01/06/2012 06:19 pm ET Updated Mar 07, 2012

What I Learned About Dating From 'We Bought A Zoo'

This month marks five years since my husband and I separated, ending our almost 17-year marriage. If I was the average American divorcee, I would already be 18 months into my second marriage -- but I'm not the average. It seems I'm far from average since it was only a month ago that I went on my first first date since my divorce.

I agree with D. A Wolf that dating after divorce is about time and timing, and before my eldest left for college this past August, I felt I didn't have the time. Then as I started to appreciate the extra time in my schedule and pondering the possibility of romance, I knew the timing was right.

The major obstacle was how. How, and where, after 24 years removed from flirting and romancing, do you start? My answer came with a Fit4Love dating coach and a one-on-one 10 session program designed to get me dating with grace, dignity and confidence.

With my coach's guidance, I've started to tell my friends that I'm ready to date and they too have shared tips on meeting new people, asked me what I'm looking for in a relationship and have even offered introductions.

My kids unwittingly contributed to my education on a family outing to see the newly-released PG movie, "We Bought a Zoo." (It might seem odd that an 18-year-old and a 16-year-old would want to see a PG movie, but sometimes a family activity is about compromises.) "We Bought a Zoo" is a feel-good story about a family overcoming the premature loss of their mother/wife and succeeding with a project that most would consider lunacy. The obvious inspiration is about perseverance against great odds but the movie is also a love story, or rather several love stories, that offers compelling advice for dating novices such as myself.

Talking to The Opposite Sex is Easy
In one scene, the young teenager, Dylan (Colin Ford) tells head zookeeper, Kelly (Scarlett Johansson) that he doesn't know what's happened to his teen admirer, Lily (Elle Fanning). He supposes that he didn't hear something she said, that he doesn't know how to talk to girls. Kelly tells Dylan that talking is easy, you just have to listen.

Kelly might be twenty-eight, living with her mother, no boyfriend, and working around the clock but she does know that communicating with the animals requires more than just words. Now I'm not saying that members of the opposite sex are animals but we can learn from her. Her advice is a simple tried and true approach to the art of making conversation. It's all about making the other person feel heard and isn't that what most of us want from a relationship?

Later when Kelly is walking her talk and listening to Benjamin (Matt Damon) open up about his wife's death and the challenges in raising his son Dylan. Kelly focuses intently on Benjamin, shutting out the constant noise of her beloved zoo animals and inner chatter of the never-ending to-do list. The viewer is left in no doubt that Benjamin has Kelly's undivided attention.

Sure this is a movie and all sorts of tricks are possible, but this is what my Fit4Love dating coach called being intentional. It's an art and it takes practice. On a date it means engaging with your date, closing your mind to the what-ifs and simply absorbing what is going on at that moment. It's about not thinking if your date could be your next long term partner or worrying about what your kids might think about him. Being intentional is an intensity multiplier and Johansson is a master.

When Benjamin has broken through the communication barrier with his son, he shares his worldly advice: sometimes all it takes is "twenty seconds of insane courage" to make something great happen. Later he reenacts for his children how it took him less than that to ask out a complete stranger, the woman who would become their mother.

My dating coach would say this is about being the chooser. Instead of waiting for your date to call or message or wondering how you could talk to the attractive stranger across the room, you can take the lead, because all it takes is twenty seconds of insane courage.

Why Not
In the reenactment scene, Benjamin asks the young woman in the coffee shop if she would talk to a guy like him. Her reply is a simple, "Why not?" While Benjamin's original question may betray a lack of self-worth, the "why not" response is about being open to new opportunities -- a mindset that seems key to embracing dating.

One more thing that Kelly does throughout the movie, and does very well, is smile. According to my dating coach it's the first step in flirting and it's magical. It's the way to start a conversation without even saying a word.

Mandy Walker blogs at Since My Divorce, ( sharing stories that help change people's lives.