Within six weeks of my marriage ending, I found myself gallivanting all around Colorado with a much younger man.
He was an instructor at my yoga studio who, through his intoxicating looks and 20-something prowess, helped me temporarily forget that my life was actually in complete shambles (i.e. that I had suddenly become a 40-year-old single mother of three without any plans for my future.) We’d go on long hikes, spend afternoons wrapped in my bedsheets, and travel to hidden hot springs and tropical beaches enmeshed in the physical comfort of each other.
It was a delicious distraction, but once it came to an end, I was left to face myself. I had to deal with the raw emotional pain that would trap me until I dealt with it. I knew I wouldn't be able to move on to a fulfilling relationship before I did that.
Over the next few years, I attended support groups and coaching sessions, shed tears over past choices, spent nights reading personal growth books, and tried to make sense of the madness of this new frontier. At some point, I realized I was done. I had faced my demons. And while my past would always be a part of me, I was truly ready to move forward.
Here's what I've learned are the four essential steps you need to take before you're ready to start a new relationship after ending another long-term relationship:
1. Stay single until you can be sure you're starting a relationship for the right reasons.
A truly loving, committed relationship is about sharing life experiences, learning, and growing with someone who is self-aware and free of the "pull" of past hurts, and being open and willing to doing the work it takes to create and exist in a safe, drama-free space together.
To reach this place, we must first commit to learning the lessons we have to learn on our own. That's the only way to escape the ending of our last failed relationship. Dig in the dirt. Let yourself fall apart and know that it’s OK not to be OK for a while—maybe for a long time. The grieving process involved in getting over a breakup can be lengthy and painful. But there is so much necessary growth waiting for you in the time after a breakup. You can't skip the hard part and go right to Phase 2. This is the task you have to complete before leveling up.
Until you truly commit to the work of self-love that's required after the devastation of heartbreak, you're not a contender for a long-term commitment.
2. Love yourself more than you ever thought possible.
You've probably heard this one before: "No one will ever be able to love you more than you love yourself."
Take it from me: This is 100% true 100% of the time. We attract people who will treat us only as well as we treat ourselves. If we believe ourselves to be unworthy or unlovable at a deep level, no matter how pretty the package of our prospective partner, we see them as our salvation only because we know little enough about them that we can project our own ideals onto them. Over time they will begin to reflect our own limitations and flaws.
Self-love needs to happen consistently on the physical, mental, spiritual, and emotional levels. Here's what that looks.
Begin by listening to, then responding to and respecting the needs of the body. Create a nurturing inner sanctuary where you feel safe. Learn what your body requires through exercise, diet, and rest to maintain balance. Commit to giving it the nutrients that it needs to thrive.
Kick out the roommate in your head that tells you you’re not good enough, beautiful or handsome enough, young enough, or wealthy enough to have a wonderful, loving, and supportive partnership. Replace self-deprecating thoughts with thoughts that affirm your wholeness, such as, "I am awesome and deserve someone who knows my worth," or "I am completely lovable just the way I am," and "I am deserving of great love."
No matter what happened with your ex, you have the power to rewrite the conversations that affirm the truth of who you are.
Bring deep self-compassion and kindness to your wounds. Understand how you contributed to the relationship's dissolution. Examine the pain that arises from your childhood. Get therapy or divorce coaching.
Develop and maintain a deeper connection to your spirit by recognizing and honoring the voice of your intuition. This can be accomplished through meditation, journaling, and spending quiet moments in nature. This inner guidance will let you know when you are truly ready for a relationship and whether someone you meet is right or wrong for you.
Create the life of your dreams by connecting to a vision that reflects your worthiness and lovability. Know your passions. Find confidence in your purpose. Make a commitment to follow those passions, no matter what (or who) comes along.
Committing to self-love and our life’s work before committing to a romantic relationship is the key to fulfillment and wholeness. When we commit to a life of service to ourselves and others, we have made the vows that must precede (and that enable) a commitment to another person.
3. Learn what a healthy relationship looks like, and take your time.
After being married or in a long-term relationship, it’s easy to idealize the next person you date. Because we have already been deeply connected to—or maybe married and had children with—our past partner, we may easily project scenarios onto people we have just met, fantasizing about the role they will play in our lives without knowing much about them.
But the truth about dating after a breakup is that the real measure of an appropriate and desirable partner goes well beyond whether or not they will be able to fit into the same role as an ex. It's about knowing who we are and what we want and then truly getting to know someone over time. It's also about getting to know them, what they want, and what role they want you to play in their life—which may look very different from your ex's needs and desires.
There are wonderful resources that can help clarify what a healthy relationship requires. Commit to the process of understanding what it takes to communicate and build a solid structure for a relationship before jumping in.
When you love yourself, you can be open to many alternate resources for creativity and love and support. That allows you to avoid relying on a partner to give you something you lack. Even if you were in a codependent or unhealthy relationship, you can—and will—change these patterns by honoring yourself, knowing and sticking to your standards, and requiring (in a healthy and loving way) that others love and honor you as much as you love you.
4. Have fun.
When you do decide to date again, approach it as an adventure rather than a burden. Prepare yourself as much as possible, then let go, have fun, and trust the process.
You get to choose whether you will date a little or a lot. Learn what you might want in a future partner by meeting people and having fun. More than anything, dating is an opportunity to be exposed to new thoughts, environments, and lifestyles.
In asking and responding to questions about one another’s lives and core values, we create the opportunity to authentically communicate about ourselves with others. We can approach dating as a fun challenge. How can we get to know what really makes the other person tick?
Most importantly, we can enjoy the process of noting how we feel when we are around this person. Is there a lightness and joy or an anxious pit in our stomachs? Is there ease or awkwardness? Are there feelings that something is just "not right"? Practice non-attachment, rely on your personal support system, and stay curious about other people's worlds. Learning how they fit in with yours can be a joyful process rather than a painful one.
The bottom line.
Now, after three years of healing from divorce and casually dating, I'm in a new relationship. I can attest to the fact that entering into a long-term commitment isn’t the endgame—it’s just the beginning. It will bring up our vulnerabilities and fears like nothing else can. When we enter the arena with an arsenal of self-love, high standards, and an understanding of the process, we can create and enjoy the ride of a relationship at a much deeper level.
Kathryn Mitchem is a transitions expert, writer, speaker, and coach. She holds a BASc degree in psychology from Miami University. Mitchem is the creator of 10 Minutes to Bliss, Divorce 9-1-1, and Stuck in the Muck, online programs that support people in bringing the sense of well-being and harmony they feel after doing a yoga class out of the studio and into their lives during difficult times. She lives in Evergreen, Colorado, with her three fabulously dynamic children.