Dating after divorce is a special kind of experience. By special, I mostly mean fascinating and something that truly no one can prepare you for. A few of my divorced friends might go so far as to call it horrifying, but they’d be being dramatic. I mean, is it really that big of a deal to find out your new guy is a felon or has a secret fiance 1500 miles away?
When I decided to date, I considered myself prepared for a shitstorm of ridiculousness based on the experiences I’d been hearing about from my clients over the years. Between the intel I’d picked up from them and the handful of friends whose partnerships had ended, I was armed with how to pick the least skeezy app and the new “rules” of text communication. Cautiously pessimistic, I put myself out there.
Fortunately for my sanity (but perhaps unfortunately for my girls’ night fodder), I was spared any dating drama. In fact, much sooner than I expected, I found myself in an actual relationship.
For all the chatter I’d heard about the post-divorce dating world, what I hadn’t gotten the scoop on was entering into a new partnership. No one had talked about what it felt like to fall in love after your heart had felt shattered, and I hadn’t heard anyone speak to the abject fear of repeating old, unhelpful patterns.
There’s so very much more to say here than I could ever fit into this space, but the bottom line is that starting over in love and life is scary. It’s also, of course, thrilling and consuming and like skydiving when you went up into the plane just to watch your friends and didn’t think you’d actually be jumping too.
So where the hell do the spreadsheets come in, you might be wondering? Or maybe you’re not, because spreadsheets sound like an awfully boring transition from talking about the thrill of new love.
With a promise to you that I’ll swear I’ll talk about other parts of love after loss in the future, today I want to tell you about how I’ve been building a sturdier partnership than I might have ever thought possible. Yes, with the help of spreadsheets.
In case it’s not clear, this isn’t relationship advice only for later romances. It’s perhaps not even advice so much as an invitation to think about our relationships differently.
One thing that divorce teaches you – brutally, I might add – is that things change in a relationship in ways that you can never predict. The delight you got from seeing their shoes when you walk in the door suddenly disappears into literal rage before you even realize what’s happened.
One of the biggest lessons that divorce taught me is that the slide happens when you’re not really paying attention. Treating your relationship like the broken cabinet door that you keep saying you’ll fix but instead just keep avoiding is the surefire way to end up on an awkward Zoom call while a magistrate dissolves what you thought would be forever.
My partner has been divorced as well, and so could relate to the grief and guilt that comes from letting a good thing go bad. And excited by the potential of what we were creating together, we were highly motivated to do things right, if we could figure out what that meant to us.
As we started integrating our lives, including blending a whole brood of children, we quickly realized that being intentional wasn’t going to just need to be an attitude. It was going to need to be a practice. And so we started making lists – and spreadsheets.
Treating a partnership like a company might sound like the unsexiest thing you’ve ever heard. But after years ago reading Patrick Lencioni talk about approaching your family like your most important organization, I thought it was an interesting concept. Now, like anything, this can go way too far. I’m not suggesting that partners need to give performance reviews (though that’s an idea I might now have to think more about…), but I do believe that it makes a whole lot of sense to apply some of the organizational principles we know work.
This isn’t an exhaustive list, but just a starting point to consider if any of these lists or practices could help your partnership feel smoother, more equitable, more transparent, or just easier.
Sunday Check-In: Most of us agree that there’s a ton of value at work to having regular touch-bases with our colleagues or manager where we can check in on important projects, offer feedback to one another, and understand priorities. Still, we tend to take that kind of communication for granted at home. Our Sunday Check-Ins (and there’s nothing special about the day of the week) consist of three core things: reviewing the upcoming shared calendars, updating the budget, and going through seeing-you questions. If we have time or need to, we check in on our Fair Play spreadsheet. In reality, sometimes these check-ins are spread out in pieces throughout the day or we miss a section or two because of time.
Fair Play Cards: As soon as our lives started to really intersect, we agreed that we wanted to implement Fair Play. Fair Play is a system that helps couples divide domestic responsibilities in ways that work for them. We spent a few hours going through the Fair Play cards, which list out all of the tasks, and setting up our own system. We then created a spreadsheet that outlined who owned which tasks and talked about the Minimum Standard of Care, which are the expectations we have around those tasks. Now that we’ve practiced Fair Play for a while, it doesn’t really require much regular review. But we check in on how we think it’s going periodically and take time when things come up (like one of us traveling or an unexpected work demand) to figure out what might cards might need to change hands and for how long.
A Budget: There are about a million different ways to approach finances as partners, and the vast majority of them can work well as long as the partners are on board and feel heard in the process. If you’ve been through the financial shifts of a divorce, it can be especially important to feel comfortable with the approach. Transparency was also really important to me, and my partner wanted to make sure that we were saving toward certain priorities. For us, having a budget on an old-fashioned spreadsheet ended up being the most helpful route. We wanted the customization that a spreadsheet could offer compared to a budgeting app or software. Having a budget is one thing, but keeping up with it is another. We make this part of the Sunday ritual for that reason.
Seeing You Questions: This is the “softest” part of the Sunday Check-In, and by far my favorite. This is simply the practice of asking each other questions that we are curious about, things that deepen our awareness of each other. It’s easy at the start of a new relationship to be fascinated, but maintaining that curiosity and wonder with our partner takes intentionality. We each ask each other two questions, and we answer each other’s and our own. If you’re interested, I’ll share some of the questions we’ve loved in a future post.
Shared Calendars: I imagine that anyone sharing the juggle of life or kids with another person is probably all over the shared calendars, so I’ll keep this brief. What I would emphasize is taking the time to talk through the week ahead (or whatever unit of time feels most helpful) so that it’s clear who’s on first. It’s so easy to make assumptions that lead to, at best, mistakes, and, at worst, resentment.
PTO: I’m adding this because I’ve heard about this idea, but I’ll be honest that I haven’t tried it. The concept is that each person in the couple needs solid time to be off of their regular responsibilities and recharge, and treating this as “PTO” can make sure it happens. In the couples I’ve seen, they’ve given each other one PTO night off per week, one full day of PTO per month, and a weekend of PTO per year. I personally think a weekend per quarter sounds more reasonable, but the amount matters much less than the idea that we treat our partner’s need for downtime as sacred.
At the end of the day or week or month, why I think these practices end up being helpful has little to do with tracking spending on groceries or always knowing who is responsible for oil changes. They are important because to implement them requires three things that are central: a shared commitment to the relationship working, regular and open communication, and time. For most of us, time is our most valuable resource, and so giving it to our partner through consistent practices like these means that we really want this to work for both of us.