Marc Lawrence saw her the second she walked into the Manhattan bar where he was celebrating his 38th birthday. Call her Jenn. She was hot. She was in her mid-thirties, sleek and coltish with dark glossy hair, caramel skin, and lots of curves. Marc and Jenn were introduced and spent the evening flirting. But before they parted ways Marc discovered something else about Jenn: She was divorced. Well, actually, getting a divorce...from the father of her three kids. Marc went to bed alone that night. The next morning he was still interested in Jenn, but unsure what to do about it.
"You wonder whether you should ask her out right away," says Marc, who works in real estate. "Or wait until her life settles down. Or just forget the whole thing."
These are questions that, suddenly, not only middle-aged men have to answer. We live in the era of the starter marriage, a time when any woman, no matter how young and nubile, may also be a divorcée lugging around major baggage. Ponder these three estimates gleaned from federal government statistics: (1) More than 1 million Americans divorce each year; (2) the most recent information available shows that the median age for a woman at her first wedding is roughly 25; and (3) first marriages that end in divorce last on average seven to eight years.
What this means for you is that there are a lot of young divorced women out there. "Many guys find themselves attracted to women going through starter divorces these days," says Ian Kerner, a sex therapist and spokesman for the dating website Match.com. "It's a really common situation."
No doubt you could simplify things by deciding not to date divorced women, but that would be a foolhardy strategy for any man on the lookout for a hookup. For one thing, there are too many of them to ignore. For another, there's something sexy about dating the divorced. "Basically, you're sleeping with another man's wife," says William R., who was a 35-year-old D.C. political operative when he fell hard for a divorced woman. "It's sick, but that spices things up."
There are real advantages to divorcées. They're often more worldly, less neurotic about life's details than the nondivorced, and after dealing with man No. 1, more tolerant of male foibles. "A divorced woman has learned that the 'forever' concept just doesn't work," says the recently divorced comedian Kathy Griffin. "Most women are sizing you up as a husband on the first date. Divorced women don't do that."
"What I like about divorced women is that they are less inhibited sexually," says Angelo (not his real name), a 36-year-old businessman from Manhattan. "They don't have the kind of hang-ups a woman who's never been divorced might have. It's almost as if by going through a divorce these women have seen the other side of society's morals and institutions and they have a lot less respect for them."
But dating a divorced woman also has its challenges. People in the middle of a divorce are often moody and emotionally erratic. In all likelihood, she'll compare you with her ex-husband and involve you in the dramas she's going through. If there are children, the whole thing gets even more complex. "You might want to look at this the way you would an investment," says Dan Couvrette, the CEO and publisher of Divorce magazine. "You need to decide what your risk tolerance is."
One thing you don't have to worry about is being judged negatively for asking her out. "There's no stigma," Ian Kerner says. As for the women, it seems that while not all of them are ready for hot romance, polite interest from a man is always welcome. "Ask her out," says Terri Matheis, founder of Sassy Pink Peppers, a social group for divorced and separated women. "She'll be flattered."
Just make sure you are clear about your motives. "You have to decide what your goal is," Couvrette says. "Do you want a long-term relationship? Or do you want to get laid?" If the answer is B, then everyone agrees you should ask her out as soon as you can. "Get us while we're vulnerable," says Kathy Griffin, "and hit the sex thing hard. Her sex life went downhill long before the divorce. She's ready."
If you want a long-term relationship, then the question of when to ask her out becomes thornier. You'll need to know as much as you can about her before you reveal your feelings. Sadly, it may be tough to get a good read on her. "Too many questions will push away most divorced women," says Janet Siroto, editorial director of Match.com. "They are going to talk about their divorces with therapists or girlfriends. Not a guy."
"We don't want to expose our weakness after a divorce," Griffin says. "But I personally love to hear a guy's horror stories about his exes, like the time she puked. Tell me about that."
So quiz her friends, family, and coworkers. You are looking for three basic facts. First, what stage of the divorce is she in? The earlier in the process, the less ready she'll be for new love. Each situation is different, but if the ink on the divorce papers is still wet, you've got problems. "You don't really want someone who is coming out of that funk," Couvrette says. "Some people are ready in about six months, but most people will take a year or even years."
Second, was she the leaver or the leavee? "If she was recently abandoned," says Michael Daniel, the owner and moderator of Ojar.com, a divorce-support website for people under 35, "I'd say run. She has unresolved issues and you don't want to be the guy to help her resolve them."
Third, does she have kids? It's a hard truth that kids always make it tougher for a person to move on. The ex-husband is usually still around. Scheduling dates can be an agony. And with kids, you will always come second. "I prefer not to date people with children," Daniel says. "I don't want to get caught up in that drama."
Marc Lawrence knows all the risks. He's divorced himself. But he decided he could deal with Jenn's divorce and her three children. Jenn, however, may be having second thoughts about Marc. "I sent her an e-mail," Marc says, a few days after his party. "So far, she hasn't responded."