"Conscious Coupling:" The Secret of Successful Dating After Divorce

We've all heard about "conscious uncoupling" by now—the idea of separating amicably in order to preserve goodwill and/or avoid financial ruin.  But “conscious coupling” matters too—taking a more conscious approach to dating and re-mating, once you're finally through the split and ready to get back out there.  

"Consciously coupling" means knowing what you want out of dating, and connecting with those in the same frame of mind.  

Not everyone is looking for the same thing when it comes to dating after divorce, as I discovered when my husband and I split a decade ago.  Singles in the post-separation dating scene seem to divide themselves into two camps: 1) those who just want to have fun, and 2) those who want to recreate a new marriage, albeit with a better partner this time around. 

I was in the “good time” mode immediately after my split.  I’d go on a date, and when in a conscious frame of mind, try to gauge if a man had the time and inclination to have fun, whether he was done breeding, and if we had enough shared interests to make us compatible.  I took a 20 Questions approach to finding out by asking things such as: “What is your work schedule like? What do you do for fun?  Do you like to travel?  What sports do you like? Restaurants? Are you done having kids?”

Assuming we had compatibility and chemistry, we would date—until it ceased to be fun.  Then I’d start the exercise over again. Then again, after another six months, or nine months, or twelve months. 

Eventually, however, this “fun” approach to dating started to get old.

I began to want a deeper connection.  This required some serious soul-searching.  What kind of relationship was I looking for now, post-divorce? 

One thing I quickly realized was that I’d have to drop the notion of my “type.”

Having a “type” turned out to be too limiting when dating after divorce, many years older than I was the first time around. I also had to expand my geographical radius. The next “right” partner could easily live more than five miles away. He also might be more than five years older than I. 

Letting go of these superficial limitations turned out to be pretty easy.   Compromising on my core values, however, was impossible.  This is as it should be, says Shari Pfeffer Burns, a California-based licensed clinical social worker, psychotherapist and certified yoga trainer who specializes in helping people create a more mindful approach to dating. Here are her tips for “conscious re-coupling.”

Try these four steps for “conscious coupling.”

1.     Know thyself.

The first step to conscious coupling is a period of self-exploration.  “We need to look at our past patterns,” says Pfeffer Burns.  “What behaviors can we identify that we do not want to repeat, or see others exhibit?”  Ask yourself what you’ve done in the past that has sabotaged relationships, or attracted people with traits you really don’t want in your life now. Have you allowed others to mistreat you, or collected “birds with broken wings,” people you’re trying to “fix?”

2.     Visualize what romantic success looks like, now.

Once you identify old negative or unhealthy patterns, actively envision yourself in a different type of relationship, one that would manifest your greatest possibility for love.  Be aware that it may not be what you wanted the last time around.  Be honest about who you are now, what kind of intimacy or privacy you now need, what role kids play (if you have them) and how focused you are on work.  What kind of romantic partner is ideal, given the facts of your life now? What do you want to share with a partner?  Do you want to be a power couple? Is your dream to travel the world together?  Do you want to have a blended family, one that still includes involvement from your ex, if you have kids? “Try to form a vision without limits,” says Pfeffer Burns.  “See what that partnership would look like for you to be happy.  How would that love play out? Once you have this vision for what you want in a partnership, you can begin to articulate clear goals and set intentions for sharing a life with someone.”

Some people find it helpful to list the top five traits they want in a partner, and their top five deal-breakers (aka the list of “must haves” and “can’t stands”).

3.     Be honest about the person across the table.

When you meet someone and start to click, ask about her vision for her life and her ideal love. Really slow down and listen to how this other person describes her ideal partnership, how she answers questions about her past, where she is now, and her vision for the future.  Some therapists call this kind of close listening for values and desires “mapping.”  To do it properly, I found it important to ask a lot of follow-up questions instead of jumping to conclusions about what someone probably (or hopefully) meant.

To really hear what someone says—versus listening for what you want to hear—you have to show curiosity without passing judgment.      

You also have to listen for core values, and look to see whether a person’s past actions match his words.  Look at what he’s done in the past that demonstrates a commitment to shared values—or that doesn’t. Do you agree on the importance of family, work, religion, financial security and health?  Don’t assume that because you were both raised as Christians, for example, you’ll agree on the role religion will play in your lives. If you are of different faiths, you really need to ask whether the other person will feel comfortable with religious traditions you value, such as a Christmas tree or Easter egg hunt. 

Also, listen hard to how a person describes his relationship with his family, says Pfeffer Burns. Do they talk every day? Once a week? Once a month?  How often does he visit distant family?  Will this style work for you, with your vision of family?  You want to share values around boundaries and the level of involvement (or enmeshment) with those who aren’t part of your nuclear household.  The role of family can be extra complicated in divorce; ask how involved step-relations are, children from a prior marriage, and even ex-in-laws.   Then ask yourself if this is okay with you.

Don’t allow yourself to think you’ll change someone into wanting what you want, or valuing your values. Many of us are divorced because of exactly this kind of overly optimistic (or blindly stubborn) belief.

 We can't really change someone we like into desiring what we want.  This is the best way to set yourself up for disappointment, says Pfeffer Burns.

4.     Don’t compromise on your core.

Yes, I had to compromise on qualities such as age and geographical location, but compromising on the wrong things can lead to real unhappiness.  

Have the courage to be honest with yourself, and don’t try to compromise on a core value out of fear of loneliness or squeamishness about asking too many questions, and maybe getting answers you’d rather not hear.

Pfeffer Burns encourages her clients to pay attention to their gut feelings, and not ignore red flags.  If you think a potential partner is not a very good parent, and this bothers you, don’t brush aside your concern by assuming it doesn’t matter because these aren’t your kids.  Or, if you like someone who is clearly irresponsible with money, and you care about this, don’t think that keeping your finances separate will prevent this difference from festering. These issues will become issues in your life too if you stay together, and you will be living with them.

Many times over the past decade, I found myself frustrated by meeting someone who really had potential, yet didn’t want what I wanted in life.  Some were recently divorced and loathe to make a commitment.  Others had an unhealthy lifestyle that wasn’t right for my son; his well-being is a non-negotiable part of my package.  Even if we’d already spent a year together, I had to learn to walk away when I became conscious of these real differences, and dismiss the “sunken cost” theory.  I could not keep at it for fear of wasting the time, energy, or money I’d already invested in a relationship.  Once it became clear it wasn’t a fit, I had to cut my losses and move on.

Finding a date today is easier than ever, thanks to modern technology and free or inexpensive dating apps.  But it can take real patience and perseverance to meet someone you trust and respect, who shares your dreams and values, and who you connect with emotionally, physically and intellectually.  It can feel like a quest to find a unicorn.  But a mindful, “conscious” approach to dating can help you move on from the wrong choice more quickly, and avoid the unhappiness that comes with trying to make a match work where it shouldn’t.  


Regina A. DeMeo is a nationally recognized matrimonial attorney and legal commentator.  She promotes the use of mediation, alternative dispute resolution and integrative law skills to achieve optimal results in negotiated settlements for families in conflict.  For more than 17 years, she has helped families in the Washington, DC area respectfully resolve their disputes, using litigation tactics as a last resort.