Man at midlife making second half matter

Archive for the tag “relationships”

Becoming a Commodity: One Man’s Plunge into Online Dating

“Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.”

Chinese philosopher

Lure a man to fish online, and he may starve to death.

At the risk of sounding positively Trumpian, Who knew dating in your 50s could be so difficult?

My two-year expedition in online dating has been more famine than feast. And several times when I thought I had caught a feast, they slipped through my net and swam away.

Half of my 18 online dates have been one-and-done short-timers. I’ve been ghosted, ditched and canceled upon last-minute. I’ve been berated and insulted by text when I told one woman whom I had dated three times that I had decided to exclusively date someone else. I’ve been rejected twice by the same woman in two separate episodes of dating several months apart. I had one girlfriend who kept insisting I was just going to “walk away” so why bother having expectations.pi_2020.02.06_online-dating_featured

I’ve dated a free spirit from California who danced with a Hula-Hoop; a former exchange student from Denmark who I mistook for a Georgia Dawg southern gal; a world-ranked Masters’ age-group swimmer; a Hawaii Ironman triathlete and former dolphin trainer; a flight attendant; and four nurses.

I’ve experienced the thrills of a budding new relationship and the joys of connection and companionship; and the dysfunction, volatility and fickleness of dating gone awry amid an online environment of commoditization, easy escape and endless choices.

And I’ve met wonderful women, all, like me, with their own foibles and “baggage,” several of whom I stay in touch and friendly with even after dating relationships fell apart,

It Can’t Be This Hard

I didn’t think it would be this hard. I would be searching for mature, experienced, serious-minded women in their late 40s and 50s, who had their lives together and knew what they wanted. As a relatively stable, easy-going man with a solid, respected profession, physically fit, healthy and active, whose appearance is more youthful than his chronological age, and who does not have any obviously deal-breaking habits like drinking, I believed securing a long-term, committed relationship would only be a matter of time. It still may be, but I feel like I’m in the fourth overtime period of a game that should have been clinched. I wanted a sprint; I got an ultra-marathon.

The warnings were there, in research on this relatively new social phenomena: That online dating promotes a transactional, “marketplace” approach to relationship-forming, fostering assumptions that the perfect commodity exists if one just searches enough, that more options are ever available, that algorithmic compatibility necessarily translates to relationship success, and that if one encounters challenges, there’s an easy solution – discard and return to swiping.

I wasn’t looking to play the field, or for “hook-ups.” I was looking for quality, not volume; for lasting satisfaction, not instant gratification. I may not hit the jackpot immediately, I knew. It was a numbers game, and the numbers would not have to go too high, I thought. I have spun some cherries, and cashed in for periods of dating and relationship bliss, but have ultimately come up with lemons in my hunt for one long-term, meaningful relationship. And some bruises from dating TKOs.

A Crossroads

I did not want or intend to be dating again. But my life came to a midlife crossroads in 2017, when my marriage was at a standstill, lacking in some core ingredients to go the distance and suffering from inertia. I had just finished a graduate program in mental health counseling, and wanted to combine a start in a new career as a therapist with a move to a new place, after living in the Maryland suburbs for nearly 30 years. I wanted to make the change with my wife, but couldn’t get her onboard.

My desire to start anew intersected with marriage malaise. The result was a head-on collision, with the marriage on life support, and soon to be declared dead. My wife asked me to make a decision on moving without us necessarily deciding on the future of the marriage. I decided to accept a job in Charleston, SC, and moved in November 2017. By the time I returned to Maryland a month later to retrieve more stuff, the marriage was kaput.

Since arriving in Charleston, I have had dates with 20 different women, all but two from online sources. That’s prolific. Too bad being prolific is not my goal. I can’t believe that number myself, and that, as I write this, I’m single. A friend marvels at my relative success in getting dates, and inherently, my persistence and will not to give up out of frustration and disappointment. But what one might deem successful is another’s fool’s gold. To my chagrin, it’s become a never-ending process of sifting the silt, interspersed with gold nugget finds that have lost their luster prematurely.

A Marketplace Mindset

In “Online Dating: A Critical Analysis From the Perspective of Psychological Science,” published in the journal Psychological Science in the Public Interest, authors found that even though online dating expands opportunities, offers users an initial sense of compatibility through profile screening and  mathematical algorithms, and provides technological platforms for introductory communications prior to in-person meetings, “many aspects of online dating do not appear to improve romantic outcomes and might even undermine them.”

For example, researchers noted, the emphasis on profile sketches to identify potential matches often runs contrary to what a searcher actually would find attractive in a person once becoming acquainted in person.

Reviewing dozens of online profiles can create a “judgmental, assessment-oriented” outlook, and can overwhelm users’ thinking, which can “ultimately undermine romantic outcomes.”  Also, dating sites’ communications platforms can potentially diminish attraction if the flirty back-and-forth “yields unrealistic or overly particular expectations that will be disconfirmed upon a face-to-face meeting.”

Online dating may create a mindset of assessment rather than exploration, where people become commodities to peruse and test — a calculated cost-benefit analysis — rather than complex beings requiring openness, curiosity and patience to understand and adapt. This transactional approach can be “dehumanizing” and foster “shallow interactions,” the researchers determined.

Some online dating participants, under the influence of marketing messages from many online sites, buy into the idea that the goal of searching online is to find one’s “soulmate,” the researchers noted. People who subscribe to the soulmate philosophy – a black-and-white view that a relationship is “meant to be” or is doomed —are likely to leave a relationship when confronted with inevitable problems. Conversely, people who believe that relationships grow and evolve, and gain strength  by  overcoming challenges, are more likely to persist and progress when the going gets rough, they wrote.

“Soulmate beliefs may encourage daters to persist in their search for the perfect mate even when they have become involved in potentially rewarding (albeit imperfect) relationships,” the researchers found. “Almost all romantic relationships eventually encounter significant stresses and strains, which suggests that this mindset is likely to undermine relationship well-being over the long-run.”

The researchers highlighted a message from eHarmony’s founder urging his site’s users to determine the type of person they need to be “really happy,” and essentially to hold tight to their standards because “hard work” will not overcome a mismatch.  Thus, the researchers concluded that it is not surprising that a common refrain from online daters is that they would rather be alone than involved in any relationship where they are not “one hundred percent happy.”

The Online Rollercoaster

My online dating life started forebodingly. I agreed to meet my first date at Panera Bread at 8. I showed up to a nearly deserted restaurant after work, and looked all over for somebody resembling the online photos, finding nobody familiar. After wolfing down a lonely dinner, I left 45 minutes later just before closing time, thinking, I’m not going to survive this racket long if this is what it’s all about.

When I got home, I messaged my date to say I was at Panera and did not see her, asking if I possibly went to the wrong Panera. She replied incredulously that she was indeed at the Panera and had even asked an employee if anyone came in looking for her, and that I had stood her up, confirming it was the right place. I protested against the accusation, saying I even had a time-stamped receipt for my food that I could forward her. I was dumbfounded…what kind of twisted game? Then it dawned on me.

“Were you there at 8 in the morning?”

“Yes,” she responded. “I thought you knew.”

We patched up our misunderstanding and met the next morning at the same place. She was lovely. We agreed to meet again. But soon after, she said she had to go out of state to care for a “gravely ill” mother (a common online dating blow-off line or the real deal? I’ll never know.) I never saw her again.

I’ve had four pairings that I would call bona fide relationships, three of them from online dating sites, which have lasted between one and five months. It pains and embarrasses me to say it, but it’s the reality: Each time I’ve been the dumpee. And to me, the end each time has come like a stealth frying pan blow to the head – fast, hard, stinging and seemingly out of nowhere.

The first and longest-lasting girlfriend told me one morning at breakfast, just before leaving on a women’s weekend, “I want to talk to you about your mindset.” I was clueless about what that meant. Before I ever saw her again, she broke up with me over the phone.

Even so, several months later, she helped me pack when I moved, and I helped her put away Christmas decorations in her attic. It wasn’t until then that she expounded upon at least one aspect of her “mindset” comment. She was taking hormone injections to increase energy and libido. She referred to a time when she went to bed, and I chose to stay up and watch a movie, intimating she was disappointed in my pedestrian choice of activity.

A second girlfriend of three months became indignant when I texted her to say I had stopped on my way to her house and would be 30 minutes later than the appointed time for a casual get-together, later complaining that her ex-husband had ”disrespected” her time constantly during their marriage, lumping me in with the louse.

As I headed to her beachfront rental that fateful night, she texted me to say, “Sorry, I have made other plans.” Thinking she was joking, I texted back to say I would be there in 10 minutes, once traffic cleared on the bridge to the island. Response: “Again, I have made other plans. Have a good night.”

I went to her house anyway. She wasn’t kidding; she was gone, and declined to answer my phone calls. A week later, I showed up at her door unannounced to give her flowers and offer an in-person apology. For several weeks thereafter, I flapped in the wind while she proffered,  “I don’t know what I want,” and asked me to wait. Well, like the two characters in Beckett’s play who wait upon someone who never arrives, I was Waiting for Godot.

Several months later, she reached out to me and sought to rekindle the relationship. We saw each other several times, but neither of us could commit to anything consistent or meaningful. We’ve remained in touch and friendly.

My last online relationship started like gangbusters. We saw each other four weekends in a row, the last one an overnight trip, upon her initiative, in which I met her daughter and attended a concert. After I dropped her off at home, I didn’t hear from her again, save for a few terse responses to my texts. Now I have the ignominious knowledge of what being “ghosted” feels like – awful and bewildering. Six weeks later, out of the blue, she wished me a happy new year. We got back in touch, and she apologized, saying she had been suffering (more than I realized) from excessive job stress, exhaustion, lack of sleep and weight loss.

I accepted her apology. So…Go fish.

Online Dating Scorecard

One and done – 9

Two and through – 2

Three and free – 2

Close but no cigar (quasi-girlfriends, five dates or more) – 2

Bona fide girlfriends — 3

She’s Leaving on a Jet Plane: No Failure to Launch

My daughter literally has launched herself into adulthood.

The cornerstone job as a parent is to help your kids launch themselves successfully into adulthood by fostering their independence, confidence, self-identity, decision-making ability, sense of responsibility and motivation – traits which they have to develop themselves but over which parents have a big influence.

I’m proud and excited to see my 21-year-old daughter Rebecca exhibiting these traits. She has jetted off for Toulon, France, on the Mediterranean coast, for an eight-month RebInFranceassignment teaching English in two French middle schools, her first professional job after graduating college. This will be her second tour abroad, following a semester in college in which she studied at the University of Lyon in Lyon, France, and traveled throughout Europe.

Rebecca landed in Toulon September 18, 2017, not knowing anyone, same as when she ventured to Lyon in a study group comprised of American students from across the country. She was anxious and excited, the eagerness and thrill of the adventure, opportunity, unknown and challenge far outweighing any fears and doubts. I congratulate Rebecca on her adventurous spirit and desire to explore the world.

No Failure to Launch here, unlike Matthew McConaughey’s 30-something character in the 2006 movie of that title, who resisted leaving the comforts of the cushy life provided by his parents until they hatched a plan to finally get him to launch out on his own.

Psychology Today labeled “failure to launch” as a syndrome characterized by the “difficulties some young adults face when transitioning into the next phase of development—a stage which involves greater independence and responsibility.” Energy, desire and motivation are the necessary ingredients to fuel the launch and overcome fears and anxiety, and taking risks and actions comprise the launch process. Then, resilience and perseverance are required to overcome inevitable turbulence and continue progressing during this stage. Without those components, the post-adolescent risks becoming stuck and dependent.

Ultimately, says Psychology Today author and psychiatrist Robert Fischer, M.D., for a successful launch, a young adult “must tap into and identify a passion or passions, experience the joy that comes with expressing those passions, and have opportunities to share this joy with others.  There must be a conscious effort to cultivate not just the logic of the mind, but also the desires of the heart.”

I’m gratified that Rebecca is following her passion and desire by taking the risk and action to travel to France and to teach in foreign schools.

Rebecca is part of an age group that has been segmented recently from the broader adulthood category and coined “emerging adulthood” for its characteristics common to people in their late teens through their 20s. These are young people who feel like the knot in a tug-of-war rope, caught between breaking free of the challenges of adolescence yet often still maintaining close bonds with parents, family and the familiar trappings of youthful existence.

The psychologist who identified the new life-span development phase, Jeffrey Arnett, outlined five distinct features of emerging adulthood:

  • Identity exploration: Establishing one’s self-identity continues to evolve throughout the 20s, as young adults search for what brings satisfaction out of education, work, and relationships.
  • Instability: This group moves around a lot, among schools, jobs, locations and residences as they experiment with future paths, change their minds and directions and struggle to accumulate the resources to fuel their journeys.
  • Self-focus: Emerging adulthood is a time of intensive internal focus, as young adults explore their desires for work, living arrangements, experiences and relationships with a sense of broad possibilities and few encumbrances. It is an age when opportunities may seem limitless, before developments such as marriage, children, increased financial obligations and career choices inevitably pose constraints and redirect attention more outward.
  • Feeling in between: Emerging adults feel they are taking more responsibility for their own lives and decisions, yet still feel they have not completely broken free from some form of dependence and do not completely feel like an entirely self-sufficient, autonomous adult.
  • Age of possibilities: Optimism characterizes emerging adulthood. After taking a hard look at their parents’ lives, many believe they have a good chance to create a more rewarding and exciting life for themselves.

Another researcher sought to determine why some emerging adults thrive and why some struggle in establishing identities and independence. She found that the foundation for such progress or obstacles are established in childhood and adolescence, and are heavily influenced by parents striking the right balance between providing support, limits and structure, and encouraging kids to pursue independence and make their own decisions.

One type of family dysfunction that inhibits emerging adults from becoming independent is “enmeshment,” when family members’ emotional lives are so intertwined that children have difficulty separating, becoming their own person, and accepting responsibility for their choices and lives. This is a dynamic I have observed often in counseling.

The signs are clear that my daughter is becoming the captain of her own jet. I feel rewarded as a father that I have contributed to the foundation of her launching pad.

5 Basic and Valuable Lessons I’ve Learned about Parenting

As the younger of my two children closes in on his 18th birthday, I offer five basic parenting principles that I view as important in raising well-adjusted, self-sufficient, industrious and confident children.

I didn’t invent them, and by no means was I always exemplary in following these practices — I had to learn, and still am learning, from my own mistakes and bad habits — nor are Parentsmy 20-year-old daughter and high school graduate son perfect or devoid of flaws or insecurities. Neither are your classic All-Americans or stereotypical overachievers. But they are on good tracks in their lives, have done quite well for themselves, and, importantly for me, rarely caused me any worry, grief or stress that more troubled children can cause parents.

I also have realized these aspects of positive parenting in my counseling masters’ program and associated internship, where I saw the havoc wreaked by destructive or neglectful parenting.

  1. Express caring, love and pride often. Parental expression of the positive emotions toward their children can have a lifelong impact on their self-esteem, self-image, confidence, security, well-being and overall feelings about themselves. As long as these expressions of positive emotions are genuine and backed up by actions, I don’t think you can overdo it. On the flip side, parents who frequently express destructive emotions and feelings, such as anger and disappointment, or who excessively criticize children through mocking, condescension, belittlement or other abusive behaviors, cause their children great damage that they invariably will carry into adulthood and will have tremendous difficulty in undoing.
  2. Promote independence; let children make their own choices within reason and accept responsibility and consequences. A relatively new phenomenon in parenting is the “helicopter parent” – those parents who hover over their children and try to protect them from any wrong move or negative consequence and cushion or fix any disappointment, failure or mistake. Kids aren’t fragile; they’re resilient. But when you hover too much, they don’t use their resiliency muscles and they atrophy. As a result, it seems there’s a trend toward a large generation of young adults that has trouble breaking away from the safe cocoon of over-protective or over-indulgent parents. The sooner kids are given responsibility for their decisions, the more they will take ownership over their own lives and the less they will blame others or external forces for whatever doesn’t go their way.
  3. Show up…and be present. There is no better way to let kids know you care about them, and to help them feel attached, secure and loved, than to show up all the time, every day, unless circumstances absolutely prevent it. Show up to elementary school concerts, dance recitals, athletic events, birthdays, sleepovers (not to stay overnight, but when pickup is needed), and all other activities important to your kids. When you show up, provide encouragement and positive feedback, even if you find fault with their “performance” or “effort.” Separate the child from the action. In other words, don’t let a child feel unworthy because he didn’t perform well. You can offer constructive criticism or advice after the positive words, lending your wisdom and experience to aid learning, but not to tear down or damage confidence. And when you do show up, do your best to be truly “present,” not distracted or off in your own distant world. Kids will know when you’re paying attention.
  4. Model good behavior and caring, respectful relationships. Kids will model what they observe in the most important relationships in their life – those with their parents. Their behavior, manners, work ethic, diligence, emotional regulation and respect for others likely will pattern after their parents’. If they see their parents treating each other and other family members poorly or disrespectfully, they likely will display aspects of that behavior themselves within the family and with others.
  5. Live a disciplined life. As psychiatrist and well-known author Scott Peck wrote in The Road Less Traveled, undisciplined parents breed undisciplined children who carry bad habits and behaviors learned in childhood into adulthood. These problems stemming from a lack of discipline that are hard-wired during childhood often are extremely challenging to break and can dog individuals for a lifetime, causing dysfunction that can damage individuals’ self-functioning and ruin relationships. Undisciplined, out-of-control parents usually live chaotic lives in unstructured environments that rarely produce disciplined children.

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