Dating Again After Twenty-Two Years

meltdown

Online dating

Being alone was cake compared to re-entry into the dating world after a 20 year marriage.

I was so naïve when I started my foray into being alone, it should be no surprise that cluelessness defined my approach to dating.  It was practically my post-separation/divorce M.O.  When I started dating again, here was what I worried about:  will anyone find me attractive after all these years, how will I find people to meet, and will I be able to form a successful relationship with someone new?

The answers to the questions above were:  yes (mercifully some men still found me attractive), online (where I would have to meet men, not the gym, bars or school, unless I wanted to now date my students), and yes (I will eventually be able to form a new relationship, but that is a subject of another blog).   Wheewwww.

Here is what I should’ve worried about but had no inkling:  what were the mating rituals of the 21st century (incredibly it was the last century when I was last single), what did the modern man look for when meeting single women, and what etiquette, if any, was expected with these new mating rituals?

Of course, these all came as a shock to me.   After all, much had changed in the 22 years since I was last footloose.  The year I was last single, Anthony Kennedy was appointed to the Supreme Court, the Soviet army withdrew from Afghanistan, gas was 91 cents/gallon (you read that right), the first transatlantic fiber optic cable was installed, and Sonny Bono was elected mayor of Palm Springs, CA (Generation Nexters:  google it).

The internet was not widely used in 1988 and has profoundly influenced modern mating rituals.  The upside of accessing thousands of men instantaneously online had a major downside: they could instantly access me.   I wished to browse from the anonymity of my computer and in the comfort of my jammies.  I wanted to casually peruse the profiles of single, (well turns out, kind of single), attractive (well, from this side of sunglasses), successful (well, success is relative), interesting (well…) array of motorcycle-riding, moonlight walk-loving men and ever so slowly dip my toe into that water.  But the trouble with these online dating websites was that they required that you registered to browse.  In what seemed a blink of the eye, I was receiving emails and “winks” from men literally all over the world (well, so some of them claimed).  This I could handle, because I could choose to just delete or ignore these requests.

But unbeknownst to me was the instant messaging function, where in a heartbeat, you’re chatting live (Live!) with some stranger.  When this first happened, I sat there, paralyzed and terrified.  “Ahhh!!!  What do I do???”, I shrieked to myself.

“Answer him!”, I shrieked back.

“Thank you for messaging  me but I really am not prepared to IM with a stranger”, I typed calmly.  Eventually I gathered my courage and began to email and IM both to and fro with strangers.  After all, I took my time responding and it still was a relatively nominal commitment.

Inevitably though, someone wanted to talk on the phone (The phone! Live!).  “What do I do???”, I shrieked to myself.  “Don’t talk to anyone, you’re not ready!!!”, and so forth.  The same cycle of terror/calm ensued with the phone, and then with the first few coffee dates, before I gathered my meager courage to talk or meet, live and/or in real time.

The second area where I was clueless then subsequently shocked, involved what these men were looking for on the online forum.  I intentionally phrased the subject this way, committing only to the “men” and “online” descriptors because desirable qualifiers such as “single” or “relationship” were purely optional.  Married men, thrice-divorced men, never-married men, older (by a lot) men, barely-legal young men/boys were all online looking for something.  As a 40-something I was not prepared to hear from that 70-something and even less from that 20-something.

Some men were looking only for sex.  To their credit, a few were completely transparent about it.  Others evaded the issue but dropped hints, like sending explicit photos or talking about their sexual preferences.  A grenade is more subtle.  Some were looking for the equivalent of phone sex, others were ready to drop everything and come right over.

There were scary men too.  Some men became belligerent, angry or abusive if, even online, you didn’t do or say what they wanted.  There were those that refused to send a picture or tell you their full name, but expected you to meet them without providing any prior identifiers.  Some men were looking for relationships spanning the whole range: some purely platonic, to a couple who felt we were “in” a relationship with the first email.  Fortunately there were also men operating in-between those two extremes.

In retrospect, I believe I was still in denial regarding the reality that entering the dating game meant I might end up being with someone new.  However, I learned to work through my terror, to enjoy dating again, and eventually to not take any of it too seriously.  Having expectations more consistent with the 21st century improved my attitude considerably.  I met a wide range of yes single and yes successful (yes) men, and every meeting was interesting regardless of the outcome. Finally I learned how I fit into the reality of the world of single people, and how to be patient with myself and forgiving of my uncharacteristic emotional volatility.  Venturing into this entirely unknown universe revealed a side of myself I was unacquainted with; successfully navigating that venture gave me the confidence to go to the next logical step – a new relationship.

On Loss

Max

My little dog has stopped eating today.  He has refused chicken, salmon, cheese, and even pate.  He ate a few bites of doggie treat, maybe a teaspoonful for his diminished 8 lb frame.

For the last 5 months, he’s been battling a soft-tissue cancer, called a sarcoma.  The tumor has advanced so aggressively that meaningful treatments were either not an option or ineffective.  He’s not even 11, which is young for a little dog to be so sick.

I have been a pet owner since I moved out of the dorm in college.  Cats first, then more recently dogs ever since I acquired first a cat allergy and then a fenced back yard.  So for the last 15 years, I’ve surrounded myself with as many dogs as the county will allow without having to register my home as a kennel, a paltry three animals at a time.  Even still, when out walking my three dogs, I am the recipient of looks of amusement combined with curiosity for the crazy dog-lady.

So, I’ve owned and lost pets for many years, and have accepted that loss as part of the price of having loved my animal companions.  If you’re lucky, they live 10-15 years.  Then they’re gone.   It’s the price of “doing business”.

Dogs have varying degrees of need for proximity, depending on their personality.  Cats are at one end of the spectrum: they pretty much come hang out only when inclined.  Max is at the other end.  He moves heaven and earth to be by my side.  If he is not nearby within peripheral vision, then I know there’s trouble. As a result, this little guy has been particularly special to me.  I can say that to all of you because my other dogs haven’t yet managed to get on the blogosphere.

Max has been my constant companion, devoted friend, and nonjudgmental listener for the last 8 or so years.  Max always forgives me for being grumpy, not paying attention to him, or having morning breath.   He never holds a grudge, tolerates all the undignified things I impose upon him like brushing his teeth, having his temperature measured, carrying him in a bag, or dressing him in a lobster costume.  He never complains, not even now when this tumor is covering most of his head.  He is the Wikipedia definition of the words loyalty, patience and devotion.  He reminds me to not worry about the past or future, to just be in the here and now.  His ability to do that now is an inspiration.

I admit, I’m having trouble being present today in light of this development.

I know non-pet owners can’t understand our obsession with our like-family members. I also know that losing a pet is nowhere near on par with losing an actual human family member.  I guess I have been fortunate to have avoided that experience so far.  Being the daughter of immigrants, the family has been primarily thousands of miles away and largely unknown.  My own immediate family is for now, alive and well.  So am I lucky to not have lost grandparents and aunts and uncles that doted on and spoiled me?  Have I been blessed that I didn’t grow up in a big, noisy family with the extended cousin network, only to lose them to death? My ex has an extended family that, for the most part, has enthusiastically and generously welcomed me in to their big, noisy fold and has been a wonderful surrogate for many years.  Much of that family is still there for me; some are not since the divorce.  I consider it a blessing for the time that I was adopted and accepted into their family.

Since I have spent most of my life without, I have to admit that I have always been somewhat (ok, very) jealous of the folks with those big, noisy families, family dysfunction notwithstanding.  I am especially jealous of people with family members for whom they describe as providing a special, safe, accepting and unconditionally loving place that was reserved just for them.  Am I lucky that I never had to lose someone like that, if I’ve never had someone like that?  Is it true that “it’s better to have loved and lost than to never have loved at all”?

I feel like, even today, that the very fortunate ones are those that have, or have had, those special loved ones in their life, not people like me who haven’t had that experience.    I can’t know what it feels like so I have no idea if that’s true for human loved ones.  Most people will love again, and want to love again after loss like death or divorce.  I guess to keep taking the risk over and over again shows that it is better to choose love, even if it may end too soon.

With regard to little Max, I am ever so grateful for every day that he graced my life with his unconditional doggie love and devotion.   I feel my grief is a small price to pay given how he shepherded me safely from one phase of my life to the next, and devoted his life to accompanying me on mine.

Single Again After Twenty-Two Years

loneliness

Even positive changes are stressful.  The dissolution of my 20-year marriage, therefore, by necessity was a difficult transition regardless of how unequivocal and mutual the decision.

As mentioned in a previous blog, this was an amicable separation, so really I was fortunately able to focus solely on transitioning to being alone in my new life.  I wasn’t really completely alone.   I had physical custody of both my teenage sons and all three pups.  Yet there I was.  The only adult with 5 dependent males, a  big house in the suburbs, and feeling pretty vulnerable and by-myself.

Some changes, like the loss of both income and my main companion, I had anticipated.  However, I was unprepared for some of the other adjustments in store for me.  I now had to relate to others as a single, not married person, both at work and in my personal life.   I had to tell friends and acquaintances that I was now separated and then endure the well-meaning looks of sympathy and the feeling of failure that accompanied them.  I had to try to make new friends to do non-couple activities.  I had to figure out how to process the events of my day without sharing with someone else (this is important for extroverts).  I had to learn to live with feeling shaky, unsettled, and yet energized on a constant basis for about a year.

One of the things I do in my day job is student development.  At a recent workshop, we were discussing the stereotype that extroverts need company 24/7.  This is not precisely true, but true enough for me.  Accordingly, for me the hardest part of being single was getting comfortable being alone and amusing myself, by myself, for days at a time.  My curse is my fortune:  just like nature abhors a vacuum, extroverts hate not having anyone to talk to.  So venture forth into the world I did.    I contacted my single friends and set up dates.  I went online to meet other single people (I can only describe it as sheer and total terror).  I joined meetup.com to pursue my latent hobbies with other like-minded people, including ballroom dancing, dining out, meeting singles, volunteering, spirituality.  I hung out alone in coffee shops and ate dinner at restaurant bars when I just couldn’t stand to be completely alone anymore.  I went to the gym and yoga studio regularly and had the guns to prove it (they’re long gone).

Lest you think I was completely needy and desperate, I want you to know I also sought, somewhat successfully, to keep myself company.  I got to know myself in new ways.  I started journaling again  to be more in touch with my inner world and to process my day on my own.  I started a meditation practice which opened a universe of insight into the body I had taken for granted for so long.  I went on long walks with the doggies, and even learned to use the mp3 function of my phone (yes it also took me forever to get the blog started too).  I resumed playing the piano and caught up on my reading.  I tried new interests at work – like personal development – and worked really hard on my new passion. Proudly I can say that I did NOT resume my knitting or Sudoku habits, nor did I spend endless hours vegging out in front of the TV.

A year of being alone and unsteady on my feet required that I establish myself in my new life.  The new me is more comfortable with solitude, more in touch with my body and emotions, more at ease mingling with and meeting strangers.  Today I am more confident, calmer, focused on my passions, more creative and energetic, and feeling better and more productive than ever.  I have taught myself, and modeled for my children, that you can thrive even under adversity, life change, or loneliness. Or maybe they modeled that for me:  they somehow managed to thrive during the transition and gracefully emerged with more poise and maturity.  It doesn’t get any better than that.

How Difficult People Are a Blessing. Part II – Acquaintances

There are people that just bring out the worst in me.  Their actions and interactions just make me want to grind my teeth, eat Ben & Jerry’s by the carton, and throw cellphones and remote controls to the ground.

My tendency in the past (and sometimes the present) has been to take the path of least resistance and do what is easiest or most gratifying in the moment:   ignore them, avoid them, or complain about them with like-minds, the whole time feeling self-righteous.  Fun, yes.  Effective, no.   After all, I can’t learn to be a better person if my M.O. is to just be the same person.

How can difficult people help me learn to be a better person?  As I mentioned in Part I on Difficult People, the unfortunate common denominator in my toughest relationships – whether with family or acquaintances – is me.   On one hand, it pretty much sucks to know that I’m responsible in these situations (yet again).  On the other hand, it’s pretty much awesome to know that the only thing I have any control over – me – can actually make a difference in improving an unsatisfying situation.

I am the difficult person in these situations because it is my perspective that is causing problems.  First, I have spent too much time wishing the other person would change – they are absolutely, definitively to blame!  This is the easiest, yet least productive approach to dealing with difficult people.  Even if I had control over others, I could not exert any meaningful influence on them by merely wishing for their improvement or enlightenment.    In addition, I may have also objectified that person:  if at I see them as a problem, an obstruction, a means to an end, an annoyance instead of a real human being with wishes, desires, insecurities and fears, then I am reinforcing this dysfunctional dynamic.

Fortunately, since it is my perspective that is causing problems, simply changing my perspective can make an impact.   When I stop blaming and seek to understand, then progress, collaboration, and good will become options.   It has become easier with time to swallow my pride and invite the difficult other to lunch or coffee (my treat) so that I can get to know him on a more personal level.  When I do take the trouble, I learn that they have goals, dreams, hot buttons, talents and deep-seated desires to be appreciated and liked, just like me.  Often I find we share much more common ground than I anticipated, and that communication styles sometimes create unnecessary friction and barriers to finding commonality.  Usually I find that any perceived disrespect, animosity, or judgment has more to do with my own hot button issues rather than theirs.  The reverse is also true.  Sometimes their negativity has more to do with their struggle with their own hot buttons, and less to do with me.

Actually, there are honest-to-God benefits to having difficult people in my life.  When I put aside my own ego, defensiveness and fear, then a feeling of empowerment is available to me when I can build a bridge.   It’s an opportunity to learn more about myself, what pushes my buttons and how to better manage my own issues.  It provides an opening to practice being empathic and supportive of someone who has a completely unfamiliar perspective.  It’s a chance to completely change the way I view a situation, and thus to become enlightened.  It creates options for me to help another widen their view of the possibilities.  It allows me to practice the belief that people are more effective when working as a team.  In the end, it’s my responsibility to manage myself, not to manage someone else.  And when I change my behavior and approach someone with empathy and curiosity instead of judgment, then they’re more likely to reciprocate.

I once read a story about the Buddha who kept a whiny, annoying, demanding disciple close by.  The student constantly needed attention and affirmation and yet was argumentative and critical.  One day someone asked the Buddha why he kept this difficult student so close by.  Buddha responded that the disciple was not his student.  He was his teacher.  In other words, the Buddha practiced his patience, empathy and forgiveness at the feet of this contentious companion.

Eckhart Tolle, philosopher extraordinaire, says that we create our own reality.  Therefore, if we perceive a problem, then it is because we have created the problem.  Therefore, if I feel someone else is creating difficulty, then that is the reality that I have created for myself.  I can choose to disassemble that reality into one that is more productive, healthier and forgiving.  I can choose understanding, patience, and curiosity over criticism, judgment and marginalization.  In doing so, I am also choosing to prioritize our common humanity, my personal growth and peace of mind over conflict and division.

Do you believe we create our own reality and our own problems?  Please share your story.

Sweet are the uses of adversity
Which like the toad, ugly and venomous
Wears yet a precious jewel in its head

– William Shakespeare, As You Like It

difficultboyandgirl1

Fighting fair

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The Importance of Saying “No”

I believe the benefits and importance of saying “No” are widely underappreciated.  In fact, saying “No” often is much maligned  – like it’s a bad thing.

Saying “No” can actually be a healthy, empowering act, not only for yourself but for others.  I’m not talking about the obvious No’s, like saying No to dessert, drugs, or too much alcohol or shopping.  I’m talking about when someone asks you to do something that is not in either your or their best interest in the long run.  Sometimes those requests are not even verbal, and we agree to them without conscious thought, much less conversation.

There is often much pressure to say “Yes”, including those habits we’ve adopted without thought.  For example, it is my habit to go to the kitchen first thing in the morning and start picking up and cleaning up.  There’s food, dirty dishes, trash and crumbs on the counter and stove top, and I relax with the newspaper better when the kitchen is clean.  I have been in this habit for probably decades as I can’t really remember when I started doing it.  What is the tacit agreement here?  That my family can leave a mess each night with their midnight snacks/meals/desserts and that I will clean up after them?  Apparently so! 

Why haven’t I said “No” to this?  I will likely get some pushback from saying “No” either immediately or later, when they forget or fall back into old habits.  I might argue that I’m picking my fights. In other words, I have tacitly agreed to this arrangement because it’s easier than asking them to change and then enforcing the new behavior. 

This is an agreement I can live with and have chosen to do so.  For now.  But some other agreements may not be so obviously benign.    If my son were to forget his homework repeatedly and I have to drop everything to bring his assignments to school, then maybe I’m removing his incentive to bring his own homework by protecting him from the natural consequences of his behavior.  If my husband is supposed to call the plumber, but then forgets or gets too busy, then maybe I’m encouraging him to avoid responsibility at home if I repeatedly take care of such tasks for him.  If I fail to say something when my girlfriend keeps interrupting me or arrives 30 minutes late again, then maybe I’m telling her that her behavior is acceptable to me.   If I put one more thing on my over-loaded plate at work, even if I know I can’t do a good job because I’m overcommitted, then maybe I’m telling my boss it’s OK to have unrealistic expectations of me.

If I do manage to say “No” and stand my ground and insist that others treat me with consideration and fairness, then I should also consider the unanticipated consequences of that choice too.  I may say “No” then feel guilty about asking for what I need, even if I’m standing up for myself for the first time on an issue.   Perhaps when I say “No”, if I use in a whiny, defensive, or judgmental tone, then participate in a fight or an argument, then I’m also undermining my cause by putting others on the defensive for what is an otherwise reasonable request or decision.

The benefit of No has been most apparent to me when it comes to parenting.  We have parented with an assumption that any behavior that we accepted or tolerated when the kids were little was going to be a reality that we would have to live with the rest of our lives. This assumption has largely proven true.  Though teaching manners and civilized behavior was tiring and frustrating to consistently enforce in the beginning, those discipline and courtesy problems at some point became almost non-existent.  

However, there were exceptions to this rule.  Some behaviors were resistant to change, encouragement and/or punishment.   We struggled against them for years with little progress, but when we took a step back for a fresh perspective and assessment, we learned there were medical issues involved in that were the root of the behavioral issues.  In this case, neither giving in, giving up nor punishing were effective.  We needed to listen, learn and investigate.  Then support.   

I hope the parenting example illustrates that I am not advocating that we all start saying “No” to anything and everything because we now feel empowered to do so.   Instead, I suggest that we stay attuned to our feelings, especially that nagging but quiet inner voice, to gauge to whether we’re being true to ourselves and our values, of if we’re just taking the path of least resistance.  I suggest that we do not shrink from having difficult conversations with family or co-workers, but we approach them with kindness, firmness, empathy, and confidence as we advocate for what we need or what we believe is the right thing to do.  I suggest we also listen with an open mind for what they need and want, and approach the conversation with an aim to understand and compromise.  

I suggest we also consider changing our own behavior:  if I stop doing the thing that isn’t working, then others will have to change their behavior in response.  For example, if I don’t want to clean the kitchen anymore, I can simply stop cleaning the kitchen and live with the consequences.  One possible consequence is that someone else may choose to step up to help with this chore.

Maybe I’ll go read the newspaper now….

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