To me, so much of the dysfunction surrounding dating in middle age boils down to the way men and women of my generation were taught to behave.
Specifically, little boys were brought up to conquer while girls were brought up to be docile.
In the early seventies, when I started first grade, little girls weren’t even allowed to wear pants to school. The boys were free to cavort on the monkey bars, but we girls had to play while holding down our dresses so they wouldn’t fall over our heads. That image pretty much says it all.
I started law school in the mid-eighties, the time of yuppies and Wall Street (“Greed is Good”), and LA Law, which featured incredibly good-looking lawyers with hot sports cars having way more sex than actually practicing law. It all embodied a conquest mentality: of saying what you think the other person wants to hear in order to get what you want. But that didn’t seem to apply to me as a female attorney.
My law school class was fifty-one percent women. But once I was practicing law at a firm in the real world, the male attorneys talked over me. No one asked my opinion. In fact, when I tried to speak up, my male boss told me that I needed to be more pleasant even though he himself was a Human Resources nightmare.
Pleasant is not a word used to describe a successful attorney.
Then there’s the second problem: not only were many of us women raised not to offend anyone, the media told us we needed to be considered beautiful, and therefore wantable. And if beauty is something we’re taught to aspire to, then being praised for it becomes validating.
Our social conditioning created the perfect shitstorm in middle age.
Combine the need to be desired with being trained not to offend anyone, and it’s back to the playground where we were told to play nice with the boys even as they pulled up those stupid dresses we had to wear. In other words, we’re raised to be susceptible to compliments about our desirability, and also to be afraid to tell our complimenters to fuck off for fear of offending them.
This all came to mind the other day when a girlfriend called me in tears because her dream guy who allegedly wanted to build a life together was pulling away following an intense three-month relationship. He told her he could still see them together, but he needed to see her far less frequently and only when he was up to it depending on his fragile emotional state.
“I don’t understand,” she whimpered between sniffles, “He told me I was stunning. He said I was the first person in a long time he felt serious about.”
But his behavior said otherwise. Leading me to believe that all his earlier verbiage was just persuasion to be with her initially. There was never any potential for a shared future. And if he did have emotional issues which precluded a relationship, he should have told her that from the start. As in before the pulling back of sheets.
That’s the problem. Words are just words. We believe them because we want to.
The problem arises when we try to get the other person to bend to our will.
A millennial friend recently taught me a new word: Fuckboy. It refers to a guy who is unsure of what he really wants from a romantic partner. But he acts like he is more involved or enamored than he actually is in order to scratch the romantic/sex itch. He is “superficially intimate, as if acting from a script he knows all too well.”
I’d call him a Lothario, and I’m disheartened to find out he’s still flourishing in the modern age.
Assume my prospect says, “I’m looking for a woman to have sex with when I don’t have anything better to do.” At least I know he’s not for me, and props to him for being honest (if somewhat lackluster).
But what if he says, “You are so amazing, a combination of strawberries and wood musk. I’m already crazy about you. Let’s try to make this work.” Unless he’s ushering me into the backseat of a Camaro, I might be apt to believe him.
In effect, both statements could mean the same thing.
When I started dating in middle age at 50 after losing my husband, I was surprised to meet some men who wanted me so much, I was just so irresistibly desirable. Which of course I wasn’t. I was just woefully inexperienced (having married my high school sweetheart), and happened to be there at the right time with a middle-aged guy who had a silver tongue.
But it left a bad taste in my mouth.
There is a one-word solution to this dating in middle age problem, It’s called compassion.
We need to treat our prospects as people we care about instead of transactions we hope to benefit from. Most of us put kindness aside in the dating world. If we’ve met online, we have no history with these people. We never have to see them again, and it’s easy to talk ourselves out of being accountable to them.
All the people who’ve disappointed us in the past blur into this mess called “dating,” so we treat our prospects like we already know it isn’t going to work. Why waste time being courteous or even showing up if we find something better to do? That sock drawer is looking pretty darn messy.
Or we fear getting taken advantage of if we treat someone kindly. Like listening and offering empathy instead of vacuous compliments will lead to demands for expensive dinners and low-interest loans.
But if we think of our dates as potential friends, compassion comes to the forefront. No more trying to lure them into coming over with false promises of fake futures. No more hackneyed compliments in an effort to make a conquest. And even more importantly, no more degrading ourselves by treating people as if they’re disposable.
I know I’ve felt sullied by the morass that is online dating. But that happened when I’d given up on people and, to my discredit, stopped behaving accountably. Cynicism led to irresponsibility, causing me to feel even worse about myself. Treating everyone kindly might not lead to romance, but it definitely helps with self-respect.
And when we like ourselves, we behave better to others because we have our own self-worth to answer to. Let’s stop trying to come out ahead, and see the person in front of us not as a conquest or a fuckboy, but as a real person who might become our friend.
If we’re lucky, it might start a chain reaction.
(Previously published in P.S. I Love You).