Dear Dana is a bi-weekly advice column for humans who engage in romantic relationships. Please send your dilemmas, issues, conundrums, assumptions, conflicts, anxieties, worriments, obstacles, complications, predicaments, queries, questions, and any other synonyms for “problems” to firstname.lastname@example.org.
I was married for 35 years. I’ve been divorced for a year and in a few weeks I’ll celebrate my 60th birthday. I don’t want to spend the rest of my life alone, but how do I start trying to date again? Will anyone want a saggy lady with 35 years of relationship baggage? With so many younger, less saggy single women out there, what chance do I have?
Sad and Saggy
Dear Sad and Saggy,
Once, late at night, when I was newly single and actively online dating, I poured myself a scotch on ice and logged on to my dating profile. No one had messaged me, no one had responded to the few feeble messages I had sent out. As the condensation from the melting ice in my scotch slowly made a permanent water ring on my wooden desk, I peered at my online dating profile and tried to figure out what was wrong. Was my list of favorite books too short? My favorite TV shows too dated? My overall tone too playful? The picture of me with bright red hair holding a marshmallow cross bow too…marshmallowey? All I knew for sure was that I was desperate for companionship, no one wanted to date me, and I couldn’t stand to be this way any longer, this lonely woman in a studio apartment. I had to change something.
As my first scotch became a second, I decided what was really needed here was some opposition research. I needed to see the profiles of other women my age to see what they were doing right and figure out how to pretend to be like them. In a few clicks I adjusted my settings from searching for men my age to women my age. And I found a lot of women. Thousands, all in my area, all with bright teeth, smooth legs, and fun, bouncy hair. They had dogs and guitars and intricate back tattoos and light summer dresses that spun around their calves. They were all younger than me and they all had MBAs and they all owned their own condos and I couldn’t even bother to not stain my own desk. They were all, each of them, better than me. I had no chance.
I thought of the dating market like any other economy—there is supply and there is demand. The supply of lovely women appeared to be abundant, and the supply of lovely men less so. In order to have a hope of getting a date, I needed to be more competitive. I needed to find a way to make myself stand out from the other Internet ladies. I needed to find a way to win.
But I had no idea how to do that, so instead I poured a third scotch, cancelled my online dating profile, and spent the next few months glaring at anyone holding hands in public. By the spring I was ready to login again and take another chance, only to be frustrated and crushed again. Logoff. Breathe. Logon. Stew. This was my pattern for two years. I knew I had to date because I knew I wanted a partner in life, but the work of dating was so profoundly upsetting and uncomfortable I didn’t know how I could ever sustain it long enough to have actual results.
To leave a relationship is to take a match and light your own world on fire. You keep burning for a while after and it takes a bit longer than you’d like for the fire to finally go out and for your world to grow back anew. When I started dating, my expectations of what my dates could provide for me emotionally were way too high. No one messaged me because, even online, people can smell that. It smells like burning plastic and disappointment. I had some men express interest in me, only to disappear when I mentioned my recent break-up.
And then something happened.
It wasn’t a sudden moment that changed everything, but approximately my sixth time through this cycle of hope and disappointment and online dating I noticed that my thinking had changed. Human relationships are not an economy, and I am not a commodity. The dating market doesn’t exist. I am not in competition with every single lady on the Internet, and they are not in competition with me.
My thinking had changed because my life had changed—I was no longer hungrily searching for my one true love to rush in and be my boyfriend and release me from the horror of being a single woman. I was a single woman and, for the first time in years, I was really fucking happy. I was writing, performing, drinking the good scotch, taking classes, and the possibility of meeting new and interesting people was always open to me. I was free to stay out all night or stay in all day or go to a house party or take a walk by my damn self. I was free in a way I had never been before. I stopped worrying so much about finding a partner. I started worrying if anyone I ever dated would be awesome enough to justify abandoning my kickass spinsterhood.
Once I stopped wanting a partner so desperately I was able to finally, finally enjoy dating. I was able to meet someone and not worry about if he was going to be my husband or not. I no longer cared if he thought that I was the best Internet lady he had ever met, so I could finally relax and actually listen to what he was saying. By the time I met my husband I was so relaxed that I had to keep reminding myself that we were on a date and not two old friends discussing the successes and failures of Obama’s first term.
So, yes, you should definitely force yourself to date, but you should do so with as few expectations as possible. Expect only this: You will meet a man, you will go out with him, you two will discuss your lives, and you might get a good book recommendation out of it. That is it.
Now, as for the sagginess: I need you shut the fuck up about that. Shut up hard. And, even more than saying it about yourself to other people, stop thinking it. You are not saggy. No one is saggy. You are a human with skin. The only people who would ever call you saggy are you and complete assholes you definitely don’t want in your life.
Here’s a great secret truth about dating: You don’t get to decide what turns other people on. You don’t get to decide that you’re unloveable because your boobs dropped a ¼ inch in the past two decades.
Have you ever noticed that the person you have a crush on is the most beautiful human in all the world? Have you ever noticed that if you look at anyone close enough, especially first thing in the morning, they’re completely disgusting? Have you ever noticed that you’ll still totally have sex with their morning breath messed up hair prickly face anyway? It’s because you’re not actually trying to have sex with their body. The body, the skin, the outside isn’t what you’re trying to gain access to through sex. Sex is an attempt to meld the gorgeous, pure, radiant life force of you with the gorgeous, pure, radiant life force of them.
Do not cling to your worldview where you are old and used up and unwanted. You are brilliant and beautiful and alive in a way you haven’t been for many years. You are new and quivering and nervous and bold. Go talk to people. Smile at strange men in the grocery store. Run your fingers along the edges of fences. Do the things you have not done in a long time, the things you have not done ever.
But do not look for redemption or resolution or permission or safety in another person. Because they don’t have that. Agree to let yourself be alone and afraid and uncomfortable. You are new again, for the first time, and you are very lucky to be so. Run out into the world and find yourself.
Dana Norris once went on 71 internet dates, many of which you may read about here. She is the founder of Story Club and editor-in-chief of Story Club Magazine. She has been featured in McSweeney’s, Role Reboot, The Rumpus, and Tampa Review and she teaches at StoryStudio Chicago. You may find her on Twitter at @dananorris.