I Think I’ve Forgotten How to Date

by Stuart Fischoff, PhD

There you are, staring at yourself in the bathroom.  Then, unsure, you seek a fuller picture and go straight to the full-length mirror in the bedroom.  Gut check.  Front and back.  Could be worse. Could be better too, but let’s not quibble.  “You go to war with the army you have,” Donald Rumsfeld quipped.  Stop!  Wrong image.  Really wrong image!  Mind-screwing image.

“You’re getting back into the swim,” you whisper to yourself, “It’s show time!”  You gaze in the hall mirror, inspect yourself one last time before I go out the door to rendezvous with a stranger in your quest to become “unlonely,” and maybe find a new lover, partner, friend or travel or theater companion.  This is no walk in the park we’re talking about here; it’s life in the senior fast lane and it’s an edgy adventure after years of liberating or suffocating security. Which one, you’re not sure any more.  Just turn the page.

My mother was 66 when she tried dating, several years after my father had died. After a few dates with men she already knew, all widowers from the social circle in which she and my father travelled, she tossed in the towel. For the 20 years that remained until she died at 86, her world shrank. Experiences, thoughts and actions became habitual.  Long-time friends and neighbors died, moved to Florida, drifted by circumstance or happenstance into new social networks or expanding or contracting interests, or became chronically invalided.

Mom stayed put to be a few miles from my sister and because she was never really an adventurous soul.  Pretty soon her world shrunk so small that it was mostly in her head or streaming from her television.

Anything goesBut that was 23 years ago and seniors today are not the seniors of my mother’s generation.  As Cole Porter lyrically proclaimed in his musical Anything Goes,  “Times have changed.”

Dating and mating services have been making matches since… well since at least before Dolly Levi opened up shop in Yonkers  and Yenta made matches between homely women and blind men in the town of Anatevka, where everyone lived life in a precarious balance, like a fiddler on the roof.

Violin playng manWith the advent of computer-anlyzed personality trait assessment dating services drawing on the skills of clinical and personality psychologists, first off-line and then, with the explosion of internet-based online self-selecting video matchmaking, broken down along a dizzying array of demographic niches from religion to race to age and sexual life styles to choose from and surgically precise profile mixing and matching, all the guesswork is eliminated without ever leaving the safety and convenience of your home computer.  Skyping, text messaging, online dating and safe, really safe sex is a popular way to be involved without having to really be involved.

All this happened about 30 years too late for men and women of my mother’s generation.  But even if it had been available, 66 then and 66 now are light years apart.  Sixty-six today is the new 46… okay 56.  People are healthier, savvier about the need for diet and exercise, less uncomfortable discussing sex and its place in the firmament of human experience; less suppressed about engaging the range of psychological and physical movements in the solar system of sexual and affectionate intimacies; this is especially so when it comes to how affectionate intimacies unfold developmentally in mature relationships and in developing relationships among mature adults.

My mother wouldn’t have understood that, immersed as she was in the interpersonal psychology of the 1940s and 1950s.  Systems of calcified sexual and gender etiquette and a fading future perspective would have seen to that.  The fat lady had sung way too early for women of a certain age in my mother’s generation.

But even in this Babel of communications platforms (digital, epistolary, videographic, telephonic, Skype-enabled, computer profile-matched, accidentally-Facebook-Friended, errant text messaged), regardless of how people eventually end up meeting in the physical world eventually we all must screw our courage to the sticking place and venture forth to once again meet our challenge—taking a chance on like or love or just plain loneliness relief, in any and all their wild, adrenalizing incarnations.

But, as I said to myself going out on a date after six years of marriage, “My god, I think I don’t know how to behave on a date anymore, especially not a first date.”  Nervous?  You’ve gotta be kidding.   I was like a man in his first couple’s therapy session: “I’ll be judged and found insensitive, inarticulate and of an inferior species.”  But with the elusive hint of the spirit of adventure, out the door I went.

It all actually went quite well.  I never looked back.  I guess some social muscles never really get slack or turn to fat.

I was 35, it was the early 70s, and “make love not war” was more than just a slogan.

But now it’s the second decade of the 21st century.  I’ve been remarried for 23 years; been off the runway.  Flirting now is an end in itself.  Things are vastly different. I interviewed a 65 year old woman who, over the years, between dry spells, has flirted on and off with dating services.  Retired, whatever social life she had in her teaching career has pretty much hovered around life support. Living in a small town, there were only so many eligible, available, single men in the dugout to choose from, so many ex-boyfriends to check out whether you were too harsh, too quick to judge, too choosy, too drunk, not drunk enough, when you broke it off.

And there are only so many classes to take at the local college, so many political campaigns to volunteer for before you run into the same women doing the same thing, with the same results and the same eye-rolling, embarrassed look, the same “we’ve got to stop meeting like this,” mordant humor to take the sting out of being outed still playing the game with the theme song “one is the loneliest number.”

Does desperation really smell?” you wonder.

So many “educational” or Surprising Cuisines of Scandinavia-theme trips through Road Scholar (the “Elderhostel” is now silent) or the local museum where you travel like a pro but still come home with a full camera to an empty bed.

One of the reasons the woman I interviewed plays peek-a-boo with dating services is that it has its own set of stressors that I, as a man, never fully thought about (and some that I have).  For example, the first date: where do you meet?  Do you let him pick you up at home or do you arrive separately at your rendezvous spot. In your own car or public transportation?  Is that spot in an open, public area, or someplace secluded, charming, out of the way?  Is it for lunch or for dinner?  What’s with all these questions?”  It’s called risk management, guys.

And which of your friends knows what you’re doing, with whom, and where you’ll be doing it?  Do they have your cell phone number to call at some appointed time to provide “emergency excuse for the hasty departure if the first date is goin’ south, fast?

What about the issue of truth in advertising?  Should you get to the rendezvous spot early to make sure whether the picture you bought bears at least a passing similarity to the person you are actually meeting and if not, gives you the time to come up with a scenario to lower the expectations all around for a second date, if that seems desirable.

Your date, of course, might be wrestling with related concerns.  Do I look enough like my picture not to blow the date at the outset?  How am I dressed?  Am I sweating?  What do we talk about?  Did I bring the breath mints?  You know the drill.

Are we having fun yet?  I’ll explore this further next time.

Stuart Fischoffis an emeritus Professor of media psychology, Cal State, Los Angeles, senior editor, Journal of Media Psychology and blogs The Media Zone for Psychology Today.

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