While I had been in love during my teenage years, my now ex-husband was my first adult relationship. I had gotten engaged to him at 20 and married him at 21 (while still a junior in college), so I had a lot to learn about dating — and perhaps more importantly about myself — after I got divorced.
Upon first entering the dating scene after my divorce, I initially felt an urgency to find a replacement, an "upgrade" to my ex, as if somehow that was going to make my whole world complete. It only took a few months for me to realize how ineffective that approach was. Instead, I learned how to use this new freedom to explore who I was while also meeting some interesting people in the process.
Here are seven things that I am grateful for having learned about myself after divorce:
1. There is no rush.
As the result of marrying very young and not having dated much as an adult, after my divorce I realized my need to take time to explore my identity, and to determine what independence means to me. At the same time, I knew I needed to seize the opportunity and sense of freedom that comes with dating all kinds of different people. Forever is a long time to be with someone, so why rush dating, just to get to the finish line?
2. A romantic relationship with someone else is not the be-all, end-all.
New relationships are fun and exciting; established relationships are stable and grounding. Ultimately, though, no relationship is going to provide you lifetime-happiness. That needs to be cultivated from within. Diane von Furstenberg famously said, "The most important relationship in life is the one you have with yourself. And if you have that, any other relationship is a plus and not a must."
3. Going out on dates is fun, but so is taking yourself out on a date.
For the longest time, I was terrified of walking into a nice restaurant and dining alone, but I also had this huge urge to do it. Once I faced that fear a few months ago I have come to discover that solo dining is one of the most simultaneously enjoyable and empowering means of enjoying my own company. Date yourself: you won't be disappointed and you might learn something new!
4. Growing up is simultaneously empowering, scary, and exciting.
While I was in therapy and contemplating divorce, my therapist said to me (regarding my need to assert myself in my then-marriage): "You are going to have to grow up, either within your existing relationship or outside of it."
Because I had gone almost directly from being under my parents' watch to my ex-husband's, I had missed out on the kinds of struggles my former 20-something-year-old peers had faced, and in some cases I had been quite envious of it.
As a result, there were many things I had yet to do on my own, as a grown woman. And though I had always considered myself to be an old soul, "growing up" was a fundamental step in becoming who I needed to become, to blossom as the woman I want to be in my life. Interestingly, dating has been a good platform to experiment with that.
By establishing boundaries, clearly communicating my needs and limits, and learning how to rely on myself even within a relationship dynamic, I've learned how to grow up, assert myself, and not sublimate who I am either in the confines or outside the confines of a romantic relationship.
5. It's OK to just be.
I briefly dated someone who would bring a mini-cooler of beer to my apartment for us to share while we watched a movie. When I told him I wasn't much of a drinker, but that he was welcome to drink, he recoiled, saying that he was used to "a bit of liquid lubrication" while on a date. Initially, I felt an urge to just go for it, to be the cool chick who drinks beer. But then, in a wave of sudden self-awareness I realized, I'd rather him get to know me as the non-beer-drinking girl that I am instead of some beer-drinking version of me that I'm not. So I let him tip back while I sipped my camomile.
Unsurprisingly, there was no subsequent date after that, which was my decision. And, following this epiphany, I began to act like the most authentic version of myself I could be while on dates, which made dating much more relaxed and enjoyable. It was an added bonus to learn how many men were drawn to the fact that I was so comfortable marching to the beat of my own drum. A win for all.
6. Getting along well with most everyone doesn't mean you have to settle.
Beer-cooler guy aside, I've learned that I get along well with a lot of different types of people, the result of having a genuine curiosity about people. This has translated into requests for second and third dates and in some cases, breaking up with people upon my realization that we weren't the right fit. Though it's painful to hurt someone's feelings, there is no benefit to either party if you know in your gut it's not right.
7. Loneliness can be a fantastic teacher.
Sure, dating can mitigate feelings of loneliness, but it should not be the exclusive reason for going out with someone. There was a time when I was going on multiple dates in a week that I began to long for the loneliness that being alone brought. It was at this point that I realized replacing loneliness for the distraction of a booked-up calendar was not serving my new freedom and opportunity for self-discovery. I began to schedule fewer dates, make more time for myself — even if it meant being lonely sometimes — and to channel some of the loneliness by embarking on new hobbies, like a steadier yoga practice and volunteering.
This shifted the codependent pattern of a relationship serving as an emotional cure-all. It also prevented me from potentially becoming too serious too soon either in the wrong relationship or entering the right relationship at the wrong time.