Dating -- again!
by Pat McNees
This article first appeared in the Washington Post as “Back in the Dating Game.” Copyright © Pat McNees. Do not reprint without permission.
“I have only so many first dates left in me,” says the balding man on the sofa at a local singles discussion group. He speaks with the weariness of someone who has tired of postmortems on his failed marriage or tirades about Rat-Face, his ex-spouse.
Many of us who have ended long-term relationships take our time getting to those midlife “first dates.” Re-entering the singles scene as a mature adult often elicits anxious memories of high school, particularly of the dances: fear of not being asked to dance or fear of asking and being rejected. And compounding the old anxieties is the new anxiety about being out of shape.
Friends say they will fix you up or even call you to go to a movie, but after a while they don’t. You have to take the initiative. And while you’re at it, you might as well find a new set of friends, friends with whom you can discuss common concerns such as the etiquette of dating – Who invites whom? Who sets the pace of intimacy?
Meanwhile, your old friends have advice:
“Get out of the house. Go to a singles event.”
“Not yet. I’m not ready,” you reply (and think, “or desperate enough”). You are afraid that going to a singles event will mark you as needy, pathetic, a loser.
Then you find a face-saving alternative: your neighbor Rob, a recent widower, is lonely. So you take him to a singles event, thereby unwittingly discovering the secret of the Buddy System. You and Rob work your way through all of the singles events listed in the Weekend section, and you get pretty savvy at it. You drive together in one car, but appear to enter the meetings separately; you strike up an immediate friendly conversation each time (so you will appear desirable); you develop a signal (an ear tug, for example) that means “rescue me.”
Someone asks you, “How long have you been out?” and it takes you a minute to realize they are talking about marriage, not prison. One woman talks about getting stuck in the divorce process – being “divorced to” her ex.
You hear endless discussions about love vs. lust and taking responsibility for your own life. You learn that many people pit their fear of loneliness – particularly in old age – against memories (or perceptions) of tamed domesticity, stifling or decaying relationships, betrayal, and financial injustice.
You skip the meeting on Singles and the Hypnotist. (“I won’t have you do anything you don’t wish to do.”) You attend the workshop on relationships. (Am I a “clinger” or a “stinger”?)
You learn that, traditionally, Friday nights are for scouting, Saturday nights for your steady date (the one you hang on to for comfort while waiting for Mr. Or Ms. Wonderful). Men seem to prefer big cocktail parties and dances; women, small dinners and discussion groups (women hate to go to public places – it’s too much like the bars). A veteran of the singles scene explains: “The men want to look the women over and don’t want to get stuck. The women want to see what’s beneath the surface and don’t like to feel they are being inspected, as in a meat market.”
You laugh knowingly when a woman describes the singles scene as the Revenge of the Nerds: All these men who in earlier days wouldn’t even be able to get a date are now thinking: “Okay, ladies, we’re all you have now, and you have to fight for us.” Yet the men tell you they can’t find a woman who isn’t angry at men – or desperate for commitment.
Call Me Later
Commitment (and the M word) take on new meanings. Stella Gibson, who runs singles nights at the Yacht Club in Bethesda, tells you about the man who said, “Gee, Stella, I’m in a committed relationship,” when she invited him to one of the gourmet dinners for a singles group she used to sponsor.
“Call me in a month,” he added, before hanging up.
You find that many of your relationship-shy new friends become active in singles groups because they offer a safe venue for same-sex and opposite-sex friendships. One of your favorite new friends tells you that he attends these weekly meetings because they provide him with the “shreds of human warmth” without which he feels he would shrivel up or lose touch. He dances, he flirts, he does endless favors, but he rarely dates, instinctively avoiding the “small squads of women intent on finding men who have gone aground and convincing them by any means necessary of their own long-repressed yearning for commitment.”
You explain that men have their own way of clinging. We’re all human.
Fine-Tuning the Process
The men you get to know who have been through one and sometimes two divorces often feel they’ve been had. Why have another relationship? What is in it for them? Many of the people you are getting to know enjoy their freedom now but want someone to be there on holidays and other special occasions and in later years when you are supposed to be with people who care about you.
So when someone asks you for a date, you risk it. You ponder the big decisions – should I offer to help pay? – and find yourself being judgmental when, in the restaurant in Georgetown, he pulls out a two-for-one coupon.
Your anxiety about dating is exacerbated by the commonly voiced wisdom that the first relationship you have after the end of a long-term relationship is doomed – and when it breaks up, it may hurt even more than the failed marriage. Usually this has something to do with what you are working out about the failed relationship. Often it has to do with defects in your selection mechanism – like the duck who, emerging from an egg, sees a mother dog and concludes he must be a dog. The analogy is not perfect, but if you are too eager to be one of the couples on Noah’s Ark, you may jump in line with a rat, a weasel, or a gooney bird.
You listen attentively to the sadder-but-wiser man who says of his experience on the singles scene: “We let the gems escape, and we adorn the swine with imaginary virtues.”
Sex and the Midlife Single
You cringe at the idea of yet another discussion of AIDS and safe sex and yet you recognize, with shock, that an alarming number of people change sexual partners as though there is nothing to worry about. They are reinforced in this crazy belief by doctors who say aging heterosexual yuppies have statistically little chance of getting AIDS.
In a discussion of “sexpectations,” you identify with a woman of the ‘50s, who asks nostalgically, “Whatever happened to necking?”
You learn the pleasures of opposite-sex friends, something that was verboten in your marriage. You learn that these singles groups give late-onset singles an opportunity to improve their style, to learn that certain approaches (“Are those your own teeth?”) are less effective than others.
A gorgeous man who takes you dancing explains that men have problems too: “If I come on to a woman too strong, I’m a beast. If I don’t come on, I may be seen as either gay or impotent.”
You learn to laugh about the dance called courtship.
Mastering à la Carte
Months go by, and after your initial pain, embarrassment and panic at having failed in a relationship, you begin to feel whole again, sometimes even joyous. Free of the compromises you made in your marriage, for the first time in your life you begin to realize who you are, who you aren’t, and what you want out of life.
One Saturday night you go to a movie alone, despite the certain knowledge that everyone in the theater will look at you with pity – and you find that it is not so bad.
The beautiful couple you saw walking in together sits down behind you and resumes bickering about something they have obviously bickered about before, and you realize that life as a single person might be a real choice, not the booby prize or a holding position.
You read Judith Sills’s 1985 book, How to Stop Looking for Someone Perfect and Find Someone to Love. Sills describes love as a blue-plate special – if you order the turkey and gravy, you must take the mashed potatoes; if you order the roast beef, you must take the peas and rice – there are no substitutes.
For now, you welcome an opportunity for à la carte.
Support for the Suddenly Alone
Newly separated and divorced people in the Capital area (Washington, D.C., and environs) can find invaluable support in New Beginnings. The group was founded by Carol Randolph to help people get through that difficult first year of separation, to work through the issues involved in separation and divorce and learn how to develop more satisfying relationships.
A nonprofit support group for men and women, New Beginnings offers several weekly small-group discussions where members can swap war stories, practical advice and sympathy and form new friendships. The emphasis is on discussion and support, not finding a new sweetheart. Topics include building new social networks, separation and first love, the finances of dating, recurring patterns in relationships, visitation and custody, beating the blues, opposite-sex friends, children and your love life, and dating 20 years later. Special workshops are also offered on such topics as the art of negotiation and dance party survival.
New Beginnings also sponsors lighter fare, such as weekend getaways, dances – some of them open to nonmembers – and holiday parties. For more information, call (301) 924-4101 or go to their website: New Beginnings.
A miscellany of extra slants on the topic:
• What are the perfect first-date questions? (Sarah Mayfield, Romantific) Granted, these may be for a slightly younger crowd than some of us belong to.
• 14 Tips for Dating After Divorce (Charlotte Hilton Andersen, Oprah, 7-2-19) And what to do differently if you’re coming back into the scene later in life.
• 5 Reasons You Should Wait Before Dating After Divorce (Monika Gorecka, Divorce, 8-19-19)
• What It’s Like to Date After Middle Age (Faith Hill, The Atlantic, 1-8-2020) Newly single older people are finding a dating landscape vastly different from the one they knew in their 20s and 30s.
• The new reality of dating over 65: Men want to live together; women don’t (Zosia Bielsky, Globe & Mail, 7-26-19) aving a place of their own, she said, offers senior-age women time to rest, think and pursue their interests, instead of feeling exhausted by the chore wars.
• Essential Survival Guide for Victims of Domestic Abuse (Michael James, 3-9-15, Cupid's Library, which also offers comparisons of online dating sites)
Dance pages on Pat's website
• Dancing: A guide to the Capital area (Dancing in DC, Maryland, and Northern Virginia)
• Ballroom Dance
• Ceilis (Irish céilís and set dances)
• Country Western Dancing
• Folk dancing in the Capital area (Contra, English country, international, Irish, Israeli, Scandinavian, Scottish)
• Love at First Waltz (by Cheryl Kollin)
• Shuffling Off to Buffalo Gap Dance Camp (Pat McNees)
• Swing, lindy, jitterbug, shag, and hand-dancing
• Dating -- again! (that's extra, but often relevant -- dancing is one way to restore your social self, after separation)
Many of the stories by Pat McNees posted here appeared first in the Washington Post