders are sometimes wise enough to know that a person going through divorce might have too much “drama” in their lives, too many things they’re juggling, and not enough time or energy to devote attention to them as a new date. And they also are cautious because they don’t want to get emotionally involved with someone who still has a partner in the background or his or her life or who might not be over that person. So, overall, people going through divorce usually have a harder time finding people open to dating them. The first questions most prospects will ask when meeting them is “How imminent is your divorce?” If it’s not expected to be final in the next month or so, they’ll usually steer clear.
Do relationships that begin before or during a divorce often succeed long term?
I’ve known a few people whose relationships that started before or during a divorce succeeded. But, in my opinion and experience, this is pretty rare. It’s a rocky way to start, and, in my experience, the majority of couples don’t have a strong enough bond (with trust, love, and acceptance) to ride it out. I had a long-term relationship that started 4 months before my divorce was final, and, though, we wound up getting engaged 6 months after the divorce was official, I broke that engagement soon after. I realized that I was more “in lust” with the person than in love and that we were incompatible for long-term togetherness in several important ways. It just felt so good to be cared for and to get attention from a devoted new partner that I thought I was in love with and compatible with him…when nothing could be further from the truth. Luckily, my intuition and my friends and family helped me see the light before I made a terrible mistake. In short, the chances of long-term relationship success are far better for two emotionally healthy, happy people who’ve been divorced about the same amount of time (a year or more is my recommendation) than they are for two emotionally damaged and/or codependent people who rush into something before they’ve resolved the past and created a stable, happy present.
For more information about Gayle Crist, M.S., who coaches in our Newtown PA office, go to: www.healthylifeplanning.com for life coaching during the divorce transition and to design a single life, or www.datingsuccesscoaching.com for those ready to date after healing from their divorce. Please contact us with any questions about our divorce mediation services.