Newly separated and dating: What do I say?

Now that I'm a single man again, I have no idea where to begin.


Cary Tennis
March 31, 2006 4:34PM (UTC)

Dear Cary,

After over a year of tortuous deliberation, I decided to separate from my wife about six months ago. We lived together for four years, we were married for two and they weren't happy ones. I still care about her deeply, but ultimately leaving the relationship was long overdue for me. We had a lot of "issues," but the biggest was that I simply wasn't in love with her anymore. She had put me under a lot of pressure to get married, partly for citizenship reasons, and I went along with it. I went through with it for reasons I'm only beginning to understand now. I had convinced myself that I was doing the right thing, despite knowing deep down that I had reservations about spending the rest of my life with her. I spent some time with a therapist and gathered the strength and courage to leave. Despite some lingering guilt, I feel good about the decision and I'm enjoying the freedom that my new life has brought. We're now in the process of getting legally separated. Things are awkward -- we don't talk at all -- yet relatively civilized. There were no instances of infidelity on either part and I've made a real effort to treat her as honestly and fairly as possible.

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So here's my question. When is it time to start a new relationship? I feel like I've been alone for a long time -- our marriage was far from passionate and I haven't dated at all since we separated. I don't even know where to start. I'm in my early 30s, yet I feel like a middle-aged divorced man with "baggage." How do I explain my situation to women without driving them away? Technically, I'm still married. I've browsed a few personals to get a sense of the possibilities, and "divorced" and "baggage" come up a lot as major liabilities. I don't want to date women 10 years younger than me. I realize that anyone my age is going to have a history and all of the issues that come with past relationships. But I feel exceptionally hindered here. Do I wait until I'm officially divorced? That could be up to a year. I would feel dishonest not telling a woman the truth about my situation. Is that something I should put upfront right away and risk the consequences? I haven't dated for a long time and it's intimidating -- especially in New York. I'm fairly attractive, well read and traveled, fit, I have a great job, lots of friends. I want a family some day. I know I'm a decent catch. But I feel really handicapped right now.

Decent Catch

Dear Decent Catch,

I am no expert on what to do generally. I think that the human heart is too varied in its hungers to abide by any timetable or to choose just from the items on one particular menu. Nor do I have much practical advice about how to meet women and what to say to them. I myself have never met a woman by walking up to her in a bar and saying something clever that convinces her I am a man she wants to get to know better. Nor have I ever Internet dated. I have met women by passing out in their cars. But that is different. The results of such experiments can not be replicated in the laboratory. They are simply cases in which the gods inconvenienced me for their own amusement.

While I do not have any such practical advice, however, I do believe that a fundamental principle applies not just to dating but to any relationship where both parties are acting in good faith: It is OK to tell the truth about your recent history and what has brought you to this point. In fact, it's more than OK. It's the right thing to do. In a job interview, you tell the truth about how you came to be looking for a job. In a class, you tell what interests you about the subject matter. In a dating interview, you tell how you came to be dating and what your exact legal marital status is.

That doesn't mean you go into every painful detail. It just means that you find the right descriptive terms for your situation and utter them out loud in the hearing of the other person. In your situation, for instance, I think the right descriptive term would be "in the process of becoming legally separated." Also true would be the phrase "still married but living apart with no intention of reconciling."

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Of course your legal marital status will differ greatly from your emotional marital status. In your heart, you're completely unmarried. You're a single man, lonely and eager to date. But on paper, you're still married.

So tell the basic truth about your situation. If there are things you don't want to talk about, say so. If your reticence raises suspicion, you can say reassuring things like, "There was never any infidelity, it just didn't work out." If somebody can't understand that or can't deal with it or thinks there's something wrong with it, well, that's something that two grown-up people can presumably mutually comprehend and deal with -- either by agreeing not to meet again, or not to talk about it, or to talk about it until they're both exhausted and hungry and then go out for breakfast at 4 in the morning at Kiev except, according to these recent customer comments, apparently the new Kiev isn't what it used to be. Oh, well. Like other old customers, I'm just living in the past.

Just tell the truth. Everybody's got a story. Kiev used to be really great. But that was a long time ago. Everything changes.

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