Man and woman holding hands on bicycle
Photo from Unsplash

I’ve been reading lately about the difficulties women over thirty-five face in finding a good man. Statistically for those of us dating at middle age, it’s even worse when we’re over fifty. My conclusion: Dating itself has failed us.

Originally, dating led to marriage. Sex was coupled with commitment, and accountability was paramount. If a guy promised to propose but failed to follow through, you could sue him for breach of promise. Or your male relatives could just come after him with pitchforks.

Relationships today are amorphous, like a jello mold filled with yummy little marshmallows, but also full of those icky jalapeño flavored jelly beans. It’s not that we see our prospects as more than friends, it’s that we see them as so much less. Especially for the jaded denizens of dsting at middle age.

I call it the “what can they get away with” paradox, especially when dating at middle age. With sex uncoupled from commitment, I’ve met far too many guys who offer nothing but pricks. Modernity has become an excuse for societally sanctioned laziness, and worse yet, callousness.

Online dating has become a stage upon which we act our worst, then scurry away, as if the other person simply disappears because we want them to.

So while dating is off auto-erotically asphyxiating itself, let’s turn to friendship instead.

We need to stop seeing people as commodities and try to get to know each other as friends. But for this to work, we have to start seeing our prospects as individuals, each with a soul and dreams and foibles and feelings that can be hurt. They might even have something interesting to say if we take the time to get to know them.

We are far less likely to screw over people we see as friends than as fungible sexbots. And once we make a friend, we become more accepting of them. Acceptance may not lead to love, but it may lead to re-evaluating our required height-to-weight ratios, acceptable post-graduate institutions, and permissible footwear.

The majority of people on dating sites allegedly go for those few who are stunning and overtly successful— the alleged “quality” prospects. But I see plenty of long-term relationships develop between unremarkable-looking, middle-aged folk. The difference is that they know that quality isn’t determined by taut physiques or flashy jobs.

They know the truth: quality is measured by how we treat other people.

Instead of settling for less, let’s demand more, just on the inside instead of the exterior.

Can we talk about hiking?

Me at the top of Mount Diablo. No, I would not do an arduous hike with most of the men I’ve dated.

(I’m going somewhere with this …) On a recent group hike, a woman fell on a steep downhill, hurting her back. The next week, a female hiker couldn’t make it over the hills. In both instances, men they’d never met before stayed with them, helping the injured one to limp back to her car, waiting with the tired on while she slowly scaled each hill. These fellows sacrificed their own hikes, and their daily schedules, for women they didn’t even know.

I’ve rarely encountered that type of sacrifice while dating. In fact, I learned the value of my personal safety from an affluent guy I met for a date which lasted far longer than planned. When I said I had to leave to catch my train back to my car, he promised he’d help me get home safely. But when the date ended hours later, it turned out he planned on dropping me off at the deserted train station nearest his house.

Without complaint, I called an Uber. He then had the nerve to ask whether it was worth the price. Yes, I answered, to me my safety was well worth forty dollars. After a few minutes, he gave me a twenty as if he expected a medal. Twenty dollars was nothing to him, but once I was out of sight, and apparently out of mind, I became an inconvenience.

One more hiking example and I’m done. On last week’s group hike, a man came up beside me. He was friendly, if perhaps a bit oblivious, chattering on about his recent hikes, not noticing that I’d been conversing with someone else. As we made our way down a steep downhill, he stopped to offer his arm to a woman stuck on a rocky patch, helping her to cross over to safety. In that instant, I saw that he was a quality person. I’d been too afraid for my own footing to help that woman.

On a dating app, that Don Draper look-alike attorney alike standing next to his classic ‘Vette might look like a premium catch, but in reality, he might be a lot like the real Don, prostitutes and all. In contrast, the guy with the dreary, corporate head shot and tersely written profile might turn out to have hidden depths. He just isn’t a great self-marketer.

In fact, some of the better guys I’ve met online have shorter profiles because after a couple messages they want to talk and meet in real life. Be wary of the ones who waste your time frequently texting clever messages, sharing their days, or asking you a lot about yourself. They often disappear, negating your investment in all that texting.

But you wouldn’t do that with a friend. Nor would you try to talk a friend into bed over their reservations. Nor use them for your own entertainment then vanish, because you know, there might be hotter friends out there.

Quality becomes grossly distorted when it’s limited to a screen.

I’ve been reading how men are programmed to provide, and are thus confused by women who apparently do not need providing for.

This was not my experience in dating at middle-age. I could barely get a guy to meet for coffee at a specific time, not to mention getting him to lay a dead wooly mammoth at my feet.

Rather, men were far more likely to complain that I was the one who’d failed to provide. I went on far too many initial meet ups only to be treated to screeds about the cost of dating. And oh yeah, did I want a second nonfat chai latte? (Ringing in at $5.95).

Later dates offered other problems. There were the ones who disdained my suburban town and demanded I come to them, which I did a few times before tiring of making an hour and a half round trip with no reciprocity. Or the guy who picked a very expensive restaurant, proceeded to order enough imported Jamon Serrano and premium Rioja for four, ate and drank most of it, and only afterwards said, “Are we splitting this?”

The message I kept getting wasn’t “let me provide for you.”

It was more like, “Let me see what I can get out of you.”

And I am not alone. Friends with benefits, sure…but we need to be treated as friends, not just orifices that provide benefits.

We dissatisfied women may have to go Lysistrata on this.

Lysistrata is the story of a woman who persuaded the women who lived in two warring Greek city states to withhold sex in order to force their men to negotiate peace. We women who want long-term realtionships may have to start weeding out the chafe by waiting for sex until we have established a real friendship with our prospects.

I’d like to think that even the most casual of sex can include kindness, and even a measure of chivalry. But my own experience turned me into a nineteen fifties style prude. When I started at dating at fifty, I didn’t worry about buying the cow when the milk is free….until several guys started to treat me like interchangeable livestock after I gave up the cookie.

After a year of dating, I gave up on anything casual, because it seeemed to come with a measure of contempt. I decided to wait until I could answer the questions, do I actually like this man, is he a good person, and will he hang in there long enough to nurture a friendship?

In short, do I trust him?

He can tell you he’s as thrilled about you as a raccoon with a crayfish, but will he care that you get home safely and will he contact you again. He probably would with a real friend. And isn’t friendship the best foundation for leading into anything more?

See you on the trails.

(Previously published in P.S. I Love You).