I’ve hesitated to write a post on this because it is such a complicated issue and because I feel like my comments here are usually centered on my own perspective (as memoir always is) and not others’ actions, and it is incredibly hard to discuss this topic in specific without reflecting on others.
But it’s such a central issue to everyone’s questions, and I occasionally get an email from a reader who is encountering a new chapter of unattachment and wondering what my thoughts are on dating. It’s a central issue to my own path right now, so I decided to finally type a few words on the screen — though I don’t know where this will end.
I’ll begin by asserting that I think everyone’s path to healing is different. I have met divorced women who dated every single weekend that they were away from their kids. I’ve met divorced women (and men as well) who didn’t leave their house much at all the first year and elected to hardly speak to the opposite sex for quite a while. I hold no judgment for either of those approaches. I will say, based on my personal experience and the advice of every therapist and book on the planet, that I think an actual committed and serious relationship is highly complicated and dangerous territory as you deal with the wreckage of what is left in that first year or so. But whether you choose to casually date or not? That scenario is entirely up to the person herself and what she feels brings the most healing in that moment.
Some people have flat out asked me if I’m dating yet (the best approach). Some have just asked others if I am, and then that gets back to me. Some have encouraged me to date and others have completely assumed that of course I wouldn’t go on a date “this soon” and that the idea itself is preposterous.
The answer to all of these questions is somewhat complicated. I know enough about myself to know that if I went a substantial length of time without going on a date, I could lock myself in a pattern of fear and inhibition. That is not the case with everyone, but it is with me. I’m shy, always have been. I am introverted at first meeting someone. And of course, I emerged from a situation where I’d spent 15 years with the same person, and a sudden betrayal ended it. And, to be honest, for a while it abruptly ended my faith in men in general. (I’m still working on that one.) Combine all of these factors – personality and history – and I could easily become a homebody who reads and writes and knits and has a rich inner life but feels scared to connect and share that with anyone else. I think that type of life has its place and brings a certain kind of comfort and happiness, but as humans, we are wired to have connection with others.
I made a promise to myself last February that if someone asked me out, I’d say yes. Simply because I knew that this year would be stretching and growing, and I knew that dating again after 15 years in a relationship is an incredibly frightening thing. You only grow when you do scary things. I wish it was different, but sadly, that’s the way it is.
Truthfully, the act of sitting across a table from someone I do not know well and answering his million questions about me as we eat is pretty much the definition of the scariest thing I can do. But I am getting braver, and I’m figuring things out little-by-little.
A single friend of mine suggested I join a popular dating app to “boost my confidence” and “see what’s out there.” (You know the one with 12 million users.) That experience alone could be a post itself because it was eye-opening and hilarious, and while I don’t think it has restored my faith in men (not at all) and it was a short-lived experience, it has shown me that I am emerging quite well on my own, and there is a wide world of possibilities beyond the horizon.
So anyway, fast forward a few weeks, and word leaked out that I had a profile there. I was pretty shocked to receive written messages from someone from my former life insisting that I must be “screwing random people” and that I have a “big internet sign saying open for business” and please “don’t put yourself on Craig’s List, ok?”
I’ve been a feminist for all of my adult life, but for anyone who needs a quick refresher, I want to talk about something for a minute.
The glory of slut shaming, if you are not familiar with that term from Gender Studies courses or modern culture, is that you don’t even have to actually be having the sexual relationships to be chastised; you just have to behave in a way that makes someone assume you are.
And those assumptions can come from lots of things: being attractive, being secretive (aka private) about your dating life, actually going on dates with someone when he asks, showing any remote interest in the opposite sex, not abiding my cultural norms on age and marriage, and apparently even having a profile on a dating site with more than 12 million other people.
What’s interesting to note is that these rules don’t apply to men.
When men divorce, they are expected to date immediately, I’ve noticed. Friends set them up; their own mothers encourage them to find a suitable girl as quickly as possible. And most interestingly, if nothing is said or revealed, people assume that they must be dating. And are completely okay with that.
The rules are different for us, I’m finding. Can you imagine a single man encountering judgment that he is wearing a huge internet sign that says “open for business” if he has an online dating profile? Me either. Because it doesn’t happen. That phrase alone is a reference to prostitution which is one of the oldest insults in the book used to shame women for assumed sexual relationships – real or imagined.
My past year has changed me in a million ways. One of these ways is that I’m painfully aware of the many times in my own past that I’ve listened to someone shame a woman for presumed romantic interests when the speaker likely knows nothing of the woman’s situation at all.
So here’s a quick list of questions I ask myself before I open my mouth to comment on someone’s dating life… Is she currently in a committed relationship so that her romantic actions are secretive and could hurt someone else? …. Is she involved with a man who appears to be controlling, demoralizing, or bad for her? … Are her actions hurting herself or someone else? …. If the answer to any of these questions is yes, and you are friends with the woman, by all means, open the conversation with her. If the answers are no, shut your mouth. Her private life is none of your business. Period.
There are a thousand things to worry about as a single mom in the 21st century. We think about our kids and how they weigh in on the already-hefty equation. We are more mindful of safety and personal agency than ever before. And as women, we are finally simply expecting to receive the respect we deserve. So if I’m conversing with someone new, I’m turning so many things around in my own mind to see how it feels with me. Which is the point, you know. How does this person make me feel? How does he appear to treat others? How does it all sit with my own soul and my own sensibilities? The last thing that we should be adding to that list is the expectation that women abide by some arbitrary rules that men are not expected to adhere to. If it insults your soul, dismiss it. If you want to spend time with someone, do. If you don’t enjoy it, decline his invitation. That’s all that really matters in that moment.
I’ve always claimed the label of feminist, but I think it’s only recently that it is being made real in my personal life. I’ve spent my last decade walking exactly in line with the expectation of society. I was married and mothering small children and doing all of the things expected for me during my late twenties and early thirties. It’s when we step out of the cultural norm that our ideas of feminism are tested. And sadly, I’m finding that it’s also when the misguided patriarchal judgment comes out from both men and women. When you don’t follow that path expected of you, people simply don’t know what to do with you. And sometimes they deal with that confusion by revealing completely unfair and ridiculous judgment.
My friend Elizabeth and I email often, and last winter, she wrote to me, (and I’ve quoted this before when I wrote about Imposter Syndrome) “Breaking out of the molds others have made for us or the narrow minds of loved ones we once trusted is extraordinarily painful – and so necessary in order to become your best self.” I’m feeling this now as I move forward to uncharted waters, and I will feel it for many years to come, I think. Once you see things through that lens, you can’t un-see it.
I think those narrow minds and constricting molds often come from a place of fear or inexperience. Mohadesa Najumi is a British-Afghan writer whose words are hanging on my bathroom wall: “The woman who does not require validation from anyone is the most feared individual on the planet.” Seeing rude comments or judgment as springing from a place of fear and ignorance softens my response to it and certainly lessens the blow – which is helpful. Because truth be told, it is hard to shake these ideas from our own minds as women. It is hard to unlearn what you have spent decades absorbing. It is hard to see yourself through your own eyes without acquiring the filter of someone else.
So you see what’s happened here? I’ve started writing without knowing where it will end, and I have ended in the exact same place I always do.
It is my still, small voice that matters. It is my body I am living in. It is my ship I’m steering. And though it is scary at times and it’s hard to drown any voices that shout behind me, it’s a beautiful place to be. This in-between space. This moment where I don’t owe anyone anything and I answer only to my own calling.