Love: Dating Differently

Love: Dating Differently

Our previous dating strategies didn't necessarily work well for us. In other words, what got us here probably isn't going to get us to where we need to be. Healing from hurt caused in relationships happens best in relationships.

We need to make sure we're not projecting old patterns and our old hurts and wounds onto a new person. But for so many of us carrying around scars and wounds, sometimes those old wounds can cause us to be too reactive or too scared.

Sometimes those wounds are so deep and ingrained that we become desensitized to the old patterns we previously had in dating. And we repeat those same patterns.

So how can we do dating differently? How can we acknowledge what we've been through, and the mistakes we've made, and try to have a fresh perspective while we move forward in dating?

Not a “One Size Fits All” Approach

Because our listeners are in varying stages of dating we decided to have a roundtable discussion. Our participants Elizabeth, Amber, and Josh are all currently single parents in various stages of their dating while host Robert is married after being a solo parent for 8 and a half years.

Read below each participant's answers based on their own experiences to a series of some of our most-asked questions about dating after divorce.

How long did you wait until after the divorce to start dating?

Elizabeth: Less than a year at first. After a bad situation that lasted about three weeks, I took it off the plate for about another year. It was two years in before I really started.

Josh: The ink wasn't dry. I fell for someone that was exactly like my ex-wife. And after a few months, the same patterns popped up. I was not emotionally ready. I thought I was because I knew what I wanted and I thought I had found it, but it was just the honeymoon phase. And so when that wore off, I found I was not ready and then swore off dating for about a year. It was two and a half years before I dove back into dating.

Amber: I waited almost two years to the date and that felt appropriate. I had a lot of healing to do. I also had logistical things that were never going to make it easy for me to date until some of those things fell into place. I didn't share custody with my children's co-parent. And so the two years were necessary for practical reasons. And I knew I wasn't ready.

Robert: I jumped in. After the divorce was final, I wasn't planning on dating. I met someone who worked at Starbucks. We became friends and she was an old soul and a wonderful person but she was almost 20 years younger than me and so it turned into something that quelled my loneliness. At first, I didn't think anything of it, but then it was apparent she was interested in more. And so we dated off and on for about nine months.

It wasn’t that I told myself I wasn’t ready even though I wasn’t. It was me thinking about the deeper I get into this, the harder it's going to be to end it. I definitely wasn't in the place to promise her anything. I knew there was no chance this was going to be successful. I wasn't a teenager anymore. I wasn't dating just to see what would happen. I had kids and responsibilities. I got into it too soon. And then I waited. Ultimately, I didn't date again for about four more years after that.

How did you know when you were ready to date?

Josh: When I knew I could write down the values I was looking for in somebody. That was really important for me to be able to start dating intentionally. One thing my divorce put in the forefront is that I had not dated intentionally ever. I had not parented intentionally ever. We had kids when we were 24 and 25 years old. I was a kid. I didn't know what that meant. I went through a lot of therapy and did the work to understand what it was that I brought to the table that was negative, as far as my past relationships, and that I could see those patterns. Also, when I was looking for somebody I wanted to marry, I knew I was ready. The objective changed.

I did a lot of healing from my ex. There was this point I needed to practice healing even more from those things. I needed to get back out there to heal some of the bad patterns. When I first started dating, it was more about unlearning some of the bad patterns in the marriage mindset and moving too quickly. It's okay to be slow. It's okay to take your time.
It's okay to be looking and learning. It built a lot of trust in God for me, because the first thing I would pray when I was going on a date would be “Show me the red flags. Get me out of here as quickly as possible if I need to.” I relied on my counselor to help me learn what is a red flag because I had been emotionally abused by a narcissist for 12 years— it was hard to know what was real and what was not and what was right and what was wrong.

Amber: I knew when I could breathe and had time—that was just practical for me. I didn't have stability in my daily life to date prior to that. But emotionally, I knew I was ready and that I wasn't desperate. I felt filled up. I felt well-nourished by all the people in my life and the support of my community and God, and I felt more healed from my divorce. I knew what I wanted. I had a list of things I was looking for in a person I might consider being with for the rest of my life. And so I had done a lot of that work—gone through Divorce Care and was part of a recovery circle.
Robert: After the brief stint with casual dating I needed to sort my stuff out, and I felt like I don't want to do life alone for the rest of my life, but if I had to, I'm okay. There was also knowing what I wanted my life to look like. I wasn't just making a decision in the moment. I knew the direction I wanted to head with my life. 

How did you start dating? Traditional or online?

Josh: Online.

Amber: Traditional. It took me about a year and a half to try online dating.

Robert: A friend dared me to go online. I reluctantly went kicking into online dating. I felt it was a sign of failure if I had to resort to a digital connection. Now that I know what I know, I'm so glad I did.

Elizabeth: I have never been online. I met everyone I dated organically.

What has changed in what you look for in dating now that you've gone through a divorce?

Amber: There was a time when dating filled a lot of needs for me. It was self-centered and more momentary, like in the moment, this feels good. They're affirming me, whatever that might be. And as a single parent and looking ahead to the future, I didn't get to have that luxury anymore. I needed to think about: where is this going long-term? Is this person stable? Do they represent the kind of future I want to have? How will this impact my kids? So many things have changed. I also did a hard shift on the in-person versus online. I remember thinking that's fine for other people, but that's not for me. And interestingly enough, it's become this normal, accepted, and important way to meet people in our busy world. I've met more people online than in person now. I'm a big believer in online now. We do Solo Parent support groups online and I've seen amazing things happen. I know connection can happen online.

Josh: When I met my ex-wife, we were young and it was, you're pretty and we had fun together. That was it. There was no thought process. The biggest thing is becoming intentional about what the road looked like. How can I envision my life and how can I find somebody that fits that vision?
Robert: We dated for three months and it was a roller coaster. I was so impulsive and she was cute and funny. And I thought we were compatible. This will be fun, a fun life. We got engaged and got married. At first, after the divorce honestly, I was scared. It changed everything about what I looked for. I didn't know at first what I was looking for. And I think that's okay, to not know because it evolves.

What are your views on casual dating?

Elizabeth: That’s what I did honestly at the beginning and my counselor encouraged me to do it, to get the reps, to get practice, to get to know people and not go into it with a marriage mentality, so I could see what was out there.

Josh: I agree it's totally fine, but you have to be honest with yourself. If you're not honest with where you're at and you casually date, but you're actually going into it with the mindset that I'm going to marry this person, then it's not going to work. And the second caveat to that is you have to be upfront and honest with the other person on the other side of things. Because if the other person is not trying to casually date and you are, they're going to pick up signals the wrong way.
Setting yourself some boundaries with how quickly you respond to text or if it's the same day or the next day or whatever, there are some boundaries that you need to set with yourself. I think it's totally fine if that's the stage of life that you're in.

Amber: I think it is okay to casually date, and it can be super informative. It can reveal patterns in you that you're now aware of because you tried something out and that sparks something in me. I need to pay attention to that. And then refining your list of what you like and don't like. You need to experience things to identify whether that really is something you want more of or not. My little mantra in my head is, I can casually date and go into this for fun or just to explore as long as I'm honest and I keep my values and boundaries intact. If I'm going into it where I can stay grounded in who I am and what's important to me, then it's okay.

How about meeting the kids and introducing the kids?

Josh: It all depends, right? Each situation for me was different. It depended on what stage in life my kids were in. When I got divorced, my kids were six and eight. So that's a much different stage than where they are now at 15 and 17.

If there was a situation, if I knew there was a future, then I would start to bring them around. I was a little different with my kids, I told my kids when I went out on dates, and I got my daughter's advice on my outfits. I was open with them about my dating life.

I would tell them how dates went and if there was going to be a second date, and after a couple of dates, I would stop talking about it unless they asked. But I wanted them to know that I was dating and especially my daughter, but my son also, my example of how I date and how I treat relationships is what they're gonna take when they get older. I found a lot of value in being open with them. But only in 10 years of dating have there been three women that have met my kids.

The lesson of that, of involving them is my daughter is now 15 years old and she gets in the car after school with me and goes in-depth about the boy she likes. The conversations she's had with him. I need to praise this parenting win. She recently had a boy she was crushing on, and I guess they called each other boyfriend and girlfriend. And so she gets in the car after school and she says, daddy, I broke up with him. And I said, oh, okay, why, what was going on? And she said— she's 15—she said he didn't add any value to her life.

Robert: I was very guarded with my kids. I didn't even tell them I didn't go out on many dates, so maybe that's why, but when I did, I didn't. They didn't know I was very guarded. But I can see some value in what Josh said because they're actually going to date at some point. And if they're looking at the way you're processing and, and evaluating things, I don't think that's a bad thing. I think that's different than bringing them around.

Amber: I waited a long time. I was super cautious with that for a lot of reasons—my kids' developmental ages and stages and some of their own fears and hurts around men. And so I was very cautious, but I have to be honest, I might do that differently. I might have involved them a little bit more in the process. Maybe they wouldn't have met the person. Or people I was dating but there would've been a benefit if I had gone to them more openly and honestly and said, this is something I'm doing, this is how I'm doing it. I want you to be involved. So they would've felt more included and not as afraid. Their anxiety about my dating caused a lot of issues for me. I would do that differently now.
How has dating helped you realize areas of needed growth and healing that maybe you couldn't have learned another way?

Amber: Dating can be very revealing and very refining. Not only are you looking at what you want in another person, but some of my responses informed me about things I didn't like seeing in me. My history with divorce was built on a lot of insecurity about men and trust. And so having to enter back into a relationship really showed me that certain things would trigger me or make me really uncomfortable. And that prompted me to say, that's something for you to look at. I don't love admitting this, but I also recognize that when I would get fearful, I would get critical. And I did not like looking at that part of my fear response and how that could come across as kind of abrasive at times. And I don't like to think of myself with that word at all, and I'm hoping most people wouldn't describe me that way, but I felt it in myself where I would think, “Ooh, that's that part of you that's activated and you're kind of going in like a bulldog back off Amber, slow down, you're anxious.” It was about trust and navigating. And so dating has helped me recognize places I need to grow. Not just turning the spotlight on someone else, but let me look at the things I still need to heal and grow.

Elizabeth: It has been really hard but really good. And yes, the anxiety piece rings true for me. All the relationship therapists say that relationships will bring out your old wounds, and your childhood. It will shine a spotlight on the things that need healing the most.

Honestly, even being in that place is really scary too. So give yourself grace there because you were programmed and wired through childhood, through your marriage, through all the things to believe certain things about yourself, believe certain things about other people. I think the big areas of growth that I needed, I can remember when my ex told me he wanted a divorce. I tied that rejection so much to my self-worth and to what I deserved and who I was. I was down in the dumps. I thought I didn't deserve anything. And of course, at that point, I had not processed all my childhood trauma. There were a lot of things that I hadn't even touched on yet because I didn't know that they were having such an effect on me.

I can sit here today five years later and say, I am so worthy of somebody showing up for me.  I'm so worthy.  I know what I deserve and that is not based on what anybody else can say or do. And I think that dating really helped shine a light on where the deficits were in that. And then also pulled me into the mindset of being able to say it. And to be honest, if you had asked me two months ago if I thought that that was true, I don't know if I would've been able to say it—I would want to say it—but in a counseling session recently, I looked at my counselor and I said I know this down deep. It's so important to really lean into those places of growth and don't look at it as if I need to run for the hills. Something doesn't feel right because I'm uncomfortable. No. It's in the discomfort. It's in the pulling and the dragging those nasty things out and having someone safe that still accepts you and loves you regardless that it's gonna grow you and it's gonna heal you. And as hard as it is, it's so good.

Robert: It's so good because like we said at the beginning our perspective on relationships heals in relationship. There’s no substitute for finding someone that is able to walk through healing with you. It's hard to learn relational dynamics in a vacuum. You need to get your reps in; it's forming new habits and new ways to interact with each other and that kind of thing.

: And I'll say for me at least, especially with the trauma, with all the things, there's so much that I don't think that I could have learned on my own. I needed someone else there with me. In order to rebuild. And as much as I self-sabotage, as much as I live in anxiety, and as much as I push people away and I'm guarded I absolutely know that I couldn't have done it without someone else.

What is one thing you've done differently in dating that has been beneficial or helpful?

Robert: When I got married before, I didn't understand my need for God as much as I did when everything fell apart. And so going through this is a part of the last question as well as this question. I have learned so much about God in relation to how He feels about me that when I looked at dating again, that was a major component, not like does the person I'm interested in dating go to church three times a week or check all the boxes and have a quiet time every day— not the performance stuff, but do they have an understanding of the God that I've come to know?
That's been very helpful.

And I don't mean if they're not exactly in the same place, then you should just disregard that. But if faith in God is an anchor point, is a foundational point to your life, as it became for me—I was a Christian when I got married before—but never to the extent of feeling the intimacy of God or the understanding of God's love for me. Never to that degree. And so that became a very helpful kind of barometer as I looked at dating. For example, the other person doesn't have to be exactly in the same spot, but are they seeking something?

Josh: The one reason I started with online dating is that I wanted to do things differently. I realized my pattern was being attracted to the same type of person. Not a look, but an attitude, a mentality, a mental health, a state. So with online dating, my thing was to get outside my box and date people from different races, date people that look different than me, that look different than I’ve normally dated. And that was what I did. And I went out with some unbelievably interesting people that really shined a light on things that I needed to work on and also, showed me what I did and didn't want a little bit. And it helped me become more well-rounded as a human. And some of these people I am really good friends with to this day. And we didn't have but maybe a date or two. The thing I did differently was I got outside my box and tried to figure out what my type was in the past, and I switched that up.

Amber: I think one thing has been you are here to be open-minded in dating, but actually for me, while allowing myself to be outside the box and not go for a type, I really made a list of what I am looking for. What do I need? What do I want? And I became very clear about what those things were and just continued to refine that by dating casually and keeping my values and boundaries intact. And as that list got more and more narrow, and likely you might expect, at my age, I have a really good idea of what works for me, what's good for me, and what I can bring to someone else. And so refining what I want and need and being really clear on that. And in some ways, being pretty narrow in my focus has been beneficial. It weeds out a lot of trouble and a lot of distractions and a lot of unnecessary heartache and complications, pretty quickly.

Elizabeth: Bringing God into the scenario and really being prayerful about every single step and every single move. I remember vividly a number of times saying the prayer, show me the red flags. Show me what's good. Show me what's wrong. Do you want this for me? Is this right? If not, get me out of here. And sometimes that would be a date, and sometimes that would be a month. But it was definitely refining my faith in knowing that I have someone looking out for me. I have someone that's in with me and has my best interest in mind. And also bringing other people into it, my counselor and other people; we can get so caught up in our old patterns and the way we think about things that it's hard to see outside the box.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

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