Understanding Challenges in Relationships with Recently Divorced Men

Many women responded to, “Men’s Challenges with Separation and Divorce,” expressing frustration and bewilderment regarding relationships with recently divorced, as well as seeking advice. In most instances these relationships were never explicitly established or mutually ended, but unilaterally effected by the men detaching and cutting these women out of their lives. After reading many of these it became, unfortunately, formulaic. They usually met while he was going through, or recently divorced, began as a friendship, or fling, but quickly deepened just as it also became apparent he was unresolved about his divorce. This was usually followed by him or his feelings going back and forth between the relationship with the new woman and what he’d described as the terrible marriage with his ex, pleas for understanding, heated promises though mostly broken, and finally cut off or detachment. Terrible as this sounds, it’s understandable, given the effects being divorced has on men, but it’s also preventable, the relationships with them salvageable, and while these have opportunities, they do have as many challenges. Being realistic, I would caution against them, but I hope to offer some understanding about divorced men, why relationships with them can be difficult, and how to approach the challenges while maintaining your integrity.
Emotional availability and openness are the basic criteria for developing new relationships. However, considering very few men emerge from divorce unwounded, expecting them to meet this criteria, and in a place to have a relationship, might be a tall order. So, what’s the appeal?
After what most divorced men have been through, women find they respond encouragingly to, and rarely assume, even the slightest positive attention. I’ve found, after their first date post-divorce, the men I’ve worked with almost always appear bewildered. “Yeah…I went on that date….”
“And?”
They blink, shake their heads, go through several expressions of disbelief. “She thought I was nice guy.”
Yet chances are she was right. All she sees is a nice guy, with space in his life (though, left by his ex) and, unlike typical single guys, he appreciates, and knows how to be in a relationship. So, why doesn’t he believe this?
Well, for openers, because out of the 7 billion people in the world (3.5 billion, being women), he still sees himself in the eyes of just one: his ex-wife.
With initial relationships, a divorced man is like a kid with a new friend. The friend not only really wants to come over after school, but when the new friend see his toys, he can barely contain his enthusiasm. Yet the kid immediately tries to discourage his new friend from actually playing with them. What the new friend doesn’t know is the kid’s old friends had recently become mean and told the kid they didn’t really like him or his toys. The kid still sees himself and his toys according to his old friends, and he doesn’t believe that his new friend does, so he protects himself by preemptively dismissing their appreciation.
For many men to be divorced is to be betrayed. Not just by their spouse, but their life, the expected trajectory of its story, and the possibility they are powerlessness to avert the contrary. See, the reality is that most divorced men had realized the value of their marriages. Unfortunately though it wasn’t until facing separation, and realizing their lifeline was being severed, that they made this absurdly known. Yet deserved or not, to them, it felt like the one severing it was not only the person who wasn’t supposed to do this, but they showed little affect doing so. But why could she? Women grieve relationships before they end, men grieve them after they end. That isn’t to say their wives didn’t have, or provide, tangible reasons. It’s that their husbands denied or dismissed their reasons, too compelled by self preservation, pushing for reconciliation.
When a break up wasn’t intended or actually wanted, the grief is different. If the loss is due to a death, at least there isn’t the possibility of reversing it. Being divorced, doesn’t have this luxury. The alternatives can be set in motion without his buy in: the kids arrive at his place, are returned, or retrieved, and relinquished again to their mother, as if he was merely an observer. Paradoxically, the ones he’s grieving are the very same ones going along with all of this. It’s probably why some fathers distance themselves, or start new families. Because in order to continue to be their father post-divorce, requires learning to compartmentalize his feelings and re-contextualize his experience. With kids he tries to be open and loving, but without them, he just closes down again. Add to this, having to interact with their mother, though his ex-wife, neutrally, despite the acrimony underneath.
At primal level relationships are instinctually motivated for our survival. In this way, any threats are experienced as a mortal threats, and automatically trigger the fight or flight mechanism. Activated over a prolonged period is what causes trauma. The abandonment men perceive with separation, is commonly experienced as a threat to survival, and presents as trauma. Typical of trauma, their reactions are intended to reverse the traumatizing event, and ward off the threat. But because trauma also weakens integrity, compromises confidence, and distorts attitudes about others, it’s not uncommon for men to feel inadequate, socially alienated, and unable to trust others after divorce—especially women.
In many of the responses, women asked, Why do divorced men run so hot then so cold? The same reason soldiers learn to duck.
To a newcomer, it’s easy to see the reactivity to his ex as fallout from the divorce. But it’s actually carry over from the marriage, because then it had to be kept in check. Divorce is like finally pulling the trigger of a spring-loaded rifle, after years of tension. However, that doesn’t mean he wasn’t susceptible to developing poor communication skills. It shouldn’t be a surprise that the atmosphere leading up to a divorce is often reactive, and that even a reasonable request risks setting the other off. If the interactions throughout a marriage were predominantly negative, neither could safely express what they actually wanted or were feeling, but having to anticipate the other’s reaction. As a result, he probably became adept at determining what could or couldn’t be said. But to a person dating them, it can seem like he’s talking around, hiding, or keeping things secret. For the sake of his kids, he may be hesitant to introduce you. Although this is appropriate to parenting; if, however, he automatically anticipates you’ll respond negatively, being habituated to in his marriage, and talks around, or gives vague reasons for his hesitancy, yet sensing he isn’t being up front, you could understandably respond negatively as a result. For example, you could feel excluded, that he doesn’t feel good enough about you to introduce you to his children. But you’re just going off what you sense and experience and, without knowing it, responding accurately to the reaction he’s anticipating. If though he had addressed meeting his kids clearly and honestly, you might’ve been understanding as well as relieved. His work, like all of us after a relationship has ended, is recognizing the stories we told ourselves don’t necessarily hold relevance in the next one. Your work though is to recognize and maintain your integrity when you sense it’s being treated incongruently, and not get become a part of his previous stories.
But it should be said, regardless of being divorced, when men are anxious in interpersonal contexts they tend to speak in abstractions and, to a certain extent, use ambiguity to reserve their assertions, until they have a sense of how these are being received. It may also be useful to consider, men generally have less tolerance for emotional experiences than women, prefer solving or fixing over relating, and more quick to react. This is often why men predominantly rely on anger, they don’t have sit with the feeling, and it bolsters their sense of strength, confidence and control over vulnerability. In relationship conflicts, anger is usually expressed or experienced as push back.
Loss, though a difficult feeling, is especially intolerable, and rather than feeling their way through this and grief, men try to think their way out. They comb through past details, hoping that by acknowledging their mistakes they’ll redeem themselves, and reconcile the marriage—despite having been told many times that the marriage was over. Although his thinking can become obsessive, he may be unaware it has, or become good at hiding it. That’s why it’s important when dating a recently divorced man to go slow, and maintain enough objectivity for both of you. Listen and learn, provide some feedback. But be prepared to hold some back, because he may not genuinely be over his marriage or in a place to have a relationship yet. Although it’s difficult to discern what’s obsessive preoccupation, and what’s just their emotions trying to catch up with them, the risk otherwise is, knowing you’re uncertain whether they are in a good place, they may try to convince you they are. Even if they’re not.
Remember, similar to the kid whose old friends told him they didn’t like him or his toys, a man’s post-divorce sense of himself and what he has to offer, is still through the eyes of his ex-wife. While appreciating him, and anything he has to offer, validates him, he may in part usurp this to invalidate his ex. Dating a divorced man can feel like entering into an alliance against a common enemy, although that commonality is nil, if only incidental. Yet participating in this alliance can be hard to resist, especially if participation increases his enthusiasm for you. This can be confusing, or backfire, wondering whether his enthusiasm is for you, or for taking his side. To clarify this ask yourself, would you have appreciated him as a package the same way if he hadn’t been effected by a divorce? This may help you distinguish any residues he’s carrying over from his marriage, and making into conditions that your relationship is unnecessarily contingent upon. If so, pause, step back. There’s two ways of seeing this. First off, you don’t have to go along with this. Nor should he insist that you do. If he’s going to move on and learn to have another, better relationship, he needs to recognize these things—for any future relationship, but here’s the opportunity with you. Secondly, although feeling resentful is understandable, realize it’s development is subtle. For example, early on, you made a comment about something in his place—a painting, lets say. His response may’ve included something about his relationship with his ex-wife. She always hated that picture, or Yeah, one of the few things she left behind. Initially you saw this is as part of his context, the aftermath of his being divorced. On some level you tried to keep your comments neutral, but as the relationship developed, his continually referencing his marriage became part of the landscape. Looking back you may not know whether your participation was out of trying to be understanding, or collusion. This can be confusing. While you meant to establish togetherness, he may’ve been usurping your participation to devalue his ex, under the guise of creating distance. Unfortunately, either way it’s crazy-making. Even though his intention was to establish separation from his ex-wife, in reality it only reinforced her presence, keeping him stuck and you feeling like a place holder. But hold on, part of this too has to do with gender differences. Women seek shared experiences in relationships, while men common interests or proximity.
Relationships with divorced men, present a mix of ordinary and unique relationship challenges. Coming from a marriage—proximity, where the contentment of sharing day to day life took precedence over romantic and sexual desire. Men sometimes relate to their wives like more of a buddy that, when feeling the urge, or desire for sex, shifts to more immediate, playful gestures. It’s loving and affectionate, but the degree of engagement, attention, and carnality of new or early romantic relationships is rarely there, nor is the effort. But, neither are going anywhere, and if the gesture isn’t received, it’s presumed it will be. When it can’t be presumed it’s often an indicator there’s problems. It’s pretty common to hear divorced and married men complain about the lack of sex in their marriage. Yet while divorced men potentially get to re-experience being desired and having sex initiated, they also have to put effort in paying attention, and staying engaged with their new partners. Looking back, a part of him may miss the advantages to the less effort-less sex trade off, because it allowed him down time.
Another common complaint in the women’s responses is feeling like a replacement. And, on one level, unfortunately, it’s likely they were, though once again this may have more to do with a male trait. However, as a romantic partner, allowing him to him to see you as a replacement, not only feels like you aren’t valued, but keeps continues to keep him stuck by relying on the model of his marriage, or trying to re-create it in the current relationship with you. Besides, how well did the last one turn out?
By and far, the biggest complaint though about recently divorced men is their back and forth. One minute you’re invited to make yourself at home, yet the next you’re reminded that it’s his house. Yes, he seems to appreciate you’re being there for him—but then shuts you out and wants space. A lot of this is his expectation that he needs to make a new life. For himself. You don’t want impede this, and are careful not to make assumptions, but you don’t want to pull back, or assume he needs space if he doesn’t. Yet you don’t want to wind up being a loaner wife until he gets it together in order to find an actual partner either. Still, you worry if you don’t, later he may feel he hasn’t created the new life he needed to, and will either regret this, or resent you. Common sense would say, Well, just ask him. But common sense probably hasn’t had a relationship with a recently divorced man. Otherwise, it would know they’re rarely clear with what they want.
However, while you do need to give him space, support him in developing independence, you also need to make sure he understands what it is you want for yourself. In fact, this may be the most important thing you can do for him to re-learn how to be in relationships. Stepping lightly around your needs, or giving him room because he’s so sensitive and outspoken about his, is counter intuitive. After being divorced most men have a hard time trusting it’s ok having their needs met, and he might distrust your stepping lightly as giving him enough rope to hang himself. Men appreciate clear boundaries and rules up front, so they know what will or won’t get them in trouble. Very few men respond well when they get in trouble for doing something they didn’t know would. For example, how long you’re willing to wait while he gets orientated. What do you expect from him in the meantime to stay engaged? This might include the number of dates nights, where or whether you spend the night, integrating social life, time lines, including being kept in the loop around his divorce.
Here’s the paradox of having a relationship with a recently divorced man: the risks are predicated on challenges which are the result of his preexisting circumstances that, apart from preexisting affair, you’ve had no part of, but yet are asked to. Yet what you’re asking for is the focus of problems in this relationship. What’s crazy-making is that you’re implicitly being punished for impinging upon not only what you have a right to impinge upon, but the very thing he needs to be impinged upon so he relinquish it and move on—his previous relationship. The challenge for you, and him, is to recognize whether he’s displacing blame, carried over from his divorce, onto you, and disguising it as his struggle to focus on his needs, verses reasonable ones for your relationship. Again, this isn’t about you—anymore than the other 3.5 billion women in the world, except for his having the ability to affect you and them, but no longer affect his ex-wife. Similar with trauma and the reaction to perceived threats to survival, threats to self esteem or worth can cause what’s called, “narcissistic wounds,” and can cause, “narcissistic rage,” in a response to having one’s hidden, ugly behaviors and motives exposed. This can lead to dysregulation, or severe distress. All of us have some degree of narcissism, healthy or otherwise. The dsyregulation men experience by the narcissistic wounding of divorce though has its own complexity. Like its loss and grief, the cause can be assigned to something outside acting upon them—i.e., blaming his ex-wife for the divorce. As the changes are forced into place, it’s made known to family and friends the reasons the marriage ended, sides and opinions formed, with no greater, absolute authority putting a stop to it, even the momentum can appear to work against and act upon him. Depending on his degree of narcissism, he could whither, withdrawing into depression, or continue reacting with push back, seeking revenge or, as with trauma, undoing a wrong, by finding ways to reverse the feelings of passive victimization into active control, at times unintentionally inflicting pain in attempting to rebuild their own self worth. Hence, displacing in inability to affect his ex, by affecting you. The crux of the challenge though is recognizing this stems from his need for self protection, preservation and to establish safety, and not get thrown off by it. Because of the divorce he is oversensitive to both survival and narcissistic threats and prone to aggression, needs to learn to be assertive. It’s important to be aware that his displacement is a means for overcoming what he still perceives as a threat, but you are not a threat, and while putting this foremost, will separate you from what he displaces on you, it will help him to separate from his defaulting to do this.
Yet, despite all this, relationships offer opportunities to heal, though the irony is, it’s healing from other, past relationships. Even though each of us are individuals, much of the concept we have of ourselves has developed within, and derived through the relationships we’ve had, and continues those going forward.

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All responses, though professionally based, are intended as opinions, and are not a substitute for working with a therapist professionally.