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Diving in after divorce

If only real life played out like TV.

Recently divorced singles face a slew of dating challenges that their never-been-hitched counterparts seldom endure. From where to find appropriate men and women to how to get their dating game on, there is much for the newly single to relearn.

Prime-time television is wising up to the fact that divorced people date. The six-part miniseries "The Starter Wife" (USA) and the reality show "Ex-Wives Club" (ABC), which both premiered this summer, represent TV's summer fling with freshly unmarried singles. The programs depict the recently divorced finding their way in their new, spouse-free status.

They also serve up their share of implausible scenarios, such as when the still-hurting "Starter Wife" Molly (Debra Messing) serendipitously runs into the mysterious yet alluring Sam (Stephen Moyer) the moment a promising date stands her up.

But maybe the shows are onto something. There were 23 million divorced people in the United States in 2005, according to the U.S. Census. With many of these divorced men and women looking to reconnect, we enlisted relationship and dating experts to provide 10 tips on re-entering the dating pool without drowning.

1. Don't dive in too quickly just to forget about an unsuccessful marriage; if you have unresolved issues that caused problems during your married life, don't think they won't resurface with the new honey. "Fix yourself up before you get fixed up," says Susan Shapiro, author of "Secrets of a Fix-Up Fanatic" (Delta Trade, $12).

2. Ask what you learned about yourself from the previous relationship. Is it tough to trust someone new? Are you repeating behavior that got you into trouble in first place? Are you choosing the same type of person. "My feeling is if you can't think of anything, give yourself some more time to figure it out, otherwise you're very likely to get stuck in the same place again," says Bill Lamb, a licensed marriage and family therapist in San Jose, Calif.

3. Consider a physical makeover. Think about changing your hairstyle, updating your wardrobe or trying out a new pair of glasses. If you're a guy, lose the baseball cap. If you're a woman and "you want to meet a guy, get out of the plaid jumper and put on that sexy black dress," Shapiro says. And for the love of micro-minis, please, dress your age. What's hip on a 28-year-old might make someone who is 48 look like a midlife meltdown.

4. Don't limit yourself to bars, online dating sites or speed-dating events. They're often dominated by youngish singles who emphasize looks over substance and experience. Unless you can pass for Jessica Alba or Johnny Depp, you're setting yourself up for rejection and hurt feelings. The upside of avoiding bars: no need to blend in by ingesting stomach-turning energy drinks!

5. In lieu of meat markets, follow your passion by getting involved with an organization, a volunteer group or by enrolling in a class. Into hiking? Join the Sierra Club. Like literature? Sign up for a book group. From sporting events to political rallies to helping out at a literacy center, activities allow you to meet people who share your interests in a less-threatening environment. Along with providing dating prospects, extracurriculars enlarge your world and enrich your life.

6. Develop friendships. This is arguably more important than lining up that first post-divorce date. "I can think of a lot of divorced clients who had no other relationships _ no friends" other than their spouse, Lamb says. Friends provide a support system _ as well as a handy means to yank off your rose-colored glasses. They also help undermine the temptation to jump into a relationship when what you really want is to fill the friendship void. Don't make the mistake of trying to make a partner a confidant, a best friend and a shrink.

7. Open yourself up to individuals who aren't your "type." No, this doesn't mean you have to suck face with Quasimodo in the Raiders jersey, but if you're looking for a partner, you're playing a numbers game. "You can't over-focus on one date," Shapiro says. "Think of what you go through when you're looking for an apartment or a job. Sometimes, it's the 30th option that works for you."

8. "Don't leave your brain at home," Lamb says. When looking for a connection, don't ignore red flags. Trust your instincts. If it doesn't feel right - or safe - it probably isn't. Also, consider grabbing coffee rather than alcohol on the first date. When your judgment is unclouded, warning signs are easier to spot.

9. If you have kids, don't assume that you're now the leper of the dating realm. You can bet Cupid's left butt cheek that plenty of other single parents are also on the market. If your date's interest suddenly wanes when he or she learns you have children, move on.

10. Love doesn't make you happy; pursuing the things you love is a far better prescription for contentment. Work on figuring out what makes you excited about getting up in the morning. You'll likely be happier - and contented adults are far more alluring than their crusty, embittered counterparts.

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