Dating After Divorce: Diagnosing the ghosting

Ever wonder why, at first, a man seems to be completely awed by you, and may even say that he can't believe he gets to date someone like you.

Yet, only weeks later, he's finding fault with everything you say and do.  He seems to be, somehow, dissatisfied and not that into you.

You can feel your brightness and confidence dimming.  You begin to doubt yourself (even more than you usually might).

And then, he just fades away.  Ghosted.

Most of us have experienced this from hot-to-luke-warm-to-cold phenomenon more than once in our relationships.  But now, post-divorce, it's a wound that doesn't seem to heal.  Rejection on top of rejection.

As I've often said in this blog, if you don't absolutely NEED NEED NEED to be in a relationship, any relationship, at all costs, your opportunity for happiness and fulfillment are much higher. 

When you have the inner strength to walk away, you're in a much better position to find a quality man.  Sometimes finding a great relationship is a lot like buying a car.  You'll always get a better offer when you're ready to walk away from a bad deal.

What signals are you sending from the very start?

When we're treated by men in ways we dislike, sometimes we have to take some responsibility (hard to admit, but it's true). Other times, it has nothing to do with us at all, and we'll never know what was going on with him.

So, let's just skip ahead to situations we can have some control over.

Sometimes, we don't present ourselves as (and don't truly believe we are) independent, self-motivated, multi-faceted women who are fully capable of entertaining ourselves, making new friends, and finding ways to have the time of our lives.  With or without a guy.

We actually are capable of creating a rich life for ourselves even when it takes some extra courage.  Even when we're trying to get through all of the emotions of divorce.  Even when we felt rejected in marriage. 

Instead, we worry about how long it will take for a man to call, or how long it will take for a man to commit, or whether he's relationship material (even when he hasn't shown us red flags).

And, if he really seems special, do you start worrying about whether you're in his league, whether he's a player, whether you'll fit in with his family and friends . . . and it's only been two dates?

There can be the feeling, after divorce, that we really have to work hard.  We really have to sell a guy on the fact that he should be interested.  That we need to show him we care, and go overboard with attentiveness.  Because we've been reading all about how, over 40, it's a buyer's market for men, and they can have their pick from 20-year-olds and up.

At the same time that we're wearing all of our insecurities all over our faces, we're wondering why we're getting all kinds of strange, conflicting signals from our dates (that haven't even progressed to relationships, yet).

Valuing "him" more than ourselves, and the volcano inside

So many of us have never questioned why we feel we're expected to perform all kinds of extra services and emotional labor in order to attract and keep someone. Remember marriage?  All the caretaking, anticipating his needs, being a non-stop sounding board, having our needs ignored or unmet, going the extra mile every single day.  Having sex when we don't want it in order to comfort him or because we worry that if his ego is bruised it's our own fault if he cheats.

Here's a snip from a must-read blog by therapist Christine Hutchison, titled "Why Women Are Tired: The Price of Unpaid Emotional Labor":

<<There were many turning points in Jen’s recovery, but that seemed to be the biggest one. “My life is my own,” she told me the next week, her face holding a lightness I had never seen before, even pre-divorce. “I don’t have to deal with his bullshit anymore. I don’t have to wonder what he’s feeling and what he’s avoiding feeling, I don’t have to be the one who supports him in his career, cheering him on and listening to his woes, acting as his most trusted confidant. I can do all that for myself now. I’m free!”

Jen’s marriage, I suspect, had contained what so many heterosexual marriages do: a pattern of unequal emotional labor that neither party is fully aware of. Tellingly, while Jen felt sad at her divorce, she also felt unburdened and free. Her ex-husband, possibly, had not realized that he had been receiving ongoing emotional support in the form of Jen’s mirroring, curiosity, acknowledgement, validation and empathy. Maybe his emails were sent out of a desire to continue getting what he’d always gotten.

And here Jen was now, in my office, confused and sad again because she’d just received another message from Christopher. This time, he wanted to tell her that he’d realized over the last year how poorly he treated her. That he was sorry. That he hoped she was well.

She read me the email. It struck me as not manic or fake like his previous ones, but gentler and more self-aware. They were the words she longed to hear last year. So why did she, and I, feel confused?

“Would you rather have not heard from him, that he’d kept his apology to himself?” I asked.

She looked startled. “You know, yeah! I don’t want to hear from him, ever, and I’ve told him that TWICE. Is he still looking for a response from me? Does he want me to forgive him so HE can feel better? Ugh! I am so beyond done with this shit.”>>

Earlier in the above post, Hutchison details how one of her clients was blindsided by divorce and was so emotionally exhausted from the marriage itself and from the divorce process that she was literally suicidal.

Many of us know, intimately, that "nothing left to give" feeling.  And the anger and weakness we feel is a volcano inside ready to explode, or to implode and hurt not him, but our own sense of worth (or lack of it).

So, now we're dating, and thinking "Why, why, why is he acting this way?" and the answer might be that we're presenting ourselves like a bargain Happy Meal.  But, at the same time, we're getting really angry about why he doesn't see our worth.

Does he make you feel lucky?

What would happen if we just stopped over-giving? Or, if cold-turkey feels a bit much, what if we checked our caretaking impulses one out of every five times we feel like stepping in to fix things or to make things better for others?

One of the problems about providing generous, unpaid, emotional labor (whether at home with the kids, or when out on a date) is that no one sees it, values it, or respects it.  

When dating, the combination of being overly nice while giving off invisible vibes of neediness could be a little bit suffocating to a guy.  But there's also a third quality to the mix: a vague undercurrent of resentment that we feel because all of this emotional labor moves only in one direction, outward toward others.

How confident do you feel when you're exhausted for handling everything for everyone in your life when no one is there, in the same way, for you?

Why do we do it? I have a sneaking suspicion that it's because we've been taught at home, at church, and in our society to value others -- especially the man in our lives -- more than we value ourselves.

Here's an opinion piece that I love about this topic.  And here are a couple of highlights from it:

<<Let's take a look at your current love interest. What exactly is it that you like about him? Really think about this, and don't be afraid to be critical of your own responses. Do you like him because he's nice and funny? Well, news flash: There are about a million other nice and funny guys I could find for you in a second.

The point here is to find out if the connection you feel with this guy is something real or just something you built up in your head. Does he bring something to the table that you truly believe no one else could? What is that thing? Pinpoint it.

“What do I deserve? “And am I getting it right now?” Sure, he may be the greatest thing since sliced bread. But never forget that you're also great. You are the only YOU out here in this big, bad world, and he was lucky to have found someone so wonderful and unique — someone who really can see and appreciate how special he is. He is lucky.

But does he make you feel lucky? Is the type of relationship you have with him right now enough for you? Is it what you want? How is it that you think you deserve to be treated? Think about it. Maybe even write yourself a little list. What do you, an awesome, unique human being, deserve in a relationship? And does your current relationship give you any of this?>>

What to do instead

One of the best interpersonal skills to learn after divorce is to deeply value ourselves.  But what does that even mean?

It means that instead of fixating on a hypothetical "him", let's put that same level of attention and focus on learning about ourselves.  Become really fascinated by learning about your own likes and dislikes, preferences and talents (besides taking care of others) -- things you may not have thought about for many years, back to when you were single.

Learn to be more interested in your own plans and activities, scheduled weeks ahead of time, so that you're not waiting for some guy to fill the void.

After my divorce, I read many, many dating manuals about how to find love over the age of 40, and I was so discouraged to read about how, if an older woman was to have even a prayer of finding a relationship, she had to make finding a man her full-time job.  There would be time for nothing except work and the hunt.

I suggest that, for the first year or two after divorce, you spend on yourself the hours you'd be plowing into a dating site and the due-diligence of meeting every semi-reasonable dating-site guy who suggests coffee.  You can find my super-epic dating-after-divorce post here.

If you feel compelled to go get some quick sex as a touché against a cheating spouse, just be prepared for the grief that you may feel if you become unexpectedly emotionally unattached to your hook up.  I've coached many a client through this situation, and the worst part is the feeling of being taken advantage of yet again.

Nurture yourself to shine from the inside out as the prize that you truly are.  After you do that for a couple of years, you'll naturally be attracting the good guys.  And, you'll easily be able to turn heel on the guys who have overwhelming needs.

And, some final words of advice . . .

I can't resist sharing one final blog post I love from Maria Walley at Verily.

This one's about a college breakup, but we can learn a lot from the millennials, and here's a snip from it:

“I realized last night that—that sometimes a situation isn’t worth an emotional reaction,” she began. “And I realized that if a guy is making you feel like you’re insane, he’s probably not the one,” she smiled again, relieved. “So, I think from now on—any time a guy makes us feel like we’re inadequate, or utterly bewildered, we should just let him go his own way.”