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How to Improve Your Relationships After Divorce

So far we've talked about Dating After Divorce and Sex After Divorce, but what about when you're ready to get more serious? Many people worry they're doomed to either be alone or keep repeating the relationship patterns that simply don't work out. But there's good news. A fresh start is possible if you keep some key elements in mind.

Don't view divorce as a failure

Before you can truly move on to a new relationship, stop beating yourself up about your divorce. If you're hanging on to blame or second-guessing yourself, that will haunt your new connections.

"Divorce is often looked at as a failure or an ending, but I believe that leaving a relationship that is not working for you is an achievement," says Beth Richman, LCSW. A relationship doesn't need to last forever to be valuable. Focus on the positive elements of the relationship. Even if the only silver lining you can find is that you learned things about yourself, and what does and doesn't work for you in a relationship, that's still something to be grateful for.

Keep working on yourself

"It's important to work on yourself before you get into a new relationship," says Joan Price . So, what does the common self-help mantra, "work on yourself," actually mean? The work depends on where you're coming from, and what your goals are. Doing "work" on yourself doesn't mean that you're broken, or that you're something to fix. It is possible to love and accept yourself exactly as you are, and still spend energy on growth and improvement. In fact, this mindset is essential to make progress.

As you decide what you'd like to work on, remember that experts in all fields focus on learning and improvement. That is not because their existing skillset isn't good enough, but because they want to be even better. Get used to putting yourself first. It's a huge paradigm shift to go from being partnered to being solo.

While you may have children or family to take care of, divorce is an opportunity to rethink your priorities and imagine what it would look like to meet more of your own needs. If you're battling feelings of failure from your relationship ending, make time to do activities that help build confidence . What are you good at? What are you proud of? Cultivate these skills. Whether you're being creative, making art, playing music, or volunteering in your community, do things that emphasize your strengths.

"Work on your communication skills. Learn to communicate your needs, desires, and boundaries," advises Price. This advice is spot-on. Communication is one of the most essential skills for building and maintaining healthy relationships, and it's also a skill most people have never been taught. In my coaching practice, most conflicts boil down to communication issues. If you need some help getting started, check out books and classes that focus on communication.

Make an effort to avoid the same patterns

You've probably heard the adage that "if you keep doing what you've done, you'll keep getting what you've gotten." While it's over-simplified, it gets repeated for a reason. Unfortunately, it can be more comfortable to stick with what we know, even when we're frustrated with the results. In Price's words, "If you don't make a change, you'll always have what you have now." Richman explains this tendency at greater length:

"When seeking out a new relationship after a divorce it is helpful to reflect on the patterns you fell into and why they occurred. One of the best pieces of advice I have when examining painful recurring relationship patterns is to turn it upside-down and look at what is working for you about that pattern.

"In other words: what are you getting out of that behavior habit you hate? It is a strange question at first but, for example, if you are frustrated that you always pick partners that are overly passive you can think about how it may be hard for you to let go of control. Is it scary to let someone else be in the driver's seat? Are you afraid they will let you down, or make you feel trapped?

"If you can unpack the secondary reward you get from an emotional habit that you can't stand, you will become more grounded and honest with yourself and your partner. This will help discharge the frustration if you continue to pick the same type of person, or help you begin to seek out people that can help with the fears and anxieties buried in the problematic behavior," says Richman.

This kind of work doesn't happen overnight. And you don't have to do it alone. Seek relationships with people who are in similar situations so you can support each other (friendships or romantic partners). You'll likely find that when you put a lot of time and effort into working on yourself, you'll get along better with people who've done similar work.

Avoid getting too serious, too fast

No matter how much thought you've put into examining your relationship patterns, they're easy to slip back into them. A lifetime of habits won't evaporate overnight. Move slowly and thoughtfully so you can examine each step and whether the choices you're making feel right. Give yourself plenty of space and time to change your mind before you feel locked into any decisions. Richman gives the following advice:

"I recommend looking inward and examining if you feel you still have more exploration and processing to do. If you feel excited and optimistic about new relationship experiences and types of people, it may not be time to settle down. If you're feeling ready to explore having a deeper relationship and doing it differently this time, then you are likely ready. I believe that there is work we can only do when partnered and work we can only do when single.

"Trust your gut to be your guide. Some people realize after a divorce that living with a partner or getting serious in a relationship isn't for them. I think it is important to respect that feeling and not cave into societal pressure that living with, marrying, or partnering with someone else is the only way to be. Many people change their relationship preferences over the course of their lifetime."

Expand your idea of what a relationship can be

The mainstream view of relationships can be incredibly narrow. While we're starting to see examples of different frameworks in the media, the shift is happening slowly. It can be difficult to imagine what you want from a relationship if you don't see examples that fit your desires.

While it can be overwhelming to deal with too much change at once, a divorce is an opportunity to try something completely different. "Getting out of a relationship and exploring new relationships can also include expanding your notion of what a relationship is. Maybe you want to explore consensual non-monogamy, or maybe there's a kink you've never had a chance to nurture," says Price.

Richman expands on this theme: "Although this can be daunting and deeply vulnerable it is an opportunity to tune in to yourself and have space to examine what you need for fulfillment and happiness. This is an opportunity to examine your sexual, romantic, and emotional needs in a way that is greatly altered by having a partner. Having space to think about your own gender, the gender(s) you are attracted to, the type of relationship style and sex you may be curious about (e.g., non-monogamy or polyamory, kink, causal sex, etc.) is extremely helpful when you are in a new developmental phase of your life."

It's common to bristle at the idea of being tied down again – at least right away. There's nothing wrong with wanting to stay solo, wanting to date around, or wanting to try some form of non-monogamy. Just be honest with the people you're exploring with. Sometimes that honesty means saying, "I don't know." It's okay to not have all the answers right away – or ever. It's enough to simply explore and get a feel for what is and isn't right for you.

Rebuild non-romantic relationships

Even when friends promise they won't take sides in a break-up, the reality is that some friendships become strained or awkward after a split. Whether it's because they were your partner's friend first, or you were "couples' friends," you may find your social circle a bit smaller.

Having friends that you can talk to is important at all stages of life, but making friends can feel harder as an adult. Still, it's worth putting in the effort. Without friends to help meet your social needs, it's easy to feel desperate to meet those needs with a romantic connection. And that desperation can lead to settling for situations and people that aren't good for you.

Having trusted friends can also help you build new romantic relationships. Friends can help you meet potential partners and help vet your prospects. Bring new dates to events with your friends and pay attention to how everyone interacts. Do they treat your friends with respect? Do your friends like their energy? Bad situations thrive in isolation; sharing new relationships with your friends can help keep you safe.

Stay true to yourself

This advice is in the "easier said than done," category, but it's important. As you try new things and seek new possibilities, remember there's no timeline to follow but your own. Don't get frustrated and settle for less than you deserve. I'm not just speaking as a professional relationship expert – I've lived this journey myself.

My marriage ended in divorce roughly 10 years ago. I know what it feels like to have your life's plans and expectations completely upended. And I can tell you that the relationships I'm having now are even better than what I could have imagined for myself 10, 15, or 20 years ago. I believe that's been possible because of the process that Richman explained:

"Divorce helps our maturation process as we have to grow emotionally as part of separating from a partner," she says. "It also presents the opportunity to explore relationships and sexuality from a new age bracket. As we mature our ability to safely explore our ongoing fantasies often increases, creating opportunities to experience incredible fulfillment. Maturity also helps us refine our desires by trying things out with newfound wisdom that helps us clarify what does and does not work for us."

Erin Tillman also shares words of encouragement. "Believe that you're worthy of finding like-minded individuals who are enthusiastic about who you are and what you bring to the table. It is all possible." And Price puts it this way: "The only person you're responsible to is yourself. And you can claim your authentic self; your needs, your pleasures, at any time of your life. Including now, especially now."

Don't hesitate to get support

Major transitions can be difficult, and it's common to need some support. Therapy is a fantastic option if you feel overwhelmed, or struggle to form new relationships. Look for professionals who have experience talking openly about sex and relationships. They should also have skills in the niche that applies to you, (kinky, non-monogamous, etc.)

You can also seek support from coaches and educators. Coaching tends to be shorter-term than therapy and focuses on reaching particular goals. It's especially helpful if you want one-on-one support with dating and forming new relationships. You can learn more about coaching services on my website.

The colleagues I spoke to for this piece are also fantastic resources: Beth Richman , LCSW, CADCI is a Psychotherapist, Clinical Supervisor, Clinical Consultant, and Educator in Portland Oregon who specializes in sex, sexuality, gender, relationships, and trauma. Author and speaker Joan Price calls herself an "advocate for ageless sexuality." She has been called other things by the media: "senior sexpert," "the beautiful face of senior sex," "the woman leading a sex revolution for seniors," and‚ her favorite‚ "wrinkly sex kitten." Erin Tillman, is an inclusive Dating & Consent Empowerment Coach dedicated to empowering singles to have fulfilling dating and relationship lives that meet their objectives.

Stella Harris believes communication is key to satisfaction in relationships. Professionally trained as an intimacy educator, coach, and mediator, Stella brings empathy, expertise, and a fresh perspective to help clients find their sticking points and break through the roadblocks to their goals. Stella’s wide-ranging expertise has led to being featured on the evening news discussing the importance of sex education in schools, appearing as an expert witness in court, and even speaking as an authority on banana slug mating habits. Stella is the author of two books, Tongue Tied: Untangling Communication in Sex, Kink, and Relationships, and The Ultimate Guide to Threesomes. Learn more at www.stellaharris.net or follow her on Instagram @stellaharriserotica
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