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A Most Important Exercise (aka Are You Ready for a Relationship?)

This disclaimer will sound familiar, but I have to say it – I am not a dating or marriage expert. I am just a guy who’s been through the darkness of divorce and who has, with God’s help, navigated the perilous road of singleness, dating, and remarriage. What I offer here are merely thoughts that have been brewing in my brain for 7+ years.

I’ve talked a lot about making a list of qualities you’re looking for in a future spouse – the “negotiables” and the “non-negotiables.”  I’ve talked a lot about how it’s vital that you don’t compromise, that you don’t settle. But I’d like to suggest something that’s of even greater importance before even stepping a foot on the dating path, post-divorce (PD).

It is essential that people who go through a divorce (whether it was a deeply painful experience or if the two are still “really good friends”) take time to evaluate themselves. Again, the best advice I received PD was to resist the urge to date for at least a year. Heal. Grow. Recover. Discover. Live. Once you come to a place where you think you want to try your hand at the dating scene again, I suggest this exercise:

A MOST IMPORTANT EXERCISE

Write down on paper (a journal, a notebook, etc) these categories – Spiritual, Physical, Mental, Emotional, Financial, Career. Underneath each of these categories, write “Where I Want to Be,” and under that write “Where I Honestly Think I am Right Now.” As you contemplate these areas of your life, the point isn’t to look for perfection. Heck, if that were the case, no one would do very well on this self-evaluation. The point is that you are making forward progress in these areas.

**Spiritual

Even if you don’t see yourself as a “religious person,” I assure you, this is the most important category of your life. It must receive the most attention. You were born (Who constructs a baby in the womb???), and you live (Who equips your lungs to breath, your heart to beat, and your cells to reproduce????), and you will die (What happens in the end? Is there an afterlife? Is there a heaven? A hell?) These are spiritual questions. I urge you to come up with at least something for the “Where I want to Be” section here. How spiritually mature would you say you want to become? Where are you now? What are some things you can do to get there?

**Physical

it’s not a for sure thing, but there is a good chance that in the aftermath of your divorce you dropped the ball regarding your physical health.  Rate yourself on how well you are eating, sleeping, and exercising. Do you have any habits that feel beyond your control, i.e. smoking like a train, drinking like a fish, eating like a pig, flying high like a kite? Before you’re ready to be a stable man in some woman’s life, you need to have enough self-control to say “yes” to what’s good for you and “no” to what is not.

**Mental/Emotional

These two areas are certainly interconnected. How is your mental health? I would be willing to bet that PD you have experienced at least a little bit of depression. At this point, how are you doing? Are you managing your depression (any necessary medication AND counseling/support network)? Do you feel mentally sharp? How’s your motivation for doing life? Are you able to experience a healthy range of emotions in appropriate situations? How are you feeding your brain – Are you a voracious reader (I encourage you to become one!)? Are you a student? Are you learning new things? What brings you the most joy in life now?

**Financial

Do you have a budget? Are you sticking to it? Do you control your money or does it control you? Do you have a debt-destruction plan? You don’t need to be debt-free to date, but I’d suggest that it’s important that you have a plan and that you’re working that plan.

**Career

Before your divorce did you have a dream to become an engineer? A mechanic? A baker? If your divorce derailed your goals, I want to encourage you to either get back on the same horse and move toward those goals, or find a new horse to ride. Come up with an updated dream job. How can you get there from here? Find a career you love and love the career  you find…

The Litmus Test

Again, the point of this self-assessment is not perfection. Are you moving forward? Are you comfortable in your own skin? Have you slain the codependent dragon?  I think that dating is a fun way to get to know someone. But I do believe that dating long-term should be for the purpose of testing the waters for marital compatibility.  Give yourself time to grow in the areas above where you need some work. Also, one of the most important litmus tests is when you can say,”I’m okay if I remain single the rest of my life – While I WANT a relationship, I don’t NEED one to be okay.” Once you’re there, I’d say, let the dating begin!

However, if you find that you have a LOT of work to do in the above categories, if you feel like you just HAVE TO HAVE a girlfriend to be okay, I assure you, that is the last thing you need. Surround yourself with guys who exhibit wisdom, men who could be a PD group of advisors for you. Get healthy in these categories, THEN re-enter the dating world.

Fight the Taboo (aka real men get help for their mental illness)

It was this time a few years ago that I came to a crossroads. I was in the midst of my PD (post-divorce) season of healing. I was seeing significant progress in my recovery AND my self-discovery. It was an exciting, although painful, season. But, as I began to be made more and more aware of who I was, what made me tick, etc, I noticed something.

For as far back as I could remember, EVEN INTO MY CHILDHOOD, I had this sense of gloom. My divorce only made things worse. I would wake up each morning, dreading the day. The best way I could describe it was that I was functioning inside of a “black cloud.” As each day would go on, the black cloud would somewhat dissipate, but, like clockwork, it would return the next day.

Now that I became aware of this, I took a drive across Colorado to visit my oldest sister. I had a five-hour trip to put my finger on what, exactly, I wanted to say. All I knew is that I didn’t want to live that way any more.

By the time I arrived in my hometown in western Colorado, I knew what I needed to declare. The words weren’t easy to spit out, but I needed to say them, “Sis, I think I’ve been fighting with depression. For a long time.”

You see, it was so hard to get those words out for a couple of reasons.

1.) My family of origin – My parents were old school when it came to dealing with issues. You either dealt with it “in-house” or you swallowed hard and kept silent, thinking that you could pull yourself out of any mess by your own boot straps. We never discussed mental illness at all during my growing up years except in reference to the hypochondriac, manipulative, angry aunt who raised my mother. But apart from that, the subject never came up. I had no frame of reference, no way to know what was normal or not in terms of depressed feelings. Regarding the need for any kind of counselor, totally out of the question. I’m sure if I would have asked to see a psychologist as a kid, my parents would have looked at my like I had 13 1/2 hands and three noses.

2.) I’m a guy – Not to over-generalize, but most guys don’t talk about their feelings. Not necessarily because we don’t want to, but mostly because we don’t always know what it is that we are feeling. Those pesky things called emotions are so hard to put a finger on, that it’s easier to keep quiet about instead of looking like a bumbling idiot who doesn’t know what’s going on in his own self. For me, I was scared to death to put a label on what I was feeling, because of how SERIOUS DEPRESSION IS. 

But, because my five-hour trip gave me the courage to put into words what it was that I was battling, I knew I had to tell someone about this internal wrestling match.

My sister and I, and a high school friend and I, had several good conversations that weekend. By the time I left that part of Colorado to head back to Colorado Springs, I was resolved to do something about this “black cloud” of depression.

Upon returning, I met with a recommended psychologist to get some testing done. This was done on the following Friday. The doctor who administered the tests felt that my situation was serious enough that she needed to call me the next day, instead of waiting until Monday.

She explained that there is a spectrum of depression, where on one end a person is pretty much depression free. On the opposite end of this spectrum, you have severe clinical depression. She described what the few middle notches on the spectrum were like. She asked me where I thought I was on this scale. I honestly answered, “Oh, somewhere just beyond the middle of the spectrum, I guess.”

She explained to me in detail that, no, I didn’t have things that good. She said that I was on the far end of the scale, and that I needed help, and fast. She suggested getting on medication as well as undergoing some counseling.

I was especially nervous about taking any kind of antidepressant. Again, my lack of knowledge paved the road to fear. So, after doing some research, and talking with my new core circle of friends, I came to realize how brain chemistry worked, and that taking an antidepressant was the equivalent to a diabetic taking insulin for health’s sake.

Fast Forward A Few Weeks

It usually takes a handful of weeks for Zoloft to kick in, but when it kicked in, it made such a HUGE difference. I remember the morning like it was this morning.

Instead of waking up with this “black cloud” surrounding me, instead of feeling paralyzed to do what I needed to do that day, I woke up early, about 5am. While I was lying there in my bed, it struck me. “Wow!” I thought. “Is this what it feels like to be happy and undepressed?” As I took inventory of my mental faculties, I began to laugh. Not because my situation was funny, but because I felt for the first time a major sense of relief.

Are antidepressants a fix-all? No. But, under the right circumstances, they can be a life-saver. Was I permanently healed? No. Again using the diabetes analogy, the diabetic has to use insulin long-term to maintain their body’s needs. It could very well be that I need to remain on Zoloft the rest of my life. Honestly, I’m okay with that.

Are Meds Enough?

The best one-two punch in dealing with depression is careful medication coupled with counseling. Being able to get that extra set of eyes that can look into your life objectively is a significant part in making sense of depression, ESPECIALLY FOR MEN.

Don’t Get Cold Feet

If you even have a tiny clue that you might be dealing with depression (if you’re divorced, divorcing, or on the rocks, chances are you ARE dealing with some level of depression), Google the counselors and psychologists in your area. Just do it. Don’t overthink it. When you’re depressed, you can talk yourself out of almost anything. Just do it.

Beyond that, find at least ONE trusted person in your circle of influence, a friend, relative, coworker, etc, that you can say to them, “I think I’m battling depression.” Get those words out. Then, you can have a compassionate ally on your side who can understand you and help you get the treatment you need. Don’t chicken out on this part of it.

Don’t Buy It…

Don’t buy into the notion that men aren’t supposed to be depressed

Don’t buy into the notion that you are weak for admitting you are depressed

Don’t buy into the notion that there is no hope for your situation

Don’t buy into the notion that you are less of a human being, less of a man, because you are seeking treatment for mental illness

Don’t buy into the notion that counseling is for wimps

Don’t buy into the notion that antidepressants are evil and aren’t to be trusted

Guys, regarding the war against mental illness, and specifically YOUR BATTLE WITH DEPRESSION, with the right help, YOU’VE GOT THIS. Hang in there.

Your Brother in the Battle,

BKM