I've been dating for eight years. Surely I've learned something?
The Wallace Steven’s poem “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird '' is a study in how wildly our perspectives on beauty and experience differ from the next person's. The same can be said for views on sex and love. And how to keep a relationship from turning into a dumpster fire. What I’ve learned over a near decade of dating, loving, letting go and moving on, is that contentment is possible with or without the perfect partner. Meaning, I suppose, that the partner in question may be either imperfect or simply absent. The fact I can say this now suggests I’ve grown to accept things as they are rather than how I want them to be. What I'll never accept is boredom. I’m a person who enjoys the challenges of loving. I’m not a seeker of ease at all costs. If you know what I mean when I say a good life is better than a happy life, we’re on the same page. And good love is better than easy love, in my opinion.
I’m closing out my relationship to Savvy Love with a retrospective of the things I think are most important to having the Not-Easy-but-Totally-Awesome relationship, including the many books I’ve read that have helped to form these opinions.
A general alignment of desire is critical.
The dating site OKCupid, when I was using it, had a True/False question that went something like, “The person I marry must be the best sex of my life.” I might have answered “True” in my 20’s, even though I wouldn’t have had a large sample size. But after 50 there are a hella lotta other qualities that need to be “best” for me and sex isn’t necessarily one of them. However, an alignment in one's interest in sex is hugely important, along with the general satisfaction found therein. I’ve spoken to many people who were withering from their partner’s lack of interest in sex. They weren’t looking for mind blowing sex, just any sex or intimacy. A relationship can be successful if two people are equally disinterested in sex. That may be me in another few decades. But currently I place high value on regular sex and affection. It’s not likely a long term partner is going to top that weekend I had with a man I hardly knew having sex on every piece of furniture in the house. But that amazeballs sex machine turned out to be a colossal flake. I’ll settle for good sex on a regular basis with a person who is steadfast and values the same. Read: Mating In Captivity by Esther Perel
Love the dog you choose (or own up to choosing the wrong dog).
People need to be loved for who they are, not what we want them to be. I’ve been told I’m bossy, opinionated, fun and chill. If I’m all these things, (and yes, I’m all those things and more) and want someone to love me, I need to love, or at least accept, their many, sometimes difficult, qualities in equal measure. When I feel myself wanting to tell a lover how he might better conduct his life, I pause and ask how I might better accept the way he is conducting his life. If I don’t like it, he’s not my kind of dog. Sure, I want a partner who is open to my influence, but he needn't bend to my every request. There’s a difference between negotiating easily modifiable behaviors ("Can you please close the toilet seat?"), and major compatibility issues around behavior and communication. Read: The Mastery of Love by Don Miguel Ruiz; Passionate Marriage by David Schnarch
Good love does not require the most passion but the least anxiety.
Anxiety isn’t absent in good love. We feel it when we’re concerned about our people. But if anxiety becomes my predominant emotional response with a partner, that’s my signal to reconsider the suitability of this match. I’ve had relationships where I rehearsed preemptive conversations in hopes of avoiding a disagreement. That is not a safe relationship. Nor is one that feels neglectful, like he’s just not that into me. One person’s bid for affection may trigger another’s fear of neediness. I want to feel cohesive and at ease with the person I love. That does require I learn to soothe myself before expecting a man to do it for me. After that, I also need to feel soothed by him. Read: Tiny, Beautiful Things by Cheryl Strayed.
I am responsible for my own orgasm.
It’s not that my partner can't bring me to orgasm. I’m simply not endowed with a quick and easy orgasmic response. So I need to teach my partner what feels good and what can get me over the edge. I spent years faking orgasms because I was too embarrassed by the time and effort it took to get there. But once I stopped being dishonest or silent about the how to bring down the house, I had a lot more partnered orgasms. It’s quite honestly a disservice to myself and the Sisterhood to keep a man in the dark about how to get me off. Good sex is honest sex. I need to speak up. Read: Come As You Are by Emily Nagoski; Becoming Clitorate by Laurie Mintz.
Online dating is a repository of beautiful fuck-ups.
With very few exceptions, the men I’ve met online were in various stages of reconstruction, casting about for sex, affirmation, and companionship long before they’d put in any serious work at figuring themselves out. This goes for me as well. Having dated so many men after divorce, I'm less optimistic about love lasting. I'm skittish and wary and full of triggers I may still have a hard time controlling, and which make me insufferable at times. It takes a lot of resolve and exuberance to date after failed relationships. I want to see the man I’m dating admitting to, and working on, his own demons while I’m doing the same myself. Read: Getting the Love You Want by Harville Hendricks and Helen LaKelly Hunt; The Four Agreements by Don Miguel Ruiz.
We’ll never be happy in love until we’re happy with ourselves.
Love is not magic, it’s effort (and fun).
Hormesis is a physiological state where low level stress has a positive effect on the organism. Vigorous exercise leads to muscle strengthening and cardiovascular improvement. We get healthier and better at something through practice and perseverance and, yes, a little bit (or a lot) of pain. This can also apply to love. I’ve had a handful of relationships end abruptly when they hit a steep incline, a switchback on the way up the mountain. I don't want to hike with a quitter. Anyone interesting is likely also challenging. If we avoid challenging relationships, those love muscles will never get toned. Of course, too much stress will damage or even kill the organism, so I always weigh the cost/benefit of a relationship. But I like the results of sustained effort, especially if I'm having fun getting there. Read: The Comfort Crisis by Michael Easter; The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey.
Be a generous lover.
Most men orgasm about 95% of the time they have intercourse. We do not need to feel sorry for them. However, I don’t simply lay back and let him do his thing until he’s satisfied. I am curious about my lover’s body and want to understand its likes and dislikes, the best way to stroke him and show him the same kind of attention he’s giving me. Finding new positions, places, and embellishments for lovemaking are things that make a lover feel special. The safer and more cared for I can help a man feel in bed, the more I see him doing the same for me and opening up emotionally. The more he opens to me emotionally, the more I want to fuck. Win-win. Read: Passionista & She Comes First by Ian Kerner.
Question the narrative.
We are masters of self-deception, every one of us. I endeavor to turn the lens around and ask, How am I being difficult? Could his perspective also be true? Can I feel compassion for this nutcase? Read: How to Choose a Partner by Susan Quilliam; The Course of Love by Alain de Botton
A relationship is not determined by its beginning but by its trajectory.
I’ve had passionate relationships where the intensity of our interest in each other (and the fireworks sex) made us think we were unbreakable. But these crackerjack affairs blew up quite spectacularly. The kind of relationship I value now is one that starts rather unassuming and gets more interesting over time. It is represented by a scatterplot of data points with an upward sloping trend. That experiment is going to hold my interest. Read: The Seven Principles of Making Marriage Work by John Gottman.
I am healthier through a variety of relationships rather than a single romantic one.
Nothing prepared me for the devastation of being dumped abruptly by a man I loved. He had a wide network of friends when I moved to town, and I allowed myself to be folded into his history, his friendships, and his future. Then, when he decided not to grow old with me, I had no one to fall back on, except a few far away friends and my immediate family. It was embarrassing to sob on the phone with my 78 year-old mother as a 52 year-old woman. I doubled down on strengthening my local friendships. Now I feel rejection proof.
Read: Lost Connections by Johann Hari.
The future is not guaranteed; focus on the present.
I’ve found getting too far ahead of the present often fosters anxiety. Letting go of expectations of how the future will reward me (or crush me) is liberating. That doesn't mean living passively. It means actively engaging with circumstances as they are and exercising solutions in a creative manner. The Austrian psychiatrist Viktor Frankl said, Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom. I try to keep this in mind each time I feel discomfort, to not let a past experience or a future expectation affect the best version of myself in the present moment, especially as it pertains to a relationship. Read: The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle
Compassion is Everything.
Compassion means learning to recognize when someone isn’t right for me and moving on without anger. It means not holding a grudge if I’m the one who gets dumped because I’m not right for him. It means giving a person the benefit of the doubt if they are crabby or quiet or activating my anxiety. Everyone is a teacher, good or bad. Every man I’ve dated has helped me recognize what qualities I do best with and which ones I would rather live without. I’ve likely done the same for them. Compassion is not forgiveness. Compassion acknowledges that people who do bad things were hurt themselves. And we have a tendency to repeat patterns. Compassion walks away without hitting back. Read: all about love by bell hooks; Anything by Pema Chödrön
I used to think dating in my 50's was towards the goal of finding someone to grow old with. But now I see dating as an opportunity to meet an interesting person who might add to my life in any number of ways. Though I've not re-married, I haven't been single all this time. Not by a long shot. I’ve been actively engaged in building relationships with the men I sleep with, some of whom are still friends. I’m probably a better communicator now. And hopefully a better lover as well. Dating and loving is practice. And though it would seem that time spent practicing a skill would result, eventually, in the reward we seek, say, someone to see out the rest of our time on earth with, there’s no guarantee. What I’m sure of is I’ll screw up on occasion. Again. I’ll ask for forgiveness. Again. There is no one person who is best suited for me. Rather, there are any number of suitable people with whom to make love work at the point we both decide, every day, to make it happen. Love is a choice, not a feeling. Love is active, not passive. Love is the right timing, location, and combination of qualities. Love is a lifetime of effort in not giving up on myself and someone else.