Divorced — And Dating Again — Before Most of Your Friends Are Engaged

(Photo: Jennifer Fox for Yahoo Health)

When Joelle Caputa was 26, she had a clear idea of what she wanted in life: an amazing career, a solid marriage, and kids. One day, while working at a Starbucks and building a career in public relations, she met a hairstylist, went on a date, and found herself caught up in a whirlwind romance. 

“We spent every day together after we began dating,” she tells Yahoo Health. “Marriage was the next logical step in our relationship.”

The pair tied the knot at 27. But it didn’t take long for Caputa to realize her husband was still figuring himself out. “I thought marriage would change things and once we were settled, everything would fall into place,” she says. “But it didn’t. He was very unhappy and quit a lot of jobs, which left me with the financial pressure. Then, he decided that he never wanted to have kids.” 

Caputa had always wanted to be a mom, “so I knew it was over then — there was nothing else worth working on,” she says. “I wasn’t going to give up that dream.”

After 14 months of marriage, at 28, Caputa divorced. “It was scary leaving my marriage and moving back home. I also lost my job, so I was really starting over from scratch,” she remembers. 

But then the realization hit her: Now that she was unattached again, she could do anything she wanted. “I threw myself into my hobbies, went out with friends, and really focused on myself,” she says. “I enjoyed dating again, too.” Caputa went on to write the book Trash the Dress: Stories of Celebrating Divorce in Your 20s. She also formed an online support group and hosted local meet-ups to connect with other young divorcees. “People don’t talk about being divorced when you’re so young,” she says. “But once someone opens up about it, more stories come out of the woodwork.”

Calculating how many people divorce every year — let along divorce in their 20s — can be tricky, but there’s no question that Caputa is hardly a rare case. “We’ve known forever that people who marry especially young have high divorce rates,” Nicholas H. Wolfinger, PhD, a professor of sociology at the University of Utah, tells Yahoo Health. “When you’re young, you’re more immature, you likely don’t know who you are, and you could be marrying without a lot of social support.” Even though only 26 percent of 18-to-33-year-olds are married, according to recent Pew research, the numbers show that the younger you marry, the higher the likelihood of divorce. In fact, a 25-year-old is more than 50 percent less likely to get divorced than someone who marries at age 20, Wolfinger notes.

Of course, not everyone who marries young ends up getting divorced. But when it does happen, “I think sometimes people feel like damaged goods,” Gail Bleach, PhD, a Maryland-based psychologist who specializes in divorce, tells Yahoo Health. “But clinically, I would say it’s the same as a longer-term relationship breaking up. Many people have lived together and not gotten married and broken up. For whatever reason, you just got married.”

As anyone will tell you, dating is challenging whether you’ve been divorced or not. “It’s hard finding single men! Where do people meet?!” laments Michelle Farrell, a 29-year-old who got married at 25 and divorced last August. But for people whose relationship history includes a marriage, there are some unique factors to consider when re-entering the dating pool. For instance: “How do I go from being a wife back to being a girlfriend?” asks Farrell. 

Here’s what to be on the lookout for, if you find yourself in Farrell’s boat: 

All that talk about having a “type” is actually true. As human nature goes, we tend to chase after the same kinds of people — and that’s not always a good thing, especially if you’ve been divorced.

Here’s something you may not have realized: “For everyone who re-marries, the chance of divorce is about 65 percent,” says Bleach. That means “second marriages are less successful than firsts and third marriages are less successful than seconds.”

In part, that’s because people tend to marry people similar to the person they left — the same person in a different body, Michael B. Spellman, PhD, a psychologist at the Carter Psychology Center in Bradenton, Florida, tells Yahoo Health. How come? “When we date, we don’t go fishing in the ocean, we go to lakes,” Spellman says. “Our tastes, social circles, and lifestyles lead us to a fairly narrow selection of mates.”

The problem: If you send out the same social cues to the same type of people post-divorce, you invite similar behaviors back into your life, he explains. For example: Tend to be passive in a relationship? If you continue to be, that passivity could invite people who want control. “Similar issues that emerged before [in your previous relationship] could emerge again,” Spellman says.

Another unfortunate cycle that can repeat: If you’ve experienced unhealthy, dysfunctional relationships, you’re more likely to wind up in an unhealthy, dysfunctional relationship because it’s what you know, Bleach says. And while this correlation transcends age (it exists whether you’re 40 or 20), when you say ‘I do’ in your 20s, you have fewer life experiences to go off of, says Bleach.

Hannah Hendricks, a 26-year-old who got married at 19 and divorced at 23, says that when she married, she was coming out of her freshman year of college, where she had been brutally raped. “I desperately wanted a man to love me for more than sex. When I met my ex, I thought I had found that,” she tells Yahoo Health. Instead, she found a relationship filled with emotional, physical, and sexual abuse. Hendricks ultimately left her marriage — and three years lately, says she finally feels healed enough to date in a healthy way.

“I think the biggest challenge is not falling into the same mistakes as before,” Hendricks says. “For me, I tried to date too soon to fill the void. I tried to find men who would fill an emotional void or a physical void … but really I needed to be able to stand on my own two feet.” A strong support group of family and friends (and an awesome counselor) taught Hendricks what it meant to be content on her own.

While some fall into similar dating patterns, others hesitate to begin dating in the first place: “I feel like it’s the black letter D on my chest — like people hear that I’m divorced and think, ‘What is wrong with her?’” Farrell tells Yahoo Health. “My biggest challenge was getting over that. No one thought that! And if they did, they weren’t worth my time.”

However, Wolfinger says that remaining single into older age may carry more stigma than being divorced in your 20s. “Eighty-five percent of people get married in their lifetime,” he notes.

This is hardly a scientific polling, but even though some of the people Yahoo Health interviewed reported that they’ve come across potential dates who have said divorce was a deal-breaker, many said that the majority of people they’ve met are receptive to the situation and understanding of what happened. That could be because, for the most part, divorce is no longer socially unacceptable, says Spellman. 

People are increasingly understanding of the idea of a “starter marriage” — a first marriage that may serve as preparation for a longer, more fulfilled marriage, he adds: “People can take a second swing at identifying a mate who is a better match, and will likely come at that with additional strengths and assets.”

Divorce can lead some people to retreat emotionally in an attempt to heal and recover, says Spellman. While the degree of pain is different for every person, loneliness, sadness, depression, and even PTSD — which Hendricks experienced after leaving her abusive relationship — are all possible side effects of ending a marriage.

“I suffered insomnia-induced anxiety attacks and even hid in my bedroom during my first post-divorce holiday season to avoid the embarrassment of facing my extended family,” remembers Caputa. 

After all, divorce can make you feel different — especially if you have a close-knit group of family and friends who are married. “It’s lonely sometimes because my friend group is all married, some with kids, but almost no one is single or divorced,” Katie Duvall, a single mother who divorced in 2013, tells Yahoo Health. If everyone in your social circle is paired up, it may be difficult to find someone to date — and to introduce a newcomer to a solid group of couples or families. 

In a blog post for The Huffington Post, Caputa details the seven emotional stages of divorce in your 20s as: relief, devastation, failure, embarrassment, anxiety, anger, then celebration. 

Indeed, “no one likes to feel like they failed,” says Wolfinger. But while feelings of devastation, anxiety, and embarrassment are normal, they can also be enough to keep you in your own head — instead of out living your life. In her blog post, Caputa describes the anxiety as: “The woman lies awake all night telling herself she is never going to have children (or siblings for her current children) because she’ll be too old by the time she falls in love again if she even re-marries! Will her new man care that she is divorced? How will she explain that on dates? These questions shoot out of a young divorcée’s mind like an automatic weapon.”

But Caputa, who is now remarried with a one-year-old daughter, continues on to say: “Living well will be her best revenge.”

Of course, not every marriage that ends in divorce leaves someone completely alone — young divorcees like Duvall, who have children with their exes, are also tasked with being a single parent. 

“If you’re young, you likely have less or no experience parenting [and] you probably don’t have many years in your career (so you may have fewer financial resources),” Bleach says. While single parenting is difficult at any age, time tends to allow for not only additional experience, but also more job and financial stability, Bleach says.

Duvall says she dated her husband for five years before marrying. “We were the perfect couple for a long time. There was so much love,” she shares. “My ex is bipolar and I had some health problems that developed and he couldn’t take it. When I got pregnant with our son, I had to spend weeks in the hospital and I was alone the whole time.” Duvall’s ex ultimately cheated on her, leaving her and her four-day-old son. Duvall’s ex-husband isn’t in her son’s life.

“As a single mom and night-shift nurse, I have precious little free time. I’m also very protective of my son and am very particular about who meets him. A lot of guys my age don’t have kids,” Duvall explains. “They don’t understand how hard it can be.” As a result, she doesn’t date much. 

When she does, she tries to keep her son out of it at the beginning. “Don’t drag your children into a new relationships unless you are pretty sure it will last,” advises Duvall. “Remember that you are wonderful and worthy. You aren’t damaged goods and your children are not baggage.” 

Holding off on introducing someone new to a child until you’re fairly certain it’s serious could be smart, especially if your child is young, as the first five years of a child’s life are an important developmental phase, Spellman explains. 

“People who get divorced young have it much easier,” says Wolfinger. “You have friends who use Tinder, you have more single friends, and you haven’t designed your life around being married.” He also says that 20-somethings tend to “know how to date” more so than people who have been removed from the scene for decades. (Think about it: Tinder didn’t even exist before 2012!)

Twenty-somethings are also more likely to know people who are dating — which makes the pool of single people bigger and the act of dating easier. “One advantage to being young is being able to find more people my age to date,” Christa Nissen, a 24-year-old who got married at 18 and divorced at 23, tells Yahoo Health. “Even though it’s been awhile since I’ve dated, I am still able to remember some parts of the dating scene.” 

There’s also another heavy load of divorce that’s usually lighter the younger you are: If you divorce in your 20s, chances are you haven’t been married that long. That means fewer assets to divide up, making for a smoother legal divorce process, Bleach notes. 

And remember those two happy stages of Caputa’s seven stages of divorce? Relief and celebration open doors — and once you’re free to do you and focus on yourself, you also welcome all sorts of new, positive experiences. “The best ‘pro’ about divorce in my opinion is the ability to take back you and become exactly who you want to,” Ashley Hill, a 30-year-old who got divorced in 2012, tells Yahoo Health. 

“It’s always easiest to know what you wish your spouse had done differently,” says Spellman, but it’s worth asking yourself: What might my ex-spouse say about me? “Whether it’s valid or not, that still deserves attention,” he says. So wrack your brain: “Partners always give us feedback — sometimes in pleasant, helpful ways; sometimes in not-so-nice ways,” Spellman says. Being able to have a different viewpoint on a relationship can help with future ones.

While it’s comfortable to surround yourself with people just like you, a more diverse friendship circle allows you to meet more people, says Spellman. This is important considering the tendency to fall for the same type of person. “Until I was divorced, I always said I wouldn’t date someone who was [also divorced] because of history repeating itself — but I’ve realized the need to be more open-minded about the situation,” says Nissen.

Hill adds that going after what you want — not who you want — will attract people who support you and love you for being you. “It’s an incredibly amazing feeling to look at your life and know that the people in it are all there because they know exactly who you are and who you want to become, and knowing that they support you in that adventure,” she tells Yahoo Health.

. As the saying goes, there’s a correlation between the energy you put out and the kinds of people who are drawn to you. “You may feel broken inside, but the best way to move on is to put on a smile. You want to emit positive energy and attract the right people,” Caputa says. But how do you tell people about the divorce? That’s up to you, experts say. “Everyone should be honest, but we don’t need full disclosure at every turn,” says Wolfinger. If you feel like leaving your divorced status off a dating profile and instead want to tell someone on the second date, that’s totally fine. “Focus on the future and getting to know the man in front of you,” Caputa advises.

“Take an awesome new profile picture of yourself,” suggests Caputa. Make your accounts all about you — and your new journey.

Just because the first person you date post-divorce is charming and totally cool with your past, doesn’t mean he or she is the one. Of course, that person may be, but Caputa urges taking the time to really explore all your options. And if something isn’t working? Move on, she says. “You already had the troubled relationship, you don’t need that again. This is your second chance.”

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