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The rate of divorce in America remains high, leaving many adult men and women alone, available and wondering how to maneuver on the playing field. After years of being in a relationship, putting yourself back in the singles market can be a daunting endeavor. Here, David A. Anderson, Ph.D., offers advice gleaned from his own research and that of other experts to help you get back into dating mode.

After 19 years of waking up next to the same person, 44-year-old Yolanda*, a marketing consultant, suddenly found herself greeting mornings alone. Recently divorced, she was overwhelmed by the mere thought of dating again. Yolanda's self-esteem was so damaged by her tumultuous breakup that she worried about her ability to start a new relationship, not to mention her rusty dating skills. And the pool of single men looked more like a droplet compared with the ocean available to her during her younger years.

Yolanda may have felt alone on the playing field, but she was far from it. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, approximately nine in 10 people will marry, but about one half of first marriages end in divorce. Between 1970 and 1996, the number of women living alone doubled to 14.6 million, and the number nearly tripled for men, jumping from 3.5 million to 10.3 million.

With so many single adults out there, one might guess that there's also a lot of dating going on. Instead, it seems that the older we get, the less we date. In one study conducted at the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research, social psychologist Jerald G. Bachman, Ph.D., found that nearly 50 percent of 18-year-olds go out at least once a week, compared with only approximately 25 percent of 32-year-olds.

While it's true that some people simply choose not to date, others want to but don't know how to go about it or can't overcome their negative self-thoughts. So how can those who are struggling with these obstacles successfully and healthfully re-enter the dating arena? First, it's important to set appropriate personal standards. In particular, will you play hard to get or be an easy catch? I call the manifestation of these standards one's "social price." The more you have to offer in a relationship, the more you can expect in return, thus increasing your appropriate social price. Factors that help determine your social price include your ability to bring desirable traits such as inner strength, kindness, intelligence and affection to a relationship.

Working with Shigeyuyki Hamori, an economist at Kobe University in Japan, I researched methods for estimating the qualities and contributions of marriage prospects. We hypothesized that singles seeking relationships assess unseen qualities in others based on social price as it is reflected in actions, body language and verbal communication. We concluded that those exhibiting self-confident assertions of dating standards are perceived as holding relatively more promise as marriage partners. Conversely, those who appear insecure and desperate, call a love interest excessively or engage in sexual activity too soon send signals that they hold inferior unseen traits.

 

So just as we tend to assume that expensive cars are better than similar, cheaper ones, we may also conclude that those demonstrating high social prices have unobserved qualities superior to those with lower social prices. But be wary: Overselling also occurs. For instance, individuals with a substantial income but little else to offer may exaggerate their social price. And as with any type of price misrepresentation, true quality eventually surfaces. In the dating market, this can translate into a broken relationship.

At the core, inaccurate social pricing is a by-product of low self-esteem and other negative self-emotions. "Fear absolutely devastates some people," says clinical psychologist Michael S. Broder, Ph.D., a former radio-talk-show host and author of The Art of Living Single. "It can be the fear of being hurt, rejected or involved, and it can stem from a history of having been hurt or of traumatic relationships. People can be very proficient in other parts of their lives, but the fear of dating can make them stay alone or pine for the relationship they left."

Others rebound or get involved in another relationship too soon. Their desperation usually stems from sadness, guilt, anger or anxiety about being alone. "You get this feeling that you're in the worst possible situation in your life," Broder explains. "Then you may do what you later consider desperate: a one-night stand, calling the ex or ignoring intuitive warnings and jumping into a bad relationship you would never choose if you weren't feeling reckless."

Fortunately, it is possible to avoid these and other pitfalls when seeking out a new partner. If you're ready to get back in the saddle again, here are five key tips to help you on your way.

1. Develop A (New) Support Group

It's natural to turn to old friends for support. They know and care about you, and they typically have your best interests in mind. But more often it's new friends who will better help you adjust to your new life. That's because friends shared with your ex often unwittingly take sides, and either alliance can prove a hindrance when introducing someone new into your life. Old friends may lack the proper interest or compassion, and they may even be jealous of your newfound freedom.

"My divorce split our extended families and friends," says Yolanda of her and her ex-husband. "But my new friends had a fresh perspective that helped my self-esteem. Those who were single had confidence that was contagious; that really helped me when I started going out again as a single person. And sometimes they offered good advice."

Do use discretion when listening to others' words of wisdom, advises Broder. "Solutions that worked for a friend may be a disaster for you. If you don't want advice, be assertive and let people know that advice giving is off-limits unless it's requested."

For the most part, however, friendship is a vital ingredient in the recovery process. "Facing things alone can take a toll on you," says Broder. "Friends can help you see that dating doesn't have to be so serious."