You were married for eight years. Now you're separated.You haven't had to call a stranger for a date; you haven't had to ask your female dinner partner to split the check; and you haven't had to drive her home to Columbia at 1 in the morning. What will you do?

Negotiating the single life is difficult at any age, but it is potentially traumatic for the over-30 man who has spent the last eight years' worth of Saturday nights at suburban dinner parties, shopping-center movies or at home watching TV.

Because being single can be trying, many men remarry rather quickly. Leaving your wife for another woman, or finding another woman to replace her, only postpones the day of reckoning. You won't be completely comfortable living with someone else until you can live comfortably with yourself.

Being a single man in Washington can be rewarding or excruciating, depending on how you handle it. It also can be unbearably frustrating.

Here are a few suggestions gleaned from observations, conversations and two years of painful experience:

1. Assuming that they don't live with you, spend as much time as possible with you children. You haven't divorced your children and your continuing involvement in their lives can be rewarding for all of you. It also gives you something worthwhile to do two or three nights a week.

If you have been a family-oriented person, being with your children can be depressing because the family group is incomplete: no Mommy. That passes.

One Saturday night I took my 5 1/2-year-old son for dinner to my favorite neighborhood pub and then to Kramerbooks to browse through what passed for a children's section. We wandered around Dupont Circle, gorged on french fries and ice cream and straggled home in the wee hours (10:30, to be exact). It was one the best Saturday nights I've ever had.

2. Never stay home alone Saturday nights. There is a temptation to test yourself, to see how tough you are, by handling a Saturday night alone at home. Unless you are really together, doing this will only show you what it feels like to be on the brink of suicide.

If you can't find or don't want a date (you have a choice), grab a bottle of wine, a six-pack or whatever and go visit friends. A married couple with whom you feel comfortable and who understand your plight is an excellent option. Another possibility, if your children live with your ex, is to offer to babysit.

Another option: Catch a double bill at a movie theater. You'll encounter lots of other single folks, which is comforting. At the first-run houses, however, Saturday night is date night, and you'll be miserable.

3. Stay away from singles' bars unless you know how to play the game. And you don't know how unless you've been doing it during your marriage.

Instead, find a neighborhood pub that is lively, frequented by people your own age, and not a pick-up place. Washington's loaded with them. Get to know the bartenders, waiters and waitresses. You'll have a warm welcome, and you'll feel comfortable.

If you can't resist the 19th-Street scene, go with a friend who knows how to play. Let him be your advance man. It's easier to join conversations than initiate them. Go with the idea that you just want to have fun and don't care whether you meet someone. You're under enough pressure already; you don't need more.

4. Think of dating as fun and an adventure, not as a chore you have to do as a prelude to sex. You'll be amazed at how many interesting women are out there. The keys: Relax and be yourself, and avoid expectations based on other experiences. Women appreciate honesty; the line you fed a college sophomore in 1967 will earn you a fast kissoff.

If you are dating someone for the first time, and you don't know her from work or other social contacts, don't try anything too ambitious. Meet for lunch or a drink after work, not for dinner or a small party. You have no idea how long three hours can be until you spend it with someone who knows only 10 words and act like she's doing you a favor.

With lunch or a drink, you're committed to an hour at most, with an option to extend or renew. Fight the urge to talk about yourself or your failed marriage. Ask your date about herself, her work, to show that you're interested in her as a person, rather than as an audience.

Finally, if you thought you first date was successful, but she refuses another date or starts putting you off, don't take it personally. Nearly every woman you meet, like yourself, will be toting around some excess baggage. eHer disinclination to pursue it with you may have less to do with whether she likes you or not than with the other things going on in her life.

5. Let her play her own way if she wants to. You are likely to date women who earn decent salaries that they don't have to share with former families. When your date offers to split the check, don't be stupid about it. Say "thank you," and take the money. There will be time later to treat.

If you enjoy going to nice restaurants or the theater together, she will understand when you tell her you can't afford to do it very often unless it's Dutch treat. This is no time for pride; in the long run you'll feel resentful and broke.

6. Try to keep your sex life in perspective.

You will meet women who want to have sex on the first date and never see you again, and you will meet others who want a stable relationship before they will go to bed.

It's hard to believe in the beginning, when you think about sex as often as you did when you were 16, but relationships eventually fall into place. But you have to be patient, open, and willing to say "no" when it isn't right for you.

7. If you can't seem to adjust, see a therapist. There is no shame in admitting you can't handle your life. When you add the anxiety, confusion, frustration and lonliness of single life to the guilt, anger, pain, and loss following a failed marriage, you may easily be reduced to a mass of Jell-O. You will get through it, but you will do so more quickly -- and with real understanding -- if you have professional help.

Each of us handles the transition from married to single differently. Still, there are universal truths: There are no shortcuts, there is a lot of pain and loneliness, and there are many rewards. Do whatever helps you feel good about yourself, but reject any course that seems to provide a quick, easy answer. There's no such thing.