by Harriet Lerner
If you’re in the emotional aftermath of divorce, the last thing on your mind may be coupling up again. Even the thought of going on a date may be as appealing as a plate of overcooked liver dressed with dry brussels sprouts.
Still, you just might find yourself back in the saddle sooner than you think. Half of divorced women remarry in less than five years, and 75 percent have remarried after ten. And if you’re still reeling from the anger and pain of your divorce, you may put more careful judgment into buying a new toaster oven than evaluating a prospective partner.
We all know pretty much what we’re looking for in a partner. We may have also learned a few lessons from a previous failed marriage. While individual tastes vary, we want a partner who is mature and intelligent, loyal and trustworthy, loving and attentive, sensitive and open, kind and nurturing, competent and responsible and, of course, “hot.” I’ve yet to meet a woman who says, “Well, to be honest, I’m hoping to find an irresponsible, distant, ill-tempered sort of guy who sulks a lot and won’t pick up after himself.”
But the kind of person we say we want and who we’re actually drawn to, settle for, or put up with are different matters entirely. What’s going on here?
Women have a great deal of intelligence when it comes to relationships. Generally speaking, women know men far better than men know women. The problem is that things get in the way of our otherwise good judgment when men are involved.
To avoid marrying another future ex-husband, consider the top 10 reasons women choose the wrong mates:
1. Timing: We’re most prone to fall mindlessly in love at difficult emotional junctures — on the heels of a divorce or an important loss, for example — when we’re least likely to think clearly.
2. Steamy starts: The rush of sexual attraction can act like a drug and blur our capacity for clear thinking. This can lead us to distance ourselves from our friends or even abandon our life plan for someone who couldn’t otherwise be relied on to water our plants and feed our cat.
3. Obsession: Being obsessed with a guy is not a measure of anything but the level of underground anxiety we are carrying around. We can easily confuse intensity with closeness when, in fact, intensity blocks us from taking an objective look at our partner, ourselves, and the dance we’re doing together.
4. Idealization: We’re convinced he’s so brilliant and special, that we put him above us. Perhaps he has a gift we don’t possess — for example, he has a photographic memory, or a gift for solving mathematical mysteries and conjugating Latin verbs. Discerning his strengths and weaknesses is part of knowing him better, but an idealized view leads us to undervalue our own gifts and ignore his shortcomings We may continue the relationship in a trance, blind to signs that something isn’t right.
5. Repeating family patterns: We’re vulnerable to repeating history, especially if we don’t know what’s driving us. For example, it may be a family tradition to marry someone with addiction problems, or who is an injured bird in need of caretaking. Or, you may be drawn to guys who remind you of your distant, unavailable father — or your ill-tempered mother — with the unconscious belief that you can take an old story, and through the power of your love, give it a new, happy ending.
6. Rebelling against family patterns: If your dad was a tyrant, you may be drawn to someone who is so passive and voiceless that the same qualities that attracted you will later drive you crazy. When we need to push the differences with family members — or with an ex-spouse, for that matter — we land in trouble.
7. Desperation: Your two best friends just got married, you’re about to turn forty, and someone reminds you that your biological clock is ticking. As the “tick tock” gets louder, you compromise on something that really matters, or you ignore the big red flags waving in your face. You figure that half a loaf is better than none.
8. Lack of self-focus: You’re looking for someone to fill up your empty bucket, give you some kind of direction, or provide meaning in your life. Poor choices happen when we’re not putting our primary energy into having our own life plan and figuring out how to live our own life (not someone else’s) as well as possible.
9. Lack of self-love: It’s a cliché, but also a deep truth (as cliché’s tend to be), that you can’t love another person very well if you don’t love yourself. If your self-esteem is low (as it tends to be post-divorce), you won’t believe that you are truly worthy of love and respect. Your choices will reflect this.
10. Fear of the future: Your anxious brain wakes you at 3:00am with scary pictures of your future without a mate. Fear has never helped anybody make good choices. It leads to clinging when we should be walking.
My advice: Take your time, slow things down and stay clear-headed in order to gather a more objective picture of a prospective mate. Don’t insulate your relationship with him from other important relationships, even if he says he wants to spend time only with you. You won’t really know him if you don’t make sure to observe him among both your friends and family and his.
Get out sooner rather than later when you spot a big red flag waving in your face. Keep your primary focus on your own goals and life plan, which will put you on firmest footing whether you marry again or not. And never forget that there are many possibilities for intimacy and connection other than pairing up again.