Of all the questions 40-something singles typically get from dating prospects, the most pressing one seems to be: Have you been married before?
I’m one of the divorced masses. About 30 percent of unmarried Americans ages 35 to 44 have been divorced, according to U.S. Census data. For ages 45 to 54, it’s nearly half.
But I don’t think that fact alone tells you much. Having been married doesn’t mean you’re any better or worse at relationships than someone who’s never tied the knot.
On its own, the word “divorced” conveys only two things: 1) that the person was, at some point, united with another person in a legally sanctioned arrangement; and 2) it ended, and not because one of the partners died. Even if you ask follow-up questions, the answers shed little light on a person’s relationship skills. If someone was married for more than a decade, that might tell you how long the marriage lasted but says nothing about its quality. You don’t know whether it was more good than bad, whether the couple married too young and hung on for the kids, or what each person contributed to its demise. Nor can you count on anyone to be a completely objective reporter about his or her relationship.
When I met my ex-husband, he’d been divorced for a long time; his first marriage lasted well over a decade. I took that as a sign of relationship worthiness: Clearly he had the ability to commit long-term, a trait I wanted in a partner. On actually being in a relationship with him, I realized I’d assigned far too much weight to what I knew, or thought I knew, about his first marriage. Even if it told me something about his relationship with his first wife, it told me nothing about what my relationship with him would look like — or whether we had the capacity for long-term commitment. A relationship reflects the dynamic between two people, so once you change the people, you change the dynamic.
I got married at 39 and left my husband 10 months later. When men learn that I wed later in life and had a marriage even Hollywood would call “brief,” some assume I’m commitment-phobic, that I stink at relationships, or that I just wanted to get married before I turned 40. A more thoughtful examination of my relationship history would show that I had three long-term relationships from 1992 to 2008. One of those led to an engagement I wisely ended. Another lasted from 1996 to 2001 and was ultimately more significant than my marriage. No single word conveys that status – it’s the kind of thing you learn in the course of getting to know someone. Yet that long-term commitment ought to count as much (or little) on my relationship resume as my divorce.
I understand wanting to know whether a potential match has been married. I care about that, too, because it forms part of who a person is. But if a dater presumes that someone’s marital history is a crystal ball of sorts, a shortcut to the hard work of figuring out what a relationship with someone would really be like, it’s about as useful as a Magic 8-ball.