I divorced in 1996, and in 2007 I blessedly struck it rich on a blind date and have been in a stable situation ever since.
Looking back at the eleven years I spent in the dating game (or more accurately, in and out of it), I’m struck by how many pitfalls there are and how many of them I did not manage to avoid. A retrospective review might shed light on how to arrive at a good place without taking all sorts of detours that just lead you right back to the dating game.
1. Never act out of anxiety.
“She doesn’t really set lights flashing in my head, but she’s kind of nice, and I’ve had nothing going for…seven months now? How long is this supposed to go on? Another seven years? The rest of my life? And can perfection really be the standard? Just think, I could have someone to take with me to that concert Saturday night.”
This kind of thinking is pseudo-rational and actually stems from anxiety. Younger people may be less susceptible to it; but as a divorced guy in the middle of the journey, as the poet Andrew Marvell put it,
…at my back I [could] always hear
Time’s winged chariot hurrying near….
Inner voices told me that the game was a desperate one, that if I didn’t take what seemed available at the moment—even if, well, not that thrilling—I might be facing a solitary trek stretching far, who knew how far, into the future. Which, when combined with the temptation of right now, or very soon, having someone to go places with, was a strong brew.
This is, however, a recipe for a short-lived, mutually disappointing relationship that just puts both people back where they started.
Reality check: The situation is not desperate and you do not have to settle for someone you don’t really want. In the internet era you can line up an infinite number of dates. Yes, even so, it can take time; finding a really good match is not simple. But to say it can take time is not the same as saying time’s winged chariot is hurrying near and you’re in some sort of emergency. Go to that concert alone, or with a friend, or just don’t go to it. Wait for the real thing.
2. Never ignore intuition.
“In the way she answered that question there was a depth of bitterness and cynicism. Yes, it was an ordinary question, an ordinary answer, the content is not the point. There was something there that doesn’t augur well, despite those other ways in which she’s appealing. Call her tomorrow and say you don’t think it’s going to work. Get out of it now.”
This happened after I had already been in the game for years, and knew enough—I thought—to take intuition seriously. But I overruled it. I went for it anyway, and it didn’t last too long or end too well.
Her bitterness and cynicism had to do with her personal history, the marriage that didn’t work and the string of post-marriage relationships that didn’t work. As far as I could see, there was nothing introspective in it, more like self-fulfilling prophecy. She assumed, wearily, that you were going to fall short—and, sooner or later, you did.
Reality check: Especially when it goes together with experience, intuition is a good guide. What it says may not be what you want to hear. Ignore it at your peril.
3. Never get into a situation you can’t handle.
“OK, so she has the three-year-old and the one-year-old. Yes, she hopes you’ll kind of adopt them—you can see that in her eyes when she talks. Take it slow. She’ll see how nice it is to have you in her life, and she’ll realize that those other hopes, about you becoming a stepdad or something, are unrealistic and probably no one else would fulfill them either. Or, who knows, maybe it really will work out that way….”
This is a recipe for a mess where, instead of just two, a lot of other people get hurt and disappointed. Once it gets started, at times it may seem nice to you to join the little group, to have the anchor, the security. But the fear and doubt, the feeling that you already have too many other responsibilities and this is just too much, do not go away. Instead of integrating, these feelings polarize, drawing farther and farther apart. She realizes that this tension in you is not getting resolved, and she gets fed up.
Reality check: Do not venture into such situations unless your attitude is positive—positive, not ambivalent—from the start. Yes, her circumstances are difficult. You’re not her savior. Getting into it half-baked, thinking it might work, or might not, does no one any favors in the end.
4. Never give in to the over-aggressive.
“Another email! She really doesn’t let up, does she? Pictures, too—tasteful, appealing ones. A veritable onslaught. Yes, she acknowledges that she’s still in a situation from which she hasn’t totally extricated herself. But she sure is persistent. What the hell. It won’t hurt to meet her.”
Yes, and once that “adventurous” what-the-hell spirit gets hold of you, one thing leads to another. You keep feeling that—even though she seems genuinely enthused—you’re a means to an end; and since you, despite your doubts and misgivings, keep going with it, she too is somewhat of a means to an end. “Mutual use” would be an exaggeration, but there’s that element.
And once the wave she’s invited you to ride with her crashes, you’re left high and dry. Yes, she’s gotten out of her situation, but not out of the confusion and malaise that drove her in the first place. She wants you around, but she doesn’t, but then again she does. Now you have to extricate yourself.
Reality check: That kind of impetuousness comes from a suspicious, problematic place. Do not just get swept along by someone else. It has to be a democracy, both sides equally voting yes.
Looking back on those 11 years from a standpoint of stability, I wouldn’t say I regret them as a whole. An accumulation of experiences is enriching. And it all led to a good place.
Still, the four mistakes I’ve just described really are mistakes, and if, for any reason, I were ever to be back in that game again, I would try to avoid them.