There may be tears and fears and ghosts when you start — or attempt to start — dating after the loss of your partner. But I assure you, if you keep at it, it will get better.
I’ve learned a lot from my 11 years of not dating, dating, withdrawing from dating, dating again, not having sex, having sex, crying, laughing, and finally enjoying new partners. The emotions sometimes felt out of control, and I didn’t know which “me” to present to another person when I didn’t know which “me” was true or would be true the next morning.
Take every first date as an opportunity to practice dating again as you seek to resolve these quandaries.
How do I meet people?
There are basically two ways to meet potential dates. The first is to get out socially: Do the activities you enjoy, and try new activities that appeal to you. You’ll meet others who have interests in common.
- Advantage: If you don’t meet someone, you’ll still enjoy what you’re doing.
- Disadvantage: Even if you meet people who attract you, you have no idea whether they’re available or interested in dating you.
The second is to use online dating. That’s where to find the people who are definitely looking to date.
- Advantage: You can see their photos and read their profiles before choosing whom to meet.
- Disadvantage: There’s a learning curve if you’ve never done it before, and it can be time consuming and discouraging to wade through the people who are not right for you as you try to find the ones who are.
I suggest you do both. Think of it this way: If people who would be a good match for you are trying to find you, where would they go? They wouldn’t go searching coffee shops in your town at the same moment you happen to be sitting there waiting. No, they’d join an online dating site and hope you find each other. Give it a chance for three or six months. Ask an experienced friend who knows you well to help you with your profile.
How do I keep an open mind?
When you start dating, try not to make too many comparisons. If your relationship with your beloved was a good one, you can’t help contrasting the new people you meet with an idealized version of your lost partner. It’s natural, but it’s not the best way to give new people a chance. Instead of mentally listing the many ways your new date falls short, try to get interested in the new human beings you meet on their own terms. This isn’t an interview for the job of “next long-term partner” — it’s only an interview for the next date.
What can I learn about this new person? What do I feel comfortable revealing about myself?
Let each first and next date be an opportunity to learn more about yourself as well as about your date. For example, ask yourself: What can I learn about this new person? What do I feel comfortable revealing about myself? What am I learning from this date about the kind of person I’m looking for? What am I learning about myself from this date?
Should I stick to dating fellow grievers?
When I wrote my first online dating profile after the death of my husband, Robert, I specified that I was looking to date a widower. After all, who else could understand what I was going through? Who else would understand the depth of losing the most important person in my life and the moxie it took to start dating again?
Indeed, my dates with widowers were satisfying because we had that commonality of experience. We understood how each other’s worlds were permanently altered because our beloveds had been ripped from us. We noticed but didn’t correct each other when one of us lapsed into present tense when talking about the deceased partner. We were able to have vulnerable conversations within minutes of meeting each other. We were compassionate when laughter turned into tears. We understood the need for silences in our conversation.
Later, with more years of dating behind me, I saw some disadvantages of dating only people who had lost their beloveds. It restricts the dating pool too much if you’re not in a city of size. Your date may be too raw or miserable to have much to give. And just because you have grief in common doesn’t mean you have anything else in common. (How often I experienced this!)
Eleven years after Robert’s death and with an array of dating experiences under my belt, I still think dating someone who knows grief is helpful. I’m dating a widower now. Being able to share our grief stories spontaneously has intensified our intimacy. We know how to listen to each other’s anecdotes and respond to each other’s feelings with compassion and understanding. We feel heard, understood, accepted.
When will I be ready for sex again?
You may want to explore kissing or tentative touching with your date before you’re fully ready for a sexual relationship. If you sense your date is expecting that these first explorations will lead to shedding clothes and heading for bed, it’s a good idea to set boundaries verbally. You’d like to do X right now and set the limits at Y. Define those your own way. For example: “I’m enjoying our kissing, and that’s as far as I want to go tonight.” Or, “I feel vulnerable and need to know we can stop when I want.”
Make a list of what you do and don’t want when your first or next date happens. Rehearse asking for what you want and communicating boundaries. Revise this list and rehearse the communication before each new date until you feel grounded and in control.
If you don’t know whether you’re ready for dating and sex again, it’s okay to try it and then put it on hold if it feels wrong. You can explore, then change your mind at any point.
Adapted from Sex After Grief by Joan Price; reprinted by permission of Mango Books.