I've never really dated. While my peers were accumulating the skills necessary to navigate single adulthood, I was in a committed relationship to my high school sweetheart. I didn't have to deal with rejection.
Sure, I had a small taste of that burning feeling at the back of your neck (like you might throw-up), when the guy you called your boyfriend for three days in middle school told you on the blacktop between classes that he didn't want to lose you as a friend.
And I tried out those tricks in teen magazines – from drinking a glass of milk and turning around seven times while saying your crush's name, to wearing the right kind of low-cut shirt to get the popular boys to look at me.
However, these adolescent life passages aside, I never had to deal with jealousy or other people's baggage because, after five years of dating and five years of marriage, I was my ex-husband's baggage and he was mine.
So here I am, almost 28, and I've managed to make a fool of myself in a matter of months. My life has not been easy by any means but, until now, I was protected in cocoon of acceptance and love. I never had to ask if being an amputee made me sexually unattractive, because I had a stable relationship.
I never worried about dying alone because he had already spent months beside my hospital bed. Then, I became healthy for the longest period in my adult life and had to finally ask what I really wanted. What had been safe turned out to be suffocating for both of us.
I used to think of myself as a sane, loving, spiritual person. Then, I plunged into the dating world. Probably way too soon. I've been trying to fill the huge absence in my life immediately so I don't have to acknowledge it or feel it.
Now, I'm shocked to find how quickly being single brings out some harsh moments of self-discovery.
I used to give my friends such logical relationship advice, which I would probably laugh at now. In new relationships, I'm discovering I can be too intensely emotional right up front without holding anything back.
And when I look around and find myself too raw and vulnerable, I get mean. I come from a family with a gift for scathing sarcasm. I find myself reaching for it, using it as my weapon of choice, when I feel embarrassed, hurt, and pathetic.
Even after working with young adults, I've made every mistake that I know logically even they shouldn't be making.
I could hear the cliches in my head: love yourself first, keep your options open, sex is not love, love will find you when you aren't looking for it, treat people the way you want to be treated, be authentic but protect your heart – yet still I went right ahead and acted from a desperate, confused place.
I won't give you the details of my painful, pathetic exploits. Let's just say that my mom still refers to my most recent relationship as the Train Wreck and that I am still trying to make arrive at my desired destination.
When you are standing outside a club at 2:30am next to someone else's vomit and waiting for someone to pick you up on his way home from a strip club, you begin to wonder where you took a wrong turn.
My dad, stoic Marine that he is, gave me two pieces of sound advice. The first was “it sounds like most of your problems are self-created.”
The second was that I didn't even know what I was looking for and I should probably make a list of qualities I wanted in a partner. These pieces of advice made me laugh because my dad loathes self-help books, women's magazines, and any form of pop psychobabble.
It took me several more months to consider his advice. But, before I could get out my glitter pens, scissors, and magazines to start piecing together the vision board of my ideal date, the thought occurred to me that I was not datable.
I was a bit of a needy, demanding, pathetic mess and not in a comically-lovable-Bridget-Jones-kind-of way. Losing the cocoon of my marriage also meant losing a big chunk of my identity and the armor of perfection I spent ten years trying to create.
I never had to be myself with anyone besides my husband and family. Without that relationship, I was just me. And who the heck was gone want that?
Needless to say, I didn't need anymore fantasy. I didn't need anymore list or cut outs of flowers, of chocolates, and of dinners on the beach. I needed some real soul-searching as to why I felt the need to hide behind a barrier of being a “good girl” for so many years.
I hadn't been taking new relationships slowly because, secretly, I already believed they had a short shelf life. I didn't believe I had another shot at a long-term, healthy partnership. Honestly, I felt like I didn't deserve a second chance.
And part of me still wanted to pick up right where I left of and start planning a family. I wanted someone to just step into the role that had been left vacant. I didn't want to start at square one: self-love.
“We seek the love we think we deserve,” a wise friend recently quoted to me. And yet, I was secretly hoping for different, positive outcomes from what I already knew was negative behavior. I ended up apologizing a lot but, as Dr. Stephen Covey said, "You can't talk yourself out of situations you behaved yourself into."
So, I sat down and started at the beginning. I tried to think beyond the list I'd typically be tempted to make, with rules like "must have a sense-of-humor" and "must-love-dogs."
And then, I vowed to start the process of becoming this kind of person. As of now, I know I am not ready to measure up. The affirmations notecard in my wallet reminds me to be patient: with the process, with myself, and with life, which blesses me with changes and the opportunity to begin again.
Qualities I Want in the Person I Date, which I Will Begin Manifesting in Myself:
1. Takes excellent care of his body. (This means no drugs, addictions, or unsafe practices.)
2. Great relationship with family and friends. Treats all people with respect.
3. Integrity and responsibility: they do what they say and don't blame others. They are solution-oriented instead of problem-oriented.
4. Secure in themselves. A good idea of who they are and what they want. They don't have to chase after others' attention or cheap thrills. They don't have to brag or be arrogant either. They resist the urge to make others jealous.
5. Open and giving. Able to give compliments and tell people how they feel. Not self-centered.
6. Over their exs and can be mature enough to be alone.
7. Has had solid relationships in the past and understands you can have loved and still needed a change. Someone who has forgiven their past and can forgive mine.
8. Someone with passion and drive who also gets excited about my passions.
9. A joyful person, with a moral compass, who radiates genuine well-being and positivity.
10. Brave enough to be vulnerable.