When you’re stuck in a lifeless marriage, dating can sound enticing, thrilling, like a rousing carousel of non-commitment. None of the old problems will exist in a new relationship, you think. All those interesting, attractive people who were single before you married are probably waiting around, eager to go out with the newly-single you—not to mention the eligible strangers online.
Some people love dating after divorce. It can be a great way to meet new people, learn about new places and see yourself positively in someone else’s eyes. But many people can't bear the thought of it.
A lack of desire to get back out there does not indicate a permanent, bad-marriage-induced lack of passion, but rather a natural and even healthy response. Some people want time to process their marriage, to figure out what the @#$% just happened here?! Others want to prove to themselves that they can make it on their own. Some parents I met said they were too focused on their children to make space for someone new right away.
For many of us, the issue is one of attachment. We've been dedicated to the wellbeing of this other person for years or even decades. Attachment is an emotional and physical reality. It maps itself on the brain, and can take a while to lift.
Biological anthropologist and legendary love scholar Helen Fisher describes love not as a feeling, but rather as three basic brain systems that evolved to help us seek partners, narrow our focus to one, and stay together to raise babies.
- Part One of love is lust or craving for sex, which you can feel, obviously, for many people, sometimes simultaneously, perhaps all at the same party.
- Part Two is attraction, that obsessive thinking about one specific person, which evolved to help us choose one mate from the crowd.
- Part Three is attachment, the feeling of deep union with a long-term partner. As Fisher says in her totally absorbing series of webisodes on love, “Attachment evolved to enable you to stick with this person at least long enough to raise a child together as a team.” Even if you’re thrilled to be out of your marriage, that very real and vital attachment doesn't disappear the minute your spouse moves out of the house.
Experts and many successfully remarried people extol the benefits of taking a break between divorce and dating, certainly between divorce and the next big relationship. I’ve definitely met people who jumped right from one marriage into their next relationship successfully.
But if you’re not ready to date, there can be benefits to taking a break. Here are three:
1. Taking a break lets you adjust to being alone.
This may translate into more patience about when your next relationship happens, and how quickly it progresses. Dating coach Evan Marc Katz, a self-described "personal trainer of love," worries that people marry too fast, “under the influence of love,” then turn around three years later and discover that the relationship doesn’t really work. “There’s no harm in slowing down,” he says. “You hear forty, fifty, sixty-year-old women saying, ‘I don’t have time.’ Unless you have a biological clock ticking, you have all the time in the world.
2. Taking time can let residual negativity lift.
Many of us leave marriage with a sack of negativity on our back, which can warp our view and compromise our judgment. We may over-focus on what we don’t want, and over-value its apparent opposite. If you take a break, the next person you fall for has a better chance of looking less like the opposite of your ex and more like someone who’s right for you now.
3. Taking a break can let your divorce settle, and disagreements resolve.
Fighting with an ex can destroy new relationships, as Washington D.C.-based clinical psychologist Barry McCarthy says. “So much of the energy is going toward the anger and frustration with the first spouse.” Taking time to work through lingering problems and to establish a calm, cooperative, respectful interaction (particularly if you have children) is one of the best ways to protect your next big romance.
Not everyone needs a buffer period. If you gleefully date everyone in your zip code, or fall madly in love with the perfect person right after your spouse moves out, I envy you and wish you luck. But if you don’t, recognize your hesitance as a healthy reaction to the reality of long-term commitment, and a step that will likely serve you well when you do fall in love again.
* This post originally appeared on Wendy Paris's website, Wendyparis.com.
Wendy Paris is the author of Splitopia: Dispatches from Today's Good Divorce and How to Part Well (Simon & Schuster/Atria, 2016). Splitopia and her work on divorce have been covered by The New York Times, Real Simple, The Washington Post, The New York Post, The Globe & Mail, Psychology Today, The Houston Chronicle, Salon.com, Parents.com, Family Law Quarterly, PsychCentral.com and radio and TV shows nationwide. She has an MFA in creative nonfiction writing from Columbia University, and is an advocate for family law reform. She is divorced, and lives in Santa Monica, California, a few blocks from her former husband, with whom she has a warm co-parenting relationship.