Many have famously paraphrased Spanish-American philosopher George Santayana who said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
While you probably heard this little nugget of wisdom in history class, most of us can think of at least one person in our peer group who seems to prove it true, again and again, on the battlefield of love.
Maybe you’ve got a friend who appears to date only various versions of the same emotionally unavailable dirtbag. Or another who seems to mould themselves to whomever they’re with, losing themselves in the mix. Perhaps you’ve watched from the sidelines as your recently separated sister or brother rushes headlong into a new relationship, with barely a moment for self-reflection in between.
I asked divorced folks to share what they find themselves doing differently in their new relationships, whether they’re in a serious partnership now or simply establishing expectations with anyone they date. These people have put into practice the lessons learned by going through the end of a major relationship, taking care not to lose the enormous opportunity this presents for self-awareness and growth.
Here’s what they’re doing differently this time around.
1. Being more open with feelings
A theme that comes up over and over again in discussion with separated or divorced peers, as well as members of my Facebook community, Positive Co-Parenting After Divorce, is greater willingness to share how they feel. Divorced dad Rob Foschia says he’s “trying to be more open” with his feelings. He realizes now that, during his former marriage, he tended to bottle those up. “My ex-wife could be very critical and judgmental over the smallest things,” he says, and that discouraged him from sharing. Complicating matters, Rob says he’s a natural introvert and she’s an extrovert. “This also tended to make it difficult to express my feelings.” Today he’s more forthright about how his introverted nature affects his emotional needs, and choosier about who he dates.
2. Going to counselling right away
Rather than viewing couples’ counselling as a resource accessed under duress, a number of people told me about attending therapy at the beginning of a promising new relationship. “We went to couples therapy right away,” says Melanie Jamieson*. “Both of us were separated and we didn’t want to carry baggage and bad habits from our former marriages into our new relationship.
3. Having clearer boundaries
Through going through a breakup, many of us gain wisdom about what can happen when we don’t set boundaries with people about how much of their stuff we can take on, the kind of treatment we expect, and the priorities and privacy of our own that we want to protect. Jamie Hockey learned the perils of unclear boundaries in her previous relationship. Today she says, “I don’t put up with anyone’s crap. I have firm boundaries for everyone around me. I walked on eggshells for years and refuse to ever go back to something like that.”
4. Listening more
It’s great to be able to express how we feel, but not if we’re in such a hurry to get our words out that we fall down in the listening department. “In my first marriage, we both had very strong opinions, and both were so focused on wanting to be heard that neither of us really were,” said Laura, who now has a blended family of five with her second husband. “We would talk over each other and really never took the time to try to understand each other.”
From the start of her second marriage, her husband was very clear that neither of them could talk over one another. “This actually offended me at first, like, ‘Why in the world would you try to shush me or not allow me to speak?’” says Laura, who writes about blended family life in her blog Small Stuff, Big Family, where she goes by first name only. “But being the excellent communicator he is, it quickly humbled me, and I have learned a lot from his example.”
“From time to time, we may not initially agree on things, but we’re always able to come to a mutual agreement because we take the time to allow each other to speak and actually be heard.” Knowing that you’re understood, is “one of the best feelings you can have from your partner,” says Laura.
5. Reserving space for themselves
The end of a marriage or other long-term union can bring a shift in how we conduct ourselves in a relationship, with couples maintaining more autonomy as individuals and avoiding co-dependent situations. “We are both focused on ourselves and kids first, but not selfishly,” says divorced mom Karen Fleischer about her happy new relationship. “It’s about growing together and still being separate, but communicating about it. We have separate finances, social circles and hobbies. We are a compliment to each other, side by side.”
Sierra Andrelle says she’s much more careful today to make time for friendships outside her relationship as well as activities she enjoys. “Usually this is tea on a Sunday morning or game night for a couple hours after work once a month.” Self-care is part of the picture for Sierra. She’ll get a massage or manicure, “or visit one of my favorite shops alone when I can make time. Sometimes this is only two or three times a month, but it’s important to me.”
6. Keeping separate finances
Money matters are a big source of strain on relationships, so it’s no surprise that financial autonomy came up again and again with the people I talked to for this post. “Separate bank accounts is a big one,” says Jamie Hockley, who sees this as a key boundary that wasn’t there with her ex.
After nearly a decade of being single, separate finances are also a non-negotiable for me. While I love the idea of working toward shared financial goals with my partner, a measure of privacy to make your own financial decisions goes a long way. I don’t want to be accountable to anyone else for petty cash decisions like deciding to spend $27 on a lipstick.
7. Resolving arguments quickly
Misty S. Raper says she and her new husband do a number of things differently to keep their bond strong. They attended pre-marital counselling and work hard on their communication, aiming to “resolve arguments quickly with the desire to see both sides and work out a mutual compromise,” she says. This way issues are addressed as they come up so problems don’t fester.
8. Sharing the workload more evenly
Another thing that Misty says is dramatically different this time around: “Sharing the workload of cooking and other chores and home maintenance better, making sure that since we both work full time, we’re both helping at home.” Running a household, particularly one that includes kids, is so much work — too much work even for two people, I’d argue — that uneven distribution of emotional and physical labour is a very common cause of discontent in relationships. When it’s not their first rodeo, smart couples know better than to leave one person to shoulder too much of the load.
9. Practising kindness
All too often, our long-term romantic partners end up getting the worst of us. Familiarity and the stresses of life can lead us to be irritable with one another, or to use our partners to air all of our daily grievances. We forget the ordinary courtesies that we’d offer to friends, colleagues, even strangers sometimes.
Tyler McKee says he’s paying a lot more attention to the little interactions in his relationship today. “I’m more honest, forgiving, and just generally kind. I think we forget how far kindness, appreciation and recognition goes. And more often than not, when you give it, it causes it to be returned. So much love can come from simply that.”
10. Not worrying about timelines
“In my past I would have wondered, is this going in that direction? Will we move in together? Get married? Buy a house? Have children?” says Jessica Wexler. “But now I’ve done all that and the pressure to meet those milestones is off the table. For almost two years I’ve simply enjoyed being with my significant other. We have travelled and have weekends together; we have midweek dates when my child is with his other parent. And all of it is so good.” Since both of them are divorced, they’re determined to enjoy the path they’re on “without worrying about meeting the arbitrary milestones that create pressure on people.”
11. Communicating needs more clearly
“When I was young, I kept my wants and needs silent, for fear of having my partner walk away,” says Jen, a divorced mom of two who asked that her last name be withheld. “I think a lot of us who got into relationships younger do this (I was 18). We were basically children, playing at being adults. As I got older and started to learn to voice my feelings, my ex had no idea what to do with them.” Going forward, Jen says she’s promised herself that she’ll communicate her needs clearly, even if she expects the person on the receiving end won’t be able to rise to the occasion. “I recognize now that I will survive if they leave.”
12. Always reach for growth
In her new relationship, Jessica McKenna and her partner have made a firm commitment to one another to seek help and try their hardest if things start going south. A lot of this comes down to mindset. “We will always reach for growth — within ourselves, with each other, and will our (my) daughter,” says Jessica. “We’re constantly evolving and changing for the better. Always setting goals within ourselves and our relationships. Always wanting to be and do better. Never stagnant.”
* Indicates name changed upon request.