"I am really, really reluctant to date again," says T.C. Culberson. Two years after the death of her beloved husband of 14 years, the 47-year-old patient rights advocate says she has been in "two hugely disastrous relationships with con men." She’s out over $20,000; and even worse, she has completely lost faith in her judgment. Now living in Oakland, California, Culberson admits, "I’d been out of the dating world for 15 years, and [I was] ripe for someone — in my case, two someones — to take advantage of a grieving widow." Lucia (just Lucia — like Cher or Madonna) has never been married, happily or otherwise. Like Culberson, the L.A.-based singer/songwriter-turned-dating-expert is a self-proclaimed victim of what she has dubbed PTDD: Post-Traumatic Dating Disorder. Lucia explains, "Once you’ve hit 40, it’s hard not to have battle scars." Over the course of her dating ‘career’ spanning seven cities, four countries, and two continents and including two five-year relationships, Lucia has developed a learned fear response that shoots into high gear at the smallest provocation. "Even if a guy has given me no reason for concern, I’m very suspicious if, for instance, he doesn’t call exactly when he said he would."Facing the DreadIt is not uncommon for a forty- or fiftysomething single woman — particularly one who has been badly burned in the romance department — to shun dating altogether. These women feel defeated and victimized. According to a study conducted by psychologists at the University of Washington and Canada’s University of Waterloo, these emotions can lead to low motivation, low energy, and a desire to do nothing but sit and brood. But brooding is exactly what you don’t want to do, says Caryn Sabes Hacker, ACSW, DCSW, a Florida-based psychotherapist. She explains, "It’s not easy to take risks at this stage, but it can be a great point to examine your patterns. This won’t feel comfortable, but it’s what leads to growth."So rather than suppressing discomfort about dating again, embrace it. Adds Hacker, "Fear is a natural, healthy, protective response to pain. It demonstrates care for the self, which is important when you’re feeling fragile."Taking a Time-OutFear is also a signal that a dating sabbatical might be in order. "Don’t get back on the horse before you’re ready," cautions dating expert Lisa Daily, author of Stop Getting Dumped! All You Need to Know to Make Men Fall Madly in Love with You and Marry "The One" in 3 Years or Less. "If you rush into dating without taking time to heal, you’re likely to attract a repeat of the relationships you’re trying to avoid."View the sabbatical not as a retreat, but as a reinvention. Write down your "men" patterns to see what’s worked for you in the past and what has invariably led to disaster. Do you always gravitate toward the life of the party, the guy with the devilish glint in his eyes and ants in his pants? "You know what happens when you meet someone who’s not good for you," psychotherapist Hacker elaborates, "that level of excitement and fun and familiarity that has spelled attraction since you were 16. This should be a cue not to move forward, but to stop and reevaluate." In other areas of your life, accrued wisdom is a guide. Let it be so in matters of lust and love.Recognizing Mr. Right (and Mr. Wrong)Culberson, the widow duped by con men, remains wary of her own judgment. Consequently she is relying on her trusted girlfriends’ opinions of future suitors. "I consider myself worldly, well-traveled, and savvy, yet I temporarily lost my radar when it came to men. If someone made me feel sexy and desirable — boom, that was enough. These [no-good] guys were not willing to meet my friends. In future that will be a sure red flag."Learning to recognize and to avoid Mr. Bad News is freeing and allows you to focus on finding Mr. Bona Fide Healthy Relationship Prospect. Before you mentally reopen your door to the idea of love, make a list of what you want in a relationship and what is no longer acceptable. Is he kind, considerate, giving? Or does he exhibit qualities on your "Trouble in Pants" list?Don’t rush dating reentry. Travis Hartley, founder of Meet Market Adventures, an activity club for singles, suggests, "Group-setting events are stress-free, friendly environments that are great for those who are nervous about dating again. Everyone is there, first and foremost, to taste wine or to hike or to make pottery. The possibility of meeting someone is an added bonus."When you progress to mano a woman-o encounters, be wary not just of the guy’s relationship-worthiness but of any over-eagerness you may harbor to find faults in your partner. The founder of the dating site True.com, Herb Vest, asks, "Are you bringing your relationship history on the date? It’s important that you give the guy the benefit of the doubt rather than jumping to conclusions, or you can sabotage what you’re trying to accomplish before you even get started."Lucia, whose dating misadventures have spanned the globe, says, "When I start to automatically mistrust a guy who’s given me no reason to doubt him, I ask myself if I’m looking at him realistically or letting that negative, fearful little voice in my head win." Today, she is at the two-month mark in a promising new relationship. "He’s wonderful. When those fears crop up, I talk myself down from the ledge. At this stage of my life I can’t keep running on my emotions and wasting so much time being unjustifiably anxious!"More information on experts featured in this article:Dating Expert Lucia Florida Psychotherapist Caryn Sabes Hacker Dating Expert Lisa Daily Meet Market Adventures Do you have a tough question about dating or relationships?E-mail Sherry at DatingExpert@More.com and your question might be featured in an upcoming column.E-mail Sherry About Sherry AmatensteinSherry Amatenstein, LMSW, is the author of Love Lessons from Bad Breakups and Q&A Dating Book. She runs dating seminars around the country and does private coaching — not to help singles marry in 60 days, but to uncover their blocks. She has given relationship advice on the Early Show, Regis, Inside Edition, CBS News, VH1, BBC, and many other programs. Her philosophy is that the most important relationship you’ll ever have is with yourself.Schedule a one-on-one coaching session with Sherry Buy Love Lessons from Bad Breakups Buy The Q&A Dating Book Originally published on MORE.com, March 2008.