Welcome to the latest installment of Ms. Opinionated, in which readers have questions about the pesky day-to-day choices we all face, and I give advice about how to make ones that (hopefully) best reflect our shared commitment to feminist values—as well as advice on what to do when they don’t.
Dear Ms. Opinionated,
I am recently divorced, though I have been on my own (with my children) for three very long difficult years. The divorce was incredibly difficult, in part because my ex entered into a new relationship right after we separated. Just before we chose to separate, I had decided to go back to school and get a decent education, so the pressure I was under was enormous. I felt fine about standing on my own two feet and concentrating on completing my studies, finalizing my divorce and not worrying about any entanglements. I graduated last June and have recently moved back home nearby my family because I, unfortunately, have been unable to find employment and have needed to rely on my family for support.
Last week I turned 40 and these past few weeks have been incredibly difficult because of that. I feel like I am wasting my time but also that I don’t have many options to get out there and meet new people. I lost my network of friends (and prospective partners) when I moved home and have also been battling with some health problems, which has left me in pretty bad shape. With all that is going on I don’t really feel that I have much to offer and yet I am so lonely and would really appreciate some company. How do I go about getting back out there? Out there, the dating market, seems like a really really scary place right now.
Let us, for a moment, focus on the positive. You’ve got three children who you love and whose lives you’ve successfully kept together through a difficult time. You did a hard thing in going back to finish your degree in your thirties, which many people don’t have the courage or financing or time to do. And you had the humility to know that you need and then asked for help for your sake and that of your children, and a family that is willing and able to provide the help that you need.
But, by your own words—”I don’t really feel that I have much to offer”—you don’t really see that. As you describe yourself, you’re a 40-year-old unemployed single parent of three with some health problems. And not to get into advice column clichés (too late!), what you can’t see in yourself, you will be hard to present to someone else. You see someone without “much to offer”—though you don’t define what that means in concrete terms—and so if you do get back into dating with your current midset, you’ll be doing so as a supplicant rather than a person with agency and on equal footing.
Not to put too fine a point on it, but… have you seen other 40-year-old people who are dating (not that you couldn’t date people older or younger than you, but just take this as a point of comparison)? Most available-for-dating people in their forties are often divorced or separated (at least once), many of them have kids, they often have health problems (physical and/or mental) of their own (welcome to that stage of life), most people look their age (sometimes balding, sagging, or jiggling), the economy has sucked for a few years so many people aren’t in great shape financially. While the specifics of your situation are unique to you, there is nothing about where you find yourself at 40 that automatically marks you as less worthy of interest or affection from another person in whom you are interested and for whom you have affection.
But you have a feeling that you are, somehow, not worthy. And you need to let that go. You need to see what you offer to someone else looking for a relationship—love, affection, honesty, courage, resilience, laughter, good company—as no more or less the things you yourself are looking for from someone else.
But to do that, let me point out something obvious: when you and your last partner separated, you bucked up and focused on school, finalizing the divorce, your kids, and now your finances. All of that is very admirable. But finalizing your divorce doesn’t necessarily mean finalizing your feelings about your ex, the end of your relationship, your partner’s new relationship or your divorce itself. You don’t mention focusing on processing the end of your relationship, your feelings of hurt and betrayal, or on any of the emotional work (yes, it’s work) that goes into really moving past the end of one of the most significant relationships of your life. And, as someone who totally does this, it can be really easy to focus on work or school or finances or anything but that big looming cloud of terrible feelings about the end of a relationship that you wish weren’t there—but none of that focus elsewhere really makes that cloud go away.
Birthdays are totally a time for all of that stuff you’ve been ignoring to come crashing down (again: been there!). But maybe having a tough time right now is your own brain telling you that, no, it’s not time to move on because that part of you hasn’t moved. The thing about strong emotions is that you can’t simply skip over the part where you feel them, you can only let yourself feel them and understand them and then allow them to loose their grip on your attention. And, obviously, if they continue to be too much of your focus for too long, it’s time to look for resources to help you afford therapy, in case you are suffering from depression or just need assistance with appropriately contextualizing everything you are feeling.
You also mention not having many friends around since you’ve been back home, which is itself rather wearing. So this is the part where I strongly advise trying to make friends rather than trying to date, even if it means spending more of your limited cash on vibrator batteries for the time being. For one, making new friends is sort of a lot like dating: especially as you get older, you kind of have to pursue people, make plans, follow up, not take brush-offs super-personally. But there are book clubs and sewing clubs, there are probably low- or no-cost adult education classes (my mother, who is admitedly older than you, learned everything from stenciling to cake-decorating to card-making over the years through our school district’s adult ed program), bookstore readings and any manner of musical events. In my neighborhood alone, there are free Zumba classes, free Spanish language classes, church and mosque groups, ethnic identity based social groups and more pub quiz and karaoke nights than I can shake a stick at, and that’s just the free stuff off the top of my head. Go find out what’s around you, pick something and go to it, talk to people who like the same stuff and make plans with those you like to meet for coffee or drinks or a walk in the park. Have them by for lunch or dinner or tea or to play Scrabble. Build friendships the way you would any other important relationship – and by doing so, start to build a life that makes you feel more fulfilled and less lonely than the one you have now.
And then, when you have stuff you do, plans you make and a friend or two to make them with, see how you feel about dating. See how you feel about adding someone to your life, rather than feeling like you’re only asking someone to add you to theirs. Think about how any given person might fit with you, rather than focusing on how you don’t feel like you can fit with them (or anyone). Look for people whose company you might enjoy, whether that’s when you’re out and about with the friends you’ve made or at the activities you’ve added to your life, or via an online dating site, if that’s your thing. But most of all (cliché warning), figure out what it is you like about yourself at 40, so you don’t question what it is someone else might like.
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Photo credit: Kate Black, kateblack.com