As human beings we are social creatures and seem to be hardwired to be in relationships. Previous to about a century ago marriages lasted on average less than nine years, ending with the death of one. The survivor would remarry and stay married until one of them died. Serial monogamy is alive and well today, the only difference being that divorce replaces death in the transition to a new relationship.
Today the typical transition from one marriage to the next follows one of the following sequences…
One: unhappiness, break up, mediation, legal agreement, divorce, grieving, new involvement, remarriage.
Two: unhappiness, break up, new involvement, mediation, legal agreement, divorce, remarriage, grieving.
Three: unhappiness, new involvement, break up, mediation, legal agreement, divorce, remarriage, grieving.
1. The first is clearly the cleanest. Your former marriage has become history, details are settled and your inevitable grieving is more or less complete. Only then do you reengage.
2. The second sequence, entering a new relationship before a divorce is complete carries significant risk. It is very difficult for the new partner not to become involved in the settlement details and the emotional turmoil. There is also a real risk that with negotiation and mediation the separated couple may decide to give it another try, leaving the new partner out in the cold.
3. The third sequence carries even more risk than the second, because the new involvement becomes part of the reason the marriage ended. There is still some psychological truth to the old saying, “A man never marries the woman he left his wife over.” Free-floating trust issues, blame, anger and guilt do not create a healthy environment for the creation of a new relationship.
Make no mistake, no matter how bad the marriage was, there is still a grieving process. It was, after all, an ending, a loss of an anticipated future. And in the process of grieving, any grieving, you get a chance to really look at your life, at who you are and at what you want. A new relationship muddies the waters during the vulnerability that comes with grief.
Having said all this, the reality of our human need to be in relationships makes us particularly vulnerable as a relationship is ending. Upon self-reflection I had to break up with a woman I got involved with too soon after separation. It happened again, only this time we both understood the risks and we were both very careful to keep her involvement with my divorce to a minimum. I had a lot of time alone to reflect for a year before we moved in together. That was over 30 years ago.
So how do you avoid the messes as you reengage? If you’re going through a separation and divorce, get the work done: the legal stuff, the mediation, the settlement and the grieving. If a new relationship sneaks up on you, be up front about the need to clean up your life first. It might go like this: “Let’s keep it at the meet-for-coffee level for a while until I get things cleaned up. Then we’ll see…”
If you are the new love interest, it might go like this: “Let’s keep it at the meet-for-coffee level for a while until you get things cleaned up. Then we’ll see…”
Easier said than done!