For most men, healing from divorce takes time.
The new guy is funny and engaging except when it comes to talking about his ex-wife. He says he got divorced a year ago, yet you aren’t sure he has recovered. Instead of being on a date, you feel like an investigator trying to discern if he has what you’re seeking. A man experiences divorce differently than a woman, so it’s important to know how to navigate seeing a guy who has gone through it.
“I tried dating before I was ready. I was a wreck,” admits Darryl Dixon*, now in his forties. “I met a young lady and we went out. I almost had to leave because I started to have a panic attack. Sitting inches away from her was too close for comfort. She could tell I was beginning to freak out. Eventually we left and talked after that. She wanted more than I was prepared to give.” The date was the wake-up call that pushed Dixon into counseling. “I’m still not seeing anyone seriously,” the former Atlanta-based corrections officer says. “If I can’t do a woman right, I don’t want to do her wrong.”
Divorce can be a huge stressor for all involved, and it’s often harder for men to recover. “Compared with women, men tend to get stuck in the anger stage and stay there a bit longer,” says Erma Lawson-Elahee, R.N., Ph.D., a retired University of North Texas associate professor and the coauthor of Black Men and Divorce. “Men can heal with traditional and spiritual counseling, therapy and increased involvement in social activities to help them through the process.”
Talking to a pastor and getting involved in church activities served as therapy for many of the men Lawson-Elahee has studied. Some participated more in Black fraternity events and political functions, while others joined community groups or coached basketball teams to cope with their psychological distress. “I also noticed that Black men relied more on their mothers for support than White men did,” adds Lawson-Elahee. Atlanta restaurant owner LeMare Harris spoke to his mother and then to his pastor after the dissolution of his union. “About a year after my divorce, I met a woman who invited me to go skating.
We had a great time and she was easy to talk to. There was a spark,” says the 40-year-old veteran. “As we got closer, I didn’t want to hurt her, because I was still hurting. That’s when I went on a soul-searching journey that included reading, fasting and prayer.” During this time they stayed in contact. A year later Harris told his pastor how much he really loved this woman. His pastor suggested they all sit down together and talk. “Three weeks after that conversation, I proposed to her. She said yes and we’ve been married for ten years,” he adds. After his divorce Harris has learned to be a better communicator and now avoids shutting down during a disagreement.
Women initiate nearly 70 percent of divorces, according to research gathered in 2015 by the American Sociological Association. That means a Black man is still possibly healing from what may not have been his choice. “Infidelity on the part of the male is the main cause of divorce in the cases that I have taken on. I’ve found that divorced Black men tend to suffer deep depression longer than Black women. They could be depressed for years postdivorce, whereas women tend to move on and pick up at a faster pace,” says Leon Dickerson, Ph.D., a psychotherapist in Harlem who has been in private practice for more than 20 years.
Bill Jackson, an IT professional, knows the depths of despair a man can fall into. “I did four things after the divorce,” says the Arkansas native who’s in his sixties. “I worked, came home, watched TV and went to bed. I went into a rut of depression, put on 120 pounds and developed diabetes and sleep apnea. Before, I was at the gym every day.” Jackson decided that he had had enough of the pity party and made a conscious decision to reclaim fitness and work on the areas that led to his divorce. “I’ve been in a committed relationship for four years,” he says. “My ego is no longer in charge. I’m more sensitive and attentive to my new lady’s needs. I’m listening and not arguing. I don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings, especially hers.”
“I’ve found that divorced Black men tend to suffer depression for years, whereas women move on at a faster pace.” —LEON DICKERSON, PH.D.
“Previously married men who are in their forties are more likely to remarry than never-married men in their forties,” says Philip N. Cohen, an associate professor at the University of Maryland, College Park. The perks of dating the former can include that they are not afraid to commit, have on-the-job-training, and understand that marriage is not a fairy tale and requires effort.
Lawson-Elahee advises to look out for men who date other women when they’re in the process of divorce and for men who fear that another relationship will end in the same way. Also a man with kids has unique considerations. Fiftysomething construction manager Artie Coleman is now a single dad. “I got custody of the children. My daughter was 10 and my son was 8. Men are used to dating women with kids, but not vice versa,” he says. “I was “all in” as a parent. A woman wants to feel as if she’s number one and she couldn’t feel that way with me. I still managed to date, but it became difficult to have a relationship. I had to feel strongly that a woman was going to be around before introducing her to my kids. Fast-forward ten years and now I’m happily in a relationship. We started dating four years ago, when my kids were older.”
It can be harder for men to get over a breakup emotionally because they don’t have the same support systems. They often talk to friends, but don’t express what they’re feeling in a way that allows vulnerability. “They can get stuck on how to get the person back or how to seek retaliation,” adds Cynthia Grace, a clinical psychologist in New York City and West Palm Beach, Florida. “Black men often get therapy at the gym or the barbershop with people who are not trained to provide professional assistance,” notes Lester L. Barclay, a Chicago attorney and the author of The African-American Guide to Divorce & Drama: Breaking Up Without Breaking Down. Friends may also encourage men to start dating immediately to get over the ex and just move on. However, that’s often not the right choice. “Using women as placeholders or rebounding immediately after a divorce mimics adolescent behavior,” says Jeff Gardere, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist in New York City. “Men rebound more often because they act out more sexually. It’s usually what adolescents do when they can’t identify what they’re feeling.”
According to some experts, even a few therapy sessions can help the recovery process, which can take between two and five years, depending on the situation and if there are children. “A man must take time to heal before getting into a new relationship,” adds Gardere, who has been divorced for five years. “If he doesn’t, he may enter it while he’s still hurt and damaged, and may not be emotionally ready.”
Ask questions to assess a divorced guy’s emotions and mind-set.
Gardere admits that he bought into the stereotype that being a financial provider was the major part of being a good husband and father, not understanding that another important part of the job is paying attention to a spouse’s emotional needs. Using his own experience, he’s helped many men move on to successful relationships. “What I practice and preach is, instead of jumping from a divorce into a new relationship, hang out with Emit!!! That’s time spelled backward.”
After many dates, Gardere is now seeing a woman he got to know really well first: “Unlike my other relationships that went from physical attraction to infatuation and then a legitimate loving relationship, in this one I had no interest in her other than as a friend. I got to know her personality and characteristics. The physical attraction and love took time and grew organically. Now we are just as much friends as we are romantic partners.”
Divorced men come with experience and history. Handle with care.
*Names of subjects have been changed.
This feature originally appeared in the October 2017 Issue of ESSENCE Magazine.