You're over 40 and recently split, divorced or widowed. Welcome back to the dating game!
The good news is the rules have changed. It's now OK for a woman to put herself first — to know who she is and what she wants, both in and out of a relationship. The so-so news is that many of us are pretty lost when it comes to manifesting meaningful self-transformation.
"There can be a feeling like you've lost your identity and, if you have children, there's the exploration to find balance among parenting, time to yourself, dating and, perhaps, working," says Ashland therapist Dennise Trager, who became a single mother after divorcing at age 37.
"Many reasons may compel you to want to date or even re-mate right away," says Trager. "But, on an inner level, if you haven't addressed the baggage of unresolved hurt and anger from the past and haven't taken the time to discover who you are now, you may just end up trying to fill an empty space within your life out of neediness and fear."
Instead, spend this time of transition creating a balanced, wise and loving place within yourself that will foster constructive choices. It's up to you to discover your new identity — as yourself, not as a girlfriend or significant other, but by penciling in some serious time for you.
First of all, let yourself feel the loneliness and hurt that naturally come with the dissolution of a relationship, no matter which end of "the end" you were on. Use your soul-searching as a tool for transformation. Therapy, workshops, friends and community organizations may provide venues for valuable self-awareness.
"There are more single people and single-parent families than ever before, and with it comes more acceptance in our culture," says Trager. "The divorce rate is over 50 percent and even higher for second marriages, so the wake-up call is to discover who you really are so you can make choices that will bring deeper contentment, love and joy in your life."
Taking a pause to turn inward — two months or even two years — and resisting rebound relationships can be key to a healthy, successful recovery. Finding a good therapist or mentor may help illuminate the path during the journey, as may some role playing.
"Think about your closest friend, someone you really care about," suggests Kristen Tussey, a licensed professional counselor specializing in relationships at the Ashland Transpersonal Counseling Center. "If she were feeling the way you are feeling, what would you say to her? Would it be something like, 'I am here for you. What can I do to make your heart happy?' So that's the question you ask. Now listen inside and write down what you would tell her."
Relax, try to remove any sense of pressure and live one day at a time during this period of inner exploration, says Tussey. "And commit to learning how to be your own best friend."
When you feel like dating, step out gingerly. Chances are you'll feel some insecurity, not unlike the wobbles of a little child learning to walk. Allow the fear to happen and then do it anyway — make the call, reply to the e-mail, attend that event where you might meet someone.
And don't pooh-pooh the Internet.
"I've seen it used as a wonderful vehicle in helping people find compatible matches," says Trager, who has watched numerous clients, friends and family find spouses through online dating services. "You can put out your preferences, interests and dialogue before you meet; it potentially allows for a nice, gradual (development)."
Try to approach dating as looking for friends instead of a partner. "As soon as you're looking for a partner, everything gets heightened and intensified, and it's harder to see clearly," counsels Trager. "Some really good relationships develop from friendships."
Although this might not feel natural — especially if you're at the height of your sex drive (many women are peaking between ages 37 and 44) — you'll be glad later for taking things slow.
It may also be wise to avoid talking about exes on the first few dates so as not to set the precedent of people-bashing. If you need to know how your date deals with personal trigger issues, such as anger or criticism, simply ask.
Keep advocating for yourself when it comes to safe sex — don't think for a minute that being near or at menopause means you can't get pregnant or catch a sexually transmitted disease. Approach the topic with sensitivity, clarity and firmness, suggests Trager.
"You could say, 'In this day and age, within the safety of using condoms, I can relax and enjoy our sexuality more.' "
However you say it, the important thing is that your well-being come first. "That establishes a real clear message in your relationship," says Trager.
That would be the message of self-esteem and self-love! And it is sure to do you and your next relationship a whole lot of good.