It was late when my cell phone rang, shaking me from the stupor that even my book, “Bonk: The Curious Couple of Science and Sex,” crashing onto the floor for the fifth time couldn’t do.
It was Sara.
“Well, I’m not exactly sure but I’ve read the same paragraph four times now — more, actually, if you count last night. What’s up?”
“I don’t know how to do this.”
“You know, date.”
“What?” I said, feeling more disturbed by Sara’s comment than by the book’s description of how Danish farmers artificially inseminate pigs. If my memory and math were serving me well, Sara was calling right after her third date with Joe — a cute contractor she met at the English Beat gig at 19 Broadway.
“I don’t know how to date anymore. I’m 47, for goodness sake!”
It was good I was home alone, because my face squinched up in a way that I just know isn’t a good look for me.
“What do you mean? Didn’t it go OK?”
“Yes, it was great. He’s great, the food was great, his good-night kiss was great. More than great. Really great.”
“Well, that’s, um, great. So what, exactly, is the problem?”
“It’s just that I’m so tired of telling my story over and over again, like I’m living my own version of “Groundhog Day.” And when he says he’ll call, I’m never really sure if he will or not. And then, I’m sad and I start to build my little walls …” she said, the voice of an accomplished, sassy, smart woman who’s waiting for the dating shoe to drop.
“Sweetie, he’s a contractor. He knows how to knock down walls!” I joked, trying to ease her pain as she went through her post-date recap processing. But I realized she was right. She doesn’t know how to date anymore. Of course, neither do I and I’m guessing by all the advice books and dating experts out there, a heck of a lot of other single boomers don’t, either.
When we were younger, dating was a no-brainer. He was cute, you were cute, you liked the same music and he had an extra ticket to the Talking Heads concert. That pretty much was it.
Our long-term goal seemed simple enough: a husband, 2.5 kids, a golden retriever and the picket-fenced house. Oh, and happily ever after. Haven’t we been taught to want that from Day 1?
At midlife, our goal isn’t quite the same. Many of us lived that “America dream” for a while, and we understand that it’s more like “happily for a few years” at best. Anyone who has been divorced knows that “for better and worse, in sickness and in health” are words that can be tossed away when convenient. If those vows and a little piece of paper couldn’t make it last, what are the chances of two middle-aged people — with their own matched sets of emotional baggage and happily embraced post-divorce freedoms — figuring it out on their own? Plus now that we’re divorced or widowed, we don’t really know what the goal of dating is: Marriage? Serial monogamy? A committed partnership? A fling? Someone who’ll share the extra-large bag of popcorn at the Rafael Theater with us from time to time and then goes to his home as we go to ours, alone?
I don’t want to say we boomers are necessarily fussier, but after all we’ve been through in love and life, the “wisdom” and “experience” we treasure sometimes keeps us from being open to making ourselves vulnerable again. We’ve been betrayed, hurt, abused, deceived. We know what it means to love and to lose in a big way. We see our former spouse’s bad behaviors in potential new partners or we see our own bad patterns resurfacing. We’re older, and even if we don’t want to admit it, our bodies and brains keep reminding us. We know too much, and we think too much. Or, maybe, we just like our freedom too much.
And the rules have changed on us, too. Dates, like health-care proposals, are single-payer plans; everyone’s become polyamorous because we’re seeing several people at the same time; and no one seems to be able to figure out what an actual “date” is anyway — a latte at Starbucks? (not a venti, though, in case there’s no chemistry and you need to split quickly). Men follow “The Game” and women follow “The Rules.” Some dating experts tell us gals that we should be asking men out and others warn that we’ll come across as too aggressive and desperate. There's the three-day phone call rule, and the three-date sex rule. And then there’s text messaging — for when an e-mail or even a voicemail seem a little too intimate. It’s courting lite!
“What R U up 2?” popped up on my cell phone just as I sat down to dinner one Tuesday with The Kid. It was Bruce, a 48-year-old with a great sense of humor and amazing blue-green eyes. We’d gone out a few times, and I enjoyed our time together — it just was hard to know exactly when that time might be. Bruce was the consummate texter, and sometimes that meant he wanted to see me and other times, well, I don’t know what it meant.
"Dinr. TLK 2U L8R,” I texted back.
And then, nothing. Until Friday, when I heard my cell phone beep just as I arrived home from work. It was a text from Bruce.
“How R U?”
My fingers were too tired after my 40-plus hours at my work computer for me to text back, so I called him. I got his voicemail. That’s odd, I thought; didn’t he just text me?
“Hi Bruce. How are you? Just wanted to get back to you. I’m around if you want to talk, OK? It would be great to catch up.”
Two hours later, he called. “Hi, Kat. You free tonight?”
It was 9 on a Friday night. Couldn’t he have asked — or texted — earlier?
After a few months of “textual relations” that sometimes led to an actual phone conversation and a few times even a face-to-face one, I gave up. I let the last “How R U?” go unanswered, but maybe he could read between the invisible texting lines: “Frustr8d!”
Even with all the new techno ways to flirt, dating at midlife still brings us back to our insecure adolescence — just without the zits. Everyone else seems to be hooked up, happily or not, and we’re still standing by the punch bowl, hoping the cute one asks us to dance. Yet one thing hasn’t changed — the fear of being rejected.
And that’s why some of us just give up after a while. I mean, if we really wanted to have a man fault us for one thing or another, we might as well have stayed married!
Dating — at midlife, post-divorce, with kids — is scary. So some avoid it altogether while others, missing companionship so much, make bad choices as they try to quickly re-create what they once had. Well, if we’ve gone to bed and awakened next to someone for 10, 15, 20 years, it’s not surprising that many us us want to create a Cup-O-Soup couple — just stir and enjoy!
And others, like Sara, stick their toe into the dating pool ready to pull it back at a moment’s notice when it starts to feel uncomfortable.
We’ve forgotten that it takes time, chemistry, flirtations, seductions, courting, romancing and just letting it “be” to slowly build a relationship — if it even ends up becoming a relationship, that is. And accepting that not everyone we go on a date with and like is going to feel the same way about us. And trusting that sooner or later, someone might.
Still, I thought Sara needed a little more TLC. So after we hung up, I texted her: “IMHO U R GR8.”
“OMG! I H8 txting! :-(” she texted back.
Well, no wonder she’s struggling, with an attitude like that!
Read all my musings at Kat Wilder's My So-called Midlife