After escaping my abusive marriage, it was quite some time before I could begin to see men with any measure of objectivity, for during the craziness that came with divorcing my abuser, I arrived at the convenient conclusion that all men were scum. My new mantra was clear and simple, and it felt good to finally embrace what felt like truth.
Having two sons, though, I knew they need not be destined for such a fate, and after more than two years of intense counseling, there finally came a moment when the high stone wall of disillusionment began to weaken, giving way to the remotest possibility of genuine relationship, when a flicker of hope began to warm my wounded, distrusting heart.
But reentering the dating world is not an easy thing after coming out of a relationship based on the lowest common denominators. I was admittedly terrified at the possibility of making another life-altering mistake that would affect not only me but my children. I didn’t ever want to play the fool once again or spend even one more night crying myself to sleep.
I presumed, as many of us 40-ish folks do, that all the good ones are taken. I also realized that the odds were slim that any God-fearing man in his right mind would spend more than ten minutes in the presence of a shell-shocked, forty-something woman with four equally emotionally damaged children.
Looking back, it certainly does seem miraculous that I survived the Christian dating minefield (which is an appropriate description) and eventually met the love of my life and married him a little over nine years ago. Based on my second-time-around experience, I would like to offer abuse survivors contemplating re-entering the dating world some basic suggestions. They have been cobbled together from my understanding of our enabling tendencies bolstered by the lessons I learned through the dating process.
There is no scientific basis for what I share, and this commentary is intended almost exclusively for women, as I believe that a woman’s profoundly unique inclinations to operate as nurturers and helpmates also tend to make us prime abuser-bait. So as you consider re-entering this realm, these are a few things I would urge you to remember.
- Remember that you need time to heal. You may never heal completely, but you need to be sufficiently healthy and emotionally strong enough to recognize unsafe or unhealthy men and walk away from them without blinking. There is no specific timeline for testing those waters; however, if you are dangerously fragile and are torn between jumping in or waiting a while longer, please wait. Time for healing and a balanced measure of wholeness are important pursuits and should not be rushed. Furthermore, loneliness is a poor motivation and could leave you vulnerable. You need to be okay by yourself before you can be okay with someone else.
- Remember the needs of your children. Make sure your home base is well-covered and that your children feel secure and are able to handle any additional time you are away from them. Consider whether they are okay with the idea of you dating. Keep their needs first in this process even if that means waiting.
With children in mind, I personally recommend meeting new people at a neutral, public location rather than your home, at least until you feel like the relationship may have some long-term potential, so that men are not going in and out of your children’s lives. You don’t want them to get the impression that relationships are inherently temporary, nor do you want them to grow too attached to someone who may or may not remain in their lives.
- Remember that you have already been through hell. If you don’t want to walk that road again, avoid the kind of man who will be more than happy to take you there. Even if you know what kind of relationship you want, you may be attracted to something else, something familiar – and unsafe. This is not a call to paranoia, but rather to caution, a reminder to be willing to see legitimate issues, as we – as recovering abuse victims – have been trained to rationalize away those waving red and yellow flags.
- Remember to be patient. This is not a race, and you are not looking for any man’s attention, you are waiting for the right man’s attention. Whether you choose to wait for an acquaintance to ask you out to lunch or you decide to join a dating website, try not to panic, push or rush things, and listen, listen, listen to your instincts. Don’t feel any obligation to “make it work.” If that is your attitude, you are likely headed down a very familiar and unhealthy path.
- Remember that you want a protector not a project. Any man with whom you decide to spend some time should be emotionally and spiritually balanced and healthy. He should be a gentleman, not a show-boater, someone who sees you and hears what you have to say. He should be someone who would clearly look out for your needs rather than merely seeking to meet his own.
- Remember to set your standards high and hold to them. Just because a guy notices you does not necessarily make him worthy of your attention. You are under no obligation whatsoever to “give a guy a chance.” If there is something in his manner or attitude that makes you uncomfortable, don’t waste your time or his. You’re better off saying, “Thanks, but no thanks.”
If you hear a familiar voice whispering, “Maybe this is as good as it gets,” then know you are being tempted to settle for far less than you want, need and deserve.
One guy with whom I had met for coffee called one afternoon to invite me to go swing dancing with him that evening. I told him I didn’t particularly enjoy swing dancing and would rather not. He curtly responded, “A confident woman is comfortable in any situation.” I told him that was nice, but that I still wasn’t going swing dancing with him. His attempt to shame me into going out with him told me everything I needed to know. End of story.
- Remember to go slow. If a guy you barely know invites you to dinner, arrives at the door with a dozen long-stemmed roses and a box of chocolates and takes you an uptown French restaurant on a first date, he may well be expecting more than a good-night kiss at the end of the evening. He may be assuming that, after a nice evening, you owe him. So make it clear from the get-go that you can’t be bought, and you want to take it slow. After all you have done to reclaim your life and your value, don’t be foolish enough to give it away.
It’s a good idea to meet for coffee, take a walk, go miniature golfing, hit a movie and generally keep it casual while you’re getting to know someone. Spend time in a variety of situations to see how he responds to them – and to you. One guy I dated was attentive when we were out together, but when we showed up to a party with his friends, he suddenly treated me like I was invisible, as though he was ashamed of me. That was the real him.
With those basics in play, I’d like to offer some “dos” and “don’ts” worth considering. In no particular order, I recommend that you avoid dating a guy who…
- Is married (even if he says he is getting a divorce);
- Needs rescuing;
- Makes you uncomfortable;
- Makes you feel unimportant;
- Is inconsistent (hot one day and cold the next);
- Is boastful;
- Is heavy on flattery;
- Can’t keep his hands off you;
- Doesn’t take ‘no’ for an answer;
- Can’t seem to hold down a job;
- Can’t manage his finances;
- Plays an enabling role in his family;
- Has jerky friends – or no friends;
- Has an impossible dream;
- Has an impossible ego;
- Has a hot temper;
- Has an addiction;
- Has a foul mouth;
- Verbally “bashes” his former wife or girlfriends;
- Is eyeballing other women when he’s with you;
- Is disrespectful or flirtatious toward hostesses, servers and cashiers;
- Is chronically late;
- Is obsessed with you;
- Doesn’t give you eye contact, listen well or acknowledge you during conversation;
- Blames someone or something for everything that has ever gone wrong in his life;
- Doesn’t treat you with respect;
- Makes you cry.
And, of course: Don’t date a guy who reveals any abusive tendencies. If for any reason he becomes demeaning, harsh, accusatory, possessive or manipulative, walk away and don’t look back.
On the other hand, men with a solid history, good friends and a gentlemanly, positive attitude are a safer bet. Don’t be afraid to spend some time with the guy who…
- Sees time spent together as an investment in the relationship rather than a necessary evil;
- Is a good listener;
- Is a protector of you and others under his charge;
- Doesn’t need to be the center of attention;
- Doesn’t freak out about the cost of things or flaunt his wealth;
- Is respectful to you and everyone else he encounters;
- Understands the differences between men and women in a good way;
- Arrives on time to meet you or pick you up or calls to let you know if he’ll be a little late;
- Enjoys spending time with his family and friends – and yours;
- Has healthy hobbies, interests and outlets;
- Is not addicted – to alcohol, drugs, pornography, television or even technology;
- Can manage his money, his work, and his household;
- Looks you in the eye and responds sincerely during conversation;
- Can confess his life stresses without whining about them or blaming everyone else for them;
- Trusts you;
- Is confident without being cocky;
- Returns your phone call in a timely manner;
- Is conscious of your comfort level in unfamiliar situations;
- Doesn’t pressure you when he takes you home;
- Pays your way (or not, if that is more appropriate for the situation);
- Can maturely and responsibly handle inconveniences or crises;
- Is interested in you as a person and not just your body; and
- (As a believer), has a genuine, personal relationship with God, not just a church.
- Remember to protect your heart. Just because a man pursues you does not mean you should let him catch you. If your heart is screaming ‘no,’ listen. And if your heart is encouraging you to say ‘yes,’ but something in your head is whispering ‘no’ (or vice versa), remember that you were misled once before. Take a step back, try to be more objective and seek counsel from those who know him and/or you. Or just give the relationship more time. Don’t ignore or attempt to minimize any red or yellow flags. Don’t believe for one minute that you can help, fix or change him. Just walk away.
- Remember to be open to feedback. If your friends and/or family are telling you that there is something wrong, listen. The odds are good the people who love you see something to which your eyes may have been blinded. If you find yourself defending him to others, there is almost certainly a problem that you are working too hard to overlook. On the other hand, if people see someone genuine and emotionally healthy, then let it ride.
- Remember that you don’t want or need a man. You want to share your life with one man – the right man, a man who will see you and prize you and love you for the rest of your life. Pray for him. Wait for him. And if you don’t meet him, maybe it’s because the time isn’t right, or you are just fine all by yourself. Being on your own is far better than feeling perpetually stressed, unhappy or emotionally neglected, living with someone who doesn’t truly love, enjoy and appreciate you. And you might want to avoid kissing any frogs until you are pretty dang certain that there is a prince in there.
- Remember that you don’t want to just be with someone you love; you want to be with someone with whom you are in love – someone who is also in love with you. I believe there is a profound difference. I am not talking about obsession, which is unbalanced and unhealthy and controlling, but a love where there is connection, commonality and chemistry. Wait for someone you know you want in your life for the rest of your life.