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Being single again after a years-long relationship can be weird, to say the least. It may seem like, one minute, you have a steady cuddle buddy to spoon with every night, and the next, you’re painfully aware of how big your bed feels now that you’re the only one in it. And let’s be honest—your flirting skills might be a little rusty, making the thought of striking up a conversation with a cute stranger all the more intimidating.
Getting over a breakup is hard work, and even after you’ve moved past the grief and sadness, there are still other challenges that come with reentering the dating scene, Patrice Le Goy, PhD, LMFT, a Los Angeles–based couples therapist, tells SELF. “You might feel insecure about how dating works, or have the fear of being intimate with a new person,” Dr. Le Goy says. “It can also feel awkward, or like you’re ‘cheating,’ when you share or do things with someone new after you’ve had a long-term partner.”
But when you’re finally feeling ready—excited even—to get back out there and explore your options, these pointers can make the transition feel a little more natural (and a lot less scary).
1. Make sure you’re actually ready to date again.
Signing up for dating apps with the sole purpose of making your ex jealous, say, or to avoid sleeping alone might not be the best idea. Because when you’re motivated by revenge or a fear of loneliness (rather than genuine interest or curiosity), it’s pretty damn hard to be emotionally available, which is necessary if you’re serious about moving on or even just having fun, Dr. Le Goy says.
So before you swipe right or agree to that blind date with your sibling’s cute coworker, check in with yourself to make sure you’re really ready to get back out there. “Some signs include not feeling the need to constantly discuss and dissect your previous relationship,” Dr. Le Goy says. “This shows you’re not harboring any lasting resentment or regrets that can linger into a new relationship.”
Another good indicator is just being excited to meet people—even if they don’t end up being “the one.” That means you’re open to exploring new connections, which is healthy “as long as you’re not relying on someone else to make you happy or fill a void,” Dr. Le Goy says. (Otherwise, you’re just setting yourself up for disappointment and putting unnecessary pressure on yourself and them.)
2. Think of dating as a learning opportunity—not just a way to replace your ex.
There’s a common misconception that dating is solely about finding a new partner or even just a fling for casual, fun sex. But you can still get something out of the experience—other than someone to move in (or just sleep) with, Gabriela Reyes, LMFT, a couples therapist at Coral Gables Counseling Center in Coral Gables, Florida, tells SELF.
Rather than having a specific end goal in mind, Reyes suggests a little perspective shift: “Opening yourself up to dating can put you in the headspace of, ‘I’m going to meet some cool people. Some of them are going to be a fun story to tell my friends later, and maybe one will be my next love interest, and I’m okay with both of those,’” she says,
So even if there’s no romantic spark, think of it this way: Maybe you’ve gained a new friend who shares your passion for watching professional tennis. Or you walked out of that awkward cafe meetup having discovered the perfect work-from-home spot. Seeing dating as an opportunity to experience and learn new things can make it fun—no matter how well (or poorly) the date itself goes.
3. Start with low-pressure date activities that you’d enjoy doing solo.
Unless you’re a gourmet food critic, that fine-dining French restaurant you’ve never been to probably isn’t the best place to feel relaxed with someone who’s basically a stranger. “First dates don’t have to be extravagant or out of your comfort zone,” Reyes says. “People always think they have to go out to a crowded bar, for example, even if they’re not the type of person to enjoy those things.”
To make an already unnerving situation a little less intimidating, stick to what you’re already comfortable with. “If you’re a foodie, go out to eat at the restaurants you would recommend to a friend,” Reyes suggests. Or, if bookstores are your happy place, maybe sip tea in the cozy cafe inside Barnes & Noble (or an indie shop you love) and chat in the fiction aisle together. Being somewhere familiar can help you feel safer and more at ease during what’s probably a new and uncertain experience, she adds.
4. Don’t let one bad apple spoil your dating fun.
No matter how thorough you are in screening for red flags and making sure your Friday night dinner companion seems alright, chances are you’ll still experience at least one date from hell (like that jerk who made a fat joke or showed up an hour late). But as tempting as it is to call it quits for good, don’t throw in the towel just yet.
“Go into the dating process by trying to recognize that there are really wonderful people out there—and there are really shitty, awful ones too,” Reyes says. “Because realistically, your experiences might not all be good. They may be exhausting and leave you thinking of your ex more than ever.”
Acknowledging that not every encounter will be rom-com worthy can help you set realistic expectations and prevent you from being blindsided or discouraged, Dr. Le Goy adds. Besides, even a terrible date can teach you about your deal-breakers (like someone who’s always on their phone, perhaps)—which, on the bright side, gets you one step closer to finding someone who ticks all your boxes.
5. Try not to compare your dates to your past relationship.
It’s tempting to tally up all your ex’s pros and cons and weigh them against your next potential partner. Well, this person looks like my ex, but they’re not quite as tall. Or, They’re ambitious like my ex, but don’t seem as far along in their career. Playing the compare and contrast game is just going to make it harder to meet “the one,” who might bring different, yes, but still amazing qualities to the table, Dr. Le Goy says.
“It’s helpful to consider the good and challenging parts of your previous relationship in order to decide what’s best for you going forward,” she adds. But that means reflecting on whether or not you want someone who has a grueling work schedule like your last partner, for example, or if you’d do long-distance again—not dismissing someone just because they’re not texting you as frequently, say, or don’t show up with chocolates like your ex. Otherwise, you’re just going to be anchored in the past—and isn’t moving on what you’re aiming for?
6. Prepare a little cheat sheet of conversation sparkers on your phone’s notes app.
When you’ve been with who you thought was your soulmate for years, conversations just flow naturally—whether it’s the boring details of your day or those deep, late-night talks about your life goals and dreams. It’s no wonder, then, that keeping the small talk going with someone completely new can be uncomfortable.
“First dates can be really nerve-wracking, and you might not feel like yourself in those moments,” Reyes says. To avoid drawing a complete blank, it can be helpful to come up with a few topics and questions for the person you’re seeing, by either making a mental list or jotting them down on your notes app. The goal isn’t to grill your date like it’s a formal interview. Actually, this list is for you—to discover what you genuinely want to know and prioritize for your next potential romance or fling, she says.
So for example, if you love to travel, ask them about their favorite country they’ve visited or their dream vacation. Or if you’re a major Swiftie and pop culture nerd, casually bring up the Eras tour or the latest Bachelor drama to see if they share your enthusiasm. It’s normal to default to topics like the weather or their weekend plans (especially if you’re nervous), but if small talk doesn’t feel natural to you, Reyes suggests skipping it. “You really want to go in there feeling like you’re being genuine, like you’re being yourself, because you want to attract the kind of person that likes the real you,” Reyes adds.
7. Remember that it’s okay to be honest.
Speaking of authenticity, you don’t have to pretend like you’re single and ready to mingle if, in reality, you’re in total panic mode. “It’s perfectly fine to own that feeling and tell a date that you’re new to this scene and not totally comfortable,” Dr. Le Goy says. “That’s nothing to be ashamed of.”
Being upfront can actually be a win-win: They might appreciate your honesty and feel better knowing why you’re so quiet or standoffish (and hey—maybe they’re kind of anxious too!). Keeping it real can also help you relax a little, without the pressure of keeping up a façade, she adds. Plus, if you can’t be yourself with someone, what’s the point?
Originally Appeared on SELF