The question is inevitable. “What’s it like,” all my married friends ask, “to date again after so many years of marriage?” I try to answer as honestly as I can, because I know they’re not really in search of a qualitative answer like, “It’s good,” or “It’s bad.” They’re not even asking a simple, single question at all. What they’re really asking, particularly if their marriage is on shaky ground, is more of a hydra of endless questions requiring substantive answers begetting new questions: What’s sex like at your age (meaning, what would sex be like for me at my age)? Are you embarrassed about your body? How do you find dates? What do you do on your dates? Can you show me Tinder and Hinge? Am I missing out? Are you lonely? Do you have hope?
Insofar as nearly every single one of my married friends have furtively asked me some version of the “What’s it like?” question, let me break it down into its more substantive parts, as listed above:
1. What’s sex like at your age?
It’s both the same as it was in my early 20s and sometimes better. The same because, sometimes you get into bed with someone who’s just okay, and sometimes you get into bed with someone, and it’s mind-blowing. No great insight there. But it’s better, in ways I would have never expected, because, unlike in my 20s, there’s absolutely no bullshit: I ask for what I need, and I get it. Plus most men at this age have more than a passing understanding of the map of female anatomy. I no longer have to worry about getting pregnant. I’m never projecting an image of my lover as the father of my future children, and I never judge him on those terms either. Drinking is kept to a minimum if at all: There’s no need for alcohol when the excitement of the assignation is head-spinning enough.
There’s often an intense and spoken gratitude, sometimes accompanied by true tears of joy, for the stolen hour or two. Plus every man I’ve met thus far has been both straightforward about his intentions and completely okay with me saying, “Let’s not have sex. Let’s just be kind to one another for an hour or two,” or “That was fun, but I don’t think we should do it again.”
2. Are you embarrassed about your body?
I’m in good shape for my age, but that doesn’t mean I love everything I see when I look in the mirror. And yet I find that I’m a lot less embarrassed than I was back when my body was young and taut. In fact, one of the greatest gifts of middle age has been letting go of shame. I’ve finally learned not only to love myself but also to love my outer shell, flaws and all.
3. How do you find dates?
The last time I dated, the Berlin Wall was still standing, so we’re talking eons ago, pre-cell phone, pre-Internet, pre-online dating. In fact, I can’t even claim that I really dated back then so much as I simply ended up in restaurants and bed with various men in my orbit: classmates, colleagues, people I’d meet at parties. In other words, I was never actively dating. Dates came to me. These days, I have to be much more proactive: I have to put myself out there, be willing to take chances. When I had a crush on a single dad in my son’s school, I asked him out to a movie. We ended up dating for nine months. I accept set-ups from friends with pleasure and gratitude, even if it doesn’t work out.
I’m on Hinge and Tinder now and find dates through those apps, but often I have to make the first move: Write the first text, suggest the date and venue, follow up with concrete plans. I fell in love with one of those blind dates and had my heart broken. I’ve become more self-protective since then, less vulnerable, which is too bad. Hopefully I can find my way back to vulnerability. Sometimes a date who seems beautiful online does nothing for me in person. That’s okay. I’ve made a few lovely friends this way, men who, even after I admit to my lack of physical attraction, will still call me up from time to time to invite me to a film or a museum.
4. What do you do on your dates?
I used to meet for lunch or dinner. These days, I prefer to do an activity. I took one date to a museum where I’m a member. We ended up having dinner at a friend’s restaurant nearby then procured a room on Hotel Tonight, a new app neither of us had previously tried that lists steeply discounted rooms in one’s immediate vicinity: a godsend for dating parents, tourists, adulterers and nappers. I took one date on a tour of my neighborhood; I went with another to see a Broadway show.
As a single parent with an ex-spouse living elsewhere, I have relatively little time to date anyway, so last Sunday, after failing to find a pocket of time to meet up with a new man who wanted to go on a date with me, I suggested he meet me at 9 a.m. to walk the dog while my kids were still sleeping. That morning, the dog woke me at 7 a.m., begging to go out, so I texted the man: “Would you be willing to come now? The dog seems frantic.” The fact that he was—and did!—spoke volumes. We’ve seen one another every day since. He came to my performance the following night, a dinner with friends the evening after that. I like him. We’ll see how it goes.
5. Can you show me Tinder and Hinge?
Yes! Sure! I always let my married friends swipe for me, but you have to take the responsibility seriously. Plus I get full veto power. Just because you think the dude posing with the tiger is cute doesn’t mean I’d want to date the kind of dude who poses with tigers.
6. Am I missing out?
If you’re happily married, no, you are not missing out. I would trade all of the new and exciting sex in the world for the love of a true life partner. If your marriage is not doing so well, then yes, you are missing out, but not in the way you think. Get therapy, if you think your marriage is worth saving. If it isn’t, then leave your marriage right now. Don’t do what I did and wait 10 years too long. I’ll never get those years back, and neither will you.
It’s not that you’re missing out on hot middle-aged sex and dating. That’s just prelude. It’s that you’re missing out on the transcendence that only comes from a true meeting-of-minds love. Ironically, getting divorced has made me less cynical about marriage, not more. I believe in the institution more than ever, but only under the proper circumstances. The marriage must be built on empathy, equality, kindness, vulnerability, sexual attraction and love. Otherwise, it’s not a marriage. It’s a prison sentence.
7. Are you lonely?
Yes. Often. But that’s okay. I’m learning I’m strong, even when faced with intense loneliness.
8. Do you have hope?
Yes. I have hope. Dating—nay, living—would be impossible without it.
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