My first relationship lasted four years. During that time, Katie and I were everything to each other — we were lovers, roommates, best friends, and shopping buddies. And when it fell apart, being everything to each other was my biggest problem.
After we split, I was determined to become my own person again, find new friends, and start doing the things I enjoyed before I became one half of a couple. I joined Meetup and signed up for groups like Gay Nerds of New York and Brooklyn Knitters. I said yes when a coworker asked me to go out for lunch, then said yes again when she asked if I wanted to hang out on the weekend. It was a slow process, but over time I started to feel like my own person and after promising myself I’d never be so codependent again, I pronounced myself ready to start dating someone else — two years later.
“We need time to feel safe again, to feel that we can shore up our strength and be present with another person,” says Rosara Torrisi, Ph.D., a sex and relationship therapist in New York.
That’s true no matter why you took a hiatus from dating. While I had a long break between partners because of a breakup, others opt out because of an illness, a demanding job, being a caregiver, or because they just weren’t in the dating headspace for some time.
While there are a lot of reasons someone might put dating on the back burner, there are a couple things every person needs in order to return to the work of building healthy relationships, according to Torrisi. “You have to feel comfortable with being vulnerable, honest, and straightforward,” she says. “You have to know what you want and be ready to share it with another person, and you have to be open to compromise and finding common ground.”
Not there, yet? Here are six things that could help.
1. Take steps to feel good about yourself.
It’s much easier being vulnerable with someone else if you feel confident in yourself. Torrisi suggests doing whatever you need to get there before you get back on the dating horse. That might be getting a new haircut, exercising more frequently, eating more fruits and veggies, or following body-positive Instagrammers to reshape your mental image of yourself.
Confidence aside, beginning to date again is a shift, and a big change in your appearance can help signify that for you. “We want to outwardly mirror that we feel like a different person,” Torrisi says. Still, she cautions against doing anything too permanent. (Think: getting a tattoo.) But physical changes that aren’t permanent, like a new haircut, a piercing that can easily be removed, a new clothing style, or a new makeup look can also go a long way toward starting to look and feel ready to take on what’s next.
2. Feel all your feels.
If your hiatus comes with a barrel of negative emotions, either because of a breakup or another form of grief (such as losing a loved one), it can be tempting to push your feelings away. But you need to feel the not-so-good stuff before you can move on. “If we sit with our negative emotions, they tell us things — what we need more of or less of, what we value or don’t value, how we’re living our values or not, what it’s like to be hurt and if we’re okay with being hurt, and how we can be OK with being hurt,” Torrisi says.
You might realize, for example, that you need a partner who supports your career choices or someone who can keep up with you during an intellectual sparring match. No matter your needs, dissecting your feelings about whatever happened, even if it didn’t involve a previous relationship, can help you discover them.
3. Count on your support network.
If feeling your feelings gets to be too much on your own, go to the people you care about most. Your friends and family can help you work through the sadness, pain, and anger in a healthy way. What’s more, deep conversations with people who already care about you are good practice for being vulnerable with and listening to someone new. Even if you’re going over to a friend’s house to rant about a harsh professor, you can use the conversations you have there to be more open about your wants and needs. Something as simple as admitting that you’re struggling in a class and need help can be a start in putting your needs out there.
4. Go to therapy.
Therapy might seem like an obvious answer to building confidence and the ability to be vulnerable, but many of us are still holding out on this form of self-care. Sam C., 25, credits the work she did in therapy for getting over an on-again-off-again ex and landing in a happy new relationship. Others use therapy to realize that they didn’t deserve the unfair way that romantic and sexual partners treated them in the past, to recognize their self-worth, to get over social anxiety, and to learn how to communicate their emotions clearly and healthfully.
While your friends are great, a therapist knows all the right buttons to push so you can go down a path of self-discovery and build your confidence. “In therapy, we’re often working on developing a greater vocabulary around feeling,” Torrisi says. This can help set you up for success when you’re ready to share those feelings with someone else.
5. Get a pet.
Sometimes, when people take a long break from dating, they become isolated, Torrisi says. Pets can help, because they force you to go out and interact with other people. Dogs need to be walked, and while cats don’t need the outside exercise, they do need vet checkups (especially kittens). And that means you’ll have to talk to people in the waiting area. That’s not to say that you’ll 100% meet another dog or cat lover and start dating, but the practice of interacting with other people can go a long way to get you there.
6. Find your armor.
Building confidence is a long-term project, but one quick solution if you feel ready but also nervous to date is to find a tool to boost yourself in the moment. “You need to have something that gives you armor and confidence,” Torrisi says. “It could be a pump-up song, an outfit, a pair of sunglasses, your father’s dog tags, or a charm your grandmother gave you.” There may be nothing magical about whatever you choose, but it still has the power to remind you that you are deserving of love and you can be vulnerable without getting shattered.
This is by no means an all-encompassing guide but rather a blueprint to get you started. You might not need to take all of these steps to be ready to date again — one or two might be enough. No matter how you get there, the important thing is to ask yourself if you’re truly ready to put yourself out there again. If the answer is no, there’s no shame in taking more time.