Here's What It's Like To Date Again After Getting Divorced At 26
I was lonely, but I also had the freedom to explore dating as a bisexual, polyamorous woman.
The finale of two lives coming together as one feels a lot like you’d imagine: sad, lonely, bittersweet, an end to a beginning. But as with everything, the world continues to move, and in time, even divorcées have to move forward. Cue dating: navigating awkward first dates, new potential partners, and deciding how and when to share that, as a twenty-something, you have divorce papers.
A few short months after my ex-husband and I decided on a divorce, I ventured out into the strange and scary world of dating. It was my attempt to accept myself fully as the bisexual, polyamorous woman I am — an attempt worthy of pursuing. I downloaded dating apps and began swiping, which felt impersonal and sad. Before meeting my ex-husband, I had tried dating apps in 2013, with the only promising options being the earliest form of Tinder and Plenty of Fish. Back then, I was purely trying my hand at hookup culture. But when it came to dating post-divorce, I decided to download Bumble and later, Hinge. I decided to keep my profiles short and sweet, keeping it light, with a few recent photos and a mention of being new to New York City.
My first date was outdoors at a Latin restaurant with a woman I met on Bumble two days prior. Somewhere in-between her apologizing for being late, and my anxious nibbling on chips and salsa, she asked what brought me to a dating app, why I moved from San Diego to New York City on a whim, and how I felt about my identity as a bisexual woman. In my nervousness, I simply blurted it out: “I’m divorced.”
She looked stunned, and without hesitation, busted out in roaring laughter. She laughed so loudly that other surrounding tables looked over at us. She laughed so loudly and for so long that I, stunned myself, dropped my jaw. She eventually stopped and awkwardly mumbled, “I’m sorry, I shouldn’t be laughing.” Our food hadn’t even arrived yet. In retrospect, maybe I didn’t navigate sharing my divorce as eloquently as I should have. But maybe she shouldn’t have laughed, either.
There isn’t exactly a handbook for dating after marrying and divorcing young. According to the United States Census Bureau, the average age of marriage in the U.S. has trended up significantly, as Americans wait longer to get married. In 2020, women got married for the first time at 28.1 years old, on average, while men first tied the knot at 30.5 years old. Back in the 1920s, those numbers were a solid decade lower. That means that I, married at 23, separated at 24, and divorced at 26 was definitely not the norm. And that can make anyone feel alone and lost.
I quickly decided to never see the woman again. I wanted to keep exploring being polyamorous, as I had done during my open marriage. But without much guidance on reentering dating as a single woman, I wasn’t hopeful I’d ever feel comfortable going on dates, swiping on apps, or casually chatting someone up in a bar. I lay in bed at night asking myself question after question: How can I move forward when I thought I already found the one? How can I share this part of my life with a potential partner? Isn’t it a turn-off that I’ve already been married and divorced? We’ve all heard the saying there are plenty of fish in the sea. But as we know, it can be hard to jump in again when you feel you’ve lost the ability to swim.
“Entering the dating world after divorce is tough for anybody but for young people, it can be especially difficult because it can feel so isolating,” says Tess Brigham, MFT, BCC, a psychotherapist and life coach who specializes in helping 20-somethings. “Two people in their late 40s can talk about divorce and feel a sense of connection because they both went through something difficult around the same phase of their lives. This is different for a young person because, most likely, the other person on the date can't relate to being married and divorced so young.”
She explains that, unfortunately, many young divorced people feel like they have to validate their past choices and decisions to other individuals who can't relate. This is exactly how I felt. I used to view my divorce as a failure, one that revealed my worst attributes as a person. And it turns out, I am not the only young divorcée to feel that way early on in their return to dating life.
Saramonet, 26, a behavior analyst in southern California, married her ex-husband at 23 before getting a divorce three years later. Not unlike myself, she says the idea of having to put herself back out into the dating world was a cause of anxiety and frustration.
“After my divorce, everyone told me ‘at least I’m still young.’ But I didn’t feel young. I felt worn down from my divorce and initially, I truly was far from any thoughts of dating,” Saramonet says. “The idea of having to become vulnerable over and over again gave me anxiety and a sense of dread. My marriage didn’t last, so what point was there investing in another person if, in the end, they were just going to leave anyway?”
Loneliness is, in my experience, the most prevalent feeling among those who divorce young. It can feel isolating, as if there is no one who understands, especially not friends in your age group. Olivia, a writer living in Brooklyn who divorced at 23, had the same experience.
“As much as I wanted to live like a typical 23-year-old, I just didn’t feel like other 23-year-olds,” she explains. “Most people my age weren’t even in long-term relationships or thinking about marriage, much less processing the thought of divorce. I didn’t relate to the people I was dating and felt really alone.”
In my own dating life, I had to take baby steps. I made rules to help me feel more comfortable on dates. For example, I decided I’d only share my divorce when I felt ready to discuss it. That way, I wouldn’t experience roaring laughter from across a table, and I could be kinder to myself through the process of getting to know someone new. I also decided that first dates felt the best to me when they were simple activities, like going for coffee or a walk in the park, rather than extravagant dinner dates or shows. This eased the pressure and made me feel less nervous.
Brigham says there are other ways to navigate dating and combatting initial nerves, too, such as shifting your mindset about what a date is, and how you prescribe meaning to it. “You're meeting someone new for a coffee — this doesn't have to be your life partner — so, go into the date with the mindset of, ‘I'm going to meet someone new, there may be chemistry or there might not be chemistry, in the end I'll get to meet a new and interesting person.’”
It’s also important to recognize the reason why you’re getting back into dating and remember that you don’t need to apologize or explain your past. “There was a reason why you got married and there's a reason why you got divorced,” Brigham explains, “While it may seem novel to some people in the dating world, you went through something challenging and you don't need to tell anyone what happened or why or excuse your choices.”
With these small but mighty shifts in approach, the world of dating can become less scary. I fumbled through my own experiences with bad dates and casual sex, amazing adventures in New York City, meeting people I’ve become wonderful friends with, and finding my primary partner. I paid attention to my own comfort levels, I began doing the work in weekly therapy, and I tried to find support where I could, from loved ones and other professional resources.
In between dating women and multiple partners openly for the first time — which was exhilarating, scary, hopeful and ultimately, extremely fulfilling — I also managed to find a balance in sharing who I am and what I’ve endured. I learned that I didn’t have to share my divorce with everyone I met, but when I felt the possibility of a true connection, I found that a candid conversation in a private setting helped me to feel safe. I began to enjoy myself again, something which felt impossible at first. I found contentment in being extra kind to myself, even if I had a day where I felt lost. I am lucky, now, to have a primary partner who is the most understanding and accepting human I’ve ever had the privilege of knowing intimately. When it came to telling him about my divorce, he never looked at me any differently, but rather, embraced my past and loved me for it. After all, it is what has made me who I am today.
A first marriage, Brigham says, is one that teaches you a lot about yourself. It highlights what you ultimately want in a relationship and what you value in a marriage. It can provide you with lessons that you will carry for your entire life, into future relationships with others, and most importantly, with yourself.
A divorce is only the first step toward the life you’re dreaming of — a life you get to create.
After a divorce, it seems like everyone has something to say. Those comments aren’t always helpful, but real help does exist. There are professional resources available, including many different styles of therapy and even support groups for young divorcées. Support groups can be found through platforms such as Circles — an online service which can match you with other ‘circles’ in need of support and a similar safe space — or through the support group section of Psychology Today.
And don’t forget: you’re not alone in this experience. There are other young divorcées — like me, Saramonet and Olivia — who have been through it and lived to tell the tale. While it can feel like the world is ending, Olivia says, a divorce is only the first step toward the life you’re dreaming of — a life you get to create. Dating can be a part of that life if you want it to be.
“You’re going to be OK. You’ll make it through and you will find reasons to smile again and even laugh again. You will cry a lot, but eventually, the tears do stop and you will be able to breathe normally,” Saramonet says, “You will be able to look at yourself in the mirror and see someone who is worthy enough and completely deserving of love.”
As I look back on the years after my divorce, I no longer see myself as a failure. Now, I see a young woman who was mourning the loss of the life she thought she’d live, a woman who learned to love herself alone and with a partner, a woman who loved herself by setting herself free. Divorce wasn’t the end. It was just the beginning.
Tess Brigham, MFT, BCC, a psychotherapist and life coach