Thursday, December 18, 2014

Lowering (Altering?) Expectations

"You are almost forty and you have two kids. When dating, you really can't have high or unrealistic expectations of how things should be. It's different now and you can't approach it like you did twenty years ago."

This advice was given to me by a very good friend of mine this week. And while my initial reaction was to curl up in the fetal position in the dark with a box of wine and my 1990s slow jams Pandora station covering the room with the bittersweet sounds of Boyz II Men and Jodeci, I fought that urge and realized that my friend's intentions were good. That's not to say I agree with her, or at least her phrasing, but I get her point.

My disagreement is planted largely in the fact that for the first time in my life, I do have high expectations. And I can attribute this to several factors. I’ve been through bad situations, and I don’t want to repeat them. The relationships in my past are testaments to the sad truth that I did not think I deserved very much. Who wants to feel that way? I know better now. Also, I’ve proven to myself that I can take care of two children and work and run a home without a partner, so I do not need to grab someone just to fill that role. Finally, with age don’t most of us gain confidence and a stronger sense of who we are and what we want from the people with whom we choose to spend our time? In that sense, I think our expectations should become not only higher, but more refined. I feel more prepared to choose a partner as I approach my forties than I did in my mid-twenties (and that is just me, as I have friends who are married to wonderful spouses whom they started dating in college or even earlier) and I am fortunate that life may provide me the opportunity to do so someday.

Perhaps my friend meant that by our age we have a better understanding that all people are flawed. There are no fairy tales and life is not a romantic comedy. (Although if someone who looked like Ryan Gosling showed up on my front porch with flowers and a profession of undying love, I wouldn’t slam the door in his face.) If I do find myself in a relationship again (and hats off to you single parents out there who find the time and the babysitting resources and other single people with which to do this . . . I haven’t managed to figure that out), I know it will be with an imperfect human who will not always do things like I want and may disappoint me from time to time. I’m good with that.

I see the flaws played out around me every day. Almost all of my friends are married. I can count on one hand the number of people in my regular social circle who are not. And even those whom I would count as having strong and happy partnerships will admit there are certain quirks or behaviors exhibited by their spouses that they do not find particularly endearing.

"Of course sometimes I wish that ____________ would be more ___________, but that's not who he is and he more than compensates with his other wonderful qualities."

"My wife always __________ and I used to get so frustrated by this but I've gotten used to it."

So if by not having high expectations my friend meant that I should not wait for perfection, I'm already there.

My friend also likely meant that being older and having kids necessarily makes dating different. You can’t make last-minute plans for an exciting day trip or stay out all night or even invite someone over and cook him dinner. The expectations for romance or “courting” must change. I'm understanding of that as well.

Maybe she meant that as we approach middle age, we all have bumps and bruises from our life experiences. Past relationships and disappointments have affected us. We may not be where we expected at this point in our journey. If a person is not at peace with his past or not feeling positive about his present circumstances, that will have an effect on all of his relationships. I know to be aware of that.

Finally, I imagine that my friend was stating her belief that there are not very many men who are interested in dating a forty-year-old woman with full-time custody of two young kids. I don’t know if that’s true or not. I do know that the Sleepless in Seattle quote uttered by Rosie O’Donnell’s character, that it is more likely for a woman over the age of forty to be killed by a terrorist than get married, has been debunked (I checked). So, that’s something. Yes, we are no longer on a college campus with thousands of single guys or going out after work every night as young professionals to meet up with a multitude of our unattached peers. This is true. And if the subset is significantly smaller than twenty years ago, that’s OK. I know the total number of single men in their forties is way more than zero, and some of them are great guys.

What is your reaction? Should our expectations be tempered by age and circumstances? Have yours been?