Dating after a recent break-up. It can be a scary proposition. As a professional counselor, I’ve had hundreds of conversations with clients about how scared they are to date again after a breakup or a divorce. Most people want to find love again. They want the intimacy, romance, and companionship of a healthy long-term relationship. But they’re scared to death of getting hurt again. Today I want to give you some tips that will help you overcome some of the most common problems people have after a bad breakup.
To help you understand what those steps might look like, let me tell you about my friend Jim.
Meet Jim, a Great Guy Who Struggled to Date Again. Jim’ is a great guy. He’s a police officer and is one of the nicest, most upstanding people you’ll ever meet. He’s also a heck of a nice-looking guy. You’d think after Jim’s recent divorce from his wife, that given his good looks, charm and solid career, he’d have no problem moving into a long-term relationship, when he was ready.
But it wasn’t easy for Jim. Two years later, he came to my counseling office lamenting about his angst at not finding a new relationship after the end of his marriage. It wasn’t that he couldn’t get a date. He had gone through a number of short-term relationships – everything from one-night dates to a four-month relationship. The trouble was, his relationships didn’t last. Every single one fizzled out within a few weeks or months. And he just couldn’t figure out why.
Old Wounds: Why Jim’s Marriage Had Fallen Apart
I asked him about two things in particular. First, I asked him to describe what was happening in the short-term relationships he was in – what was happening that got him to decide to stop dating each person. He described, over and over again, how each potential partner began to impose her needs on him. And how he slowly found himself squeezed out, as if it was no longer room for him to exist in each relationship, even just three or four months into dating. I then asked him to talk to me about his previous marriage, his ex-wife, and how their relationship ended.
He explained that his ex had been very controlling. She demanded that he meet her needs above all other things. And if he ever had an opinion of that differed from hers, she was quick to critique him and tell him he was in the wrong. Over time, he began to feel that there was no room for him to do anything in his life but be compliant with his wife.
He couldn’t be with his kids without feeling critiqued by his wife, he certainly couldn’t drive without hearing a mouthful about better and safer driving habits, and sometimes he couldn’t even go to the bathroom without his wife telling him how she wanted that job done.
Eventually – ten years and two kids later – when she refused to go to counseling because she believed a counselor would impose his will on her relationship, Jim gave up on the relationship.
How His Divorce Affected His Current Dating Experiences
Jim didn’t realize it, but he was projecting his experience with his ex-wife onto all his current dating relationships, and he was playing this unfinished business out relationally with every woman he dated.
You see, almost as soon as one of Jim’s dating partners began to express her needs to him, Jim immediately jumped to the conclusion that the new woman was insisting that her needs were more important than his, and that there was no room for him in the relationship. Understandably, with this in his mind, Jim quickly retreated and ended each relationship. Jim reasoned the last thing he needed was a repeat performance of the 10 year marriage that was both agonizing and ultimately disappointing.
As Jim and I continued to work together, he began to understand the cycle he’d trapped himself in: meet somebody new, get excited, eventually get scared whenever this someone new acted in a way that was similar to his ex-wife, retreat from that relationship, get lonely, and start this dating cycle again. It was his old marriage in cliff notes, over and over again.
How Jim Found a Way Forward
Jim and I worked together to support his growth in two ways.
First, when Jim dated someone, and her communication triggered the old feelings from his marriage I encouraged Jim to bring up the issue with his new dating partner.
Instead of deciding it was hopeless, that this was just his marriage over again, Jim reached out and into the dialogue about what he was feeling and needing in the relationship. He hung in there with the conversation, seeking to discover if there was room for his needs and her needs. And in most cases, the answer was yes, there was plenty of room for his needs, as well as hers.
Now, he could discover what this relationship really offered, instead of deciding without ever communicating.
Second, I also encouraged Jim to do his own work with the unfinished emotional business of his marriage. There was still a lot of unresolved anger, deep sorrow, and grief over so much time lost in a relationship that was very painful. As Jim worked through his feelings in my office, he was better able to stop projecting those feelings onto his partner.
How You Can Move Forward from Breakups
Most everyone has had experienced heartbreak at some point in their lives. If you find yourself having trouble moving forward from a past relationships, here are two things I suggest you try right away:
1. When you’re beginning a new relationship, and it begins to remind you of your old negative relationship, stop yourself and notice the pattern.
When you start to feel these old wounds, don’t simply retreat from that relationship. Instead, hang in there. Make it your mission to discover if what you’re feeling is justified, or if you’re just reliving the pain from old wounds and old relationships. Invite a dialogue with the other person in which you share your feelings and needs in a thoughtful, empathic way, and ask them to join you in resolving the issue together. That’s how new relationships are built.
2. Be aware of the unresolved feelings that might still carry over from your previous relationship. Take the time to do your own work to resolve those feelings. Try buying a workbook at a local bookstore, joining a men’s or women’s group where you can talk through your feelings, coming to see a therapist such as myself, or finding help online in an ethical chat room designed for people who are coming out of a divorce or long-term relationship.
In short, find outlets where you feel safe expressing all of what you feel about your previous relationship or marriage. That way, you won’t bring your feelings from your old marriage into your new relationship.
I know new relationships can be hard, and every relationship bounces between pleasure and effort. We just don’t want you having to do all the unfinished work of your old marriage in your new relationship. That’s too much work for one relationship to handle. – By Carl Nassar
Carl Nassar is a professional counselor and director of Heart-Centered Counseling in Ft Collins, CO. Once a university engineering professor, Carl is now an author, speaker, and therapist with a heart for helping. Get in touch with him at carlscounseling.com.