Saturday, November 29, 2014

The Forever Stop: Giving up Dating

I am not sure what I was thinking, writing an essay this long, but I decided to not divide it into two parts. Instead, it is a five part essay--but please realize that a discussion about dating cannot be done succinctly. That would only confuse and frustrate. So pour yourself a cup of coffee, or a glass of Scotch, and take in my latest perusal. It may be the last of this year...unless it isn't. 

Everyone in Los Angeles has a story or two about dating, even the men.

This is true regardless of age, but when you pass the age of fifty, you often have more than just one story or two. Yet I notice that stories told by men over fifty are somewhat different than those told by women of the same age. Generally, women bemoan the difficulty of finding a man who is interested in them in spite of their age, and how they just want a companion who displays occasional romantic gestures (ladies, I get it!). Men's stories, however, describe the same hope they longed for when they were younger--the desire to get laid and have someone take care of them (shame!). I sometimes suspect that dating, as we know it, was made up by women at some point. This is not a bad thing, except that the purpose of the exercise seems to have gotten a bit muddled. They say that people date to "get to know each other", yet in my observations this task is rarely seen all the way through to an accurate assessment of compatibility.

I strongly suspect that there is no man alive or dead who has ever actually liked the act of dating--if you are one of them, then you are probably just lying to yourself. Historically, men haven't had much of a choice in the matter, have they, since dating has been part of the cultural context since at least Victorian times. Gay men have mostly been spared this dilemma because until recently they could not even date publicly, so they didn't, and would instead cut to the chase. For most men, gay and straight, this approach sounds absolutely ideal; it gets one right to the finish line without having to run the track. It does seem that dating is a heterosexual phenomenon--when two gay men try to do it, it can resemble trying to corral wild wolves into taking a walk on a leash.

Now that the country is on a gay marriage rainbow bandwagon, the pressure is on for gay folks. If society is going to "let us" play their game, then they expect us to follow the same rules they have had to suffer under. While that might be appealing to the younger people coming of age (who still buy into the cultural dating discourse and its sparkly promise), it presents a substantial challenge to those of us who have been ditching traditional dating protocol for twenty or thirty years of our adult lives. What are we supposed to do now, start dating each other? Well, from what I hear, that is exactly what gay people are doing, complete with dinners and chaste kisses on the cheek at the end of the night. Good grief! (Actually, most gay dates, if they have gone well, still end with sex, so we haven't really changed all that much.)

What is heard about less often is when someone decides to stop dating completely--not to nurse a broken heart or to sow their oats--but a cold, hard, forever stop. It seems there is an assumption that, if you are single and over the age of 18, you must either keep at the pursuit of love until the day you die, or at the most let aging or illness force you into retirement. Who in the world would make a conscious choice to quit, especially when you still have a few laps around the track?

Well, I am an over-fifty year old gay man, and I have decided to forever stop dating.

In show business, they always say that it is best to "go out on top", and yet somehow this rarely happens. Lucile Ball continued to work in television long past the time when she was getting good show scripts. Joan Crawford insisted on acting in movies even when Hollywood did not want her anymore (of course she needed the paycheck, poor thing!). To this day, Arnold Schwarzenegger shows up occasionally in "action" films, even though his face and body are sadly deteriorated from his 80's heyday. I have always admired the character played by Ruth Gordon in "Harold and Maude", because she made a decision to end her life on her 80th birthday, before time and age took too much of a toll on her body and mind. Now that is taking control of things!

I would like to go out on top, or at least as close to the top as I may get.

Dating, for gay men, tends to be either a joke or a nightmare, and seldom does it land in anywhere near the middle of the two. As I said earlier, when I was much younger I never engaged in anything like gay dating--just gay sex. For me, that would sometimes lead to something resembling a relationship (what I called it at the time). Truth be told, the relationships I had in my twenties were little more than gay sex, but with names attached. But damned if I didn't think I was in love. It sure felt like love, or how I thought love should feel. What it was, actually, was immediate infatuation with a healthy side of attachment injury. Fun!

Over the years I have tried my hand at any number of approaches to dating. None of them were complete failures, but many were jokes, and a few were nightmares. But then I am not really sure what would qualify as success, either. How do I define success unless I know why I am dating? In my youth, the goal was simple: I wanted to fall in love and be loved in return. FOREVER. I didn't care how it happened, I just wanted it to happen. Today, as a couples therapist, I see men and women all the time who set out for that same destination only to find themselves arriving instead at resentment, boredom, and disappointment. Is true love no more than a big shiny car with a broken steering wheel? What the hell is true love anyway? Why in the world would I want to date at this point in my life?

One time, in a therapy group composed of gay men, I had just finished ranting on the shitty men of my love life, and one of the group members said to me, in response to my complaints, "What if it's you, and not them?" I looked at him incredulously, wondering how he could dare say something so insensitive and cruel. How could it be me? I wanted love so badly--why would I possibly do anything to send it away? Since that time, I confess that I have sent many loving men away, and I find myself wondering, in the dark of the night, with the sound of my youth crumbling to the floor, "What if it is me, and not them?"

Today, I have come to the conclusion that it is me, and, well, it isn't. Both participants in a relationship are responsible for how it turns out, and I am willing to own my part. But I am not always difficult and demanding, I was just drawn to react that way, in certain circumstances, through early life experiences. It is a bittersweet dilemma that I find myself in, because even though today I am aware of having more choices in my dating behavior, I have recently concluded that nobody is good enough for me anyway. Nobody. You were right after all, Mom! Nobody will ever have my back the way I have had it all these years. Nobody could ever take my side, heal my pain, celebrate my joy, or let me enjoy solitude as well as I can. Life has forced me to become the best I could ever be for others, but more importantly, I have become the best I could ever be for myself. Nobody could possibly ever live up to my own expectations of myself, or of them.

So that is why I am giving up dating, because it is an activity with no finish line. I just cannot settle on a reason to continue doing it. People who date and get married are celebrated as if they are they have achieved the only interpersonal goal worthy of celebration, but what about when someone does a great job nurturing themselves, or having an alternative type of relationship? Like Carrie Bradshaw once said, why don't people celebrate when you get through life successfully on your own? I do not need someone to take my side, heal my pain, celebrate my joy, or leave me alone when I need solitude. I do not need what I can give myself. I don't.


What would be nice is someone to stand by my side, hold my pain, share my joy, and respect my need for solitude on occasion, to change things up. I just suspect that I would not find that person through the act of I know it. I may not find that person by dating at all. How might I find that person then, assuming that this desire even becomes something I want to pursue? First, I must tell you the truth about dating, and why it is a terrible way to get to know someone and find out if there is relationship compatibility. You are free to disagree with what I am about to say, but that does not mean that I am not right.

Dating, as it has been done for the last 100 years, is fraught with pitfalls, primarily because it inspires expectation.
The expectation centers around the perfectly reasonable hope that we will find our date attractive and emotionally compatible, but those two desires can conflict with each other in the early stages, causing our rationality to jump the track. The result can be inaccurate evaluation of compatibility based on high sexual attraction, OR the dismissal of compatibility due to lack of initial attraction. Neither case is helpful in our goal to form a good relationship. So what do we do?

Before the onset of Internet dating in the mid-90's, a portion of heterosexual couples met at work. By 2005 that number had decreased, with the Internet eventually taking over as the place where a lot of couples met. Studies go on to indicate that the divorce rate increased during the same time period that incidents of partnering with someone at work decreased. The significance of this fact is that there is a major difference between meeting someone at work, and meeting someone online. That difference, in my opinion, is expectation. In a work setting, romance can come slowly as one gets to know another. There may not even be a physical attraction at first; it may appear and grow as one gets to know another casually without the expectation of romance. Even if there is a strong attraction, we generally proceed with more patience because of the shared work environment. At work, we get a chance to see others in "regular" situations, both good  and bad, and we get to observe a variety of their responses! This way of getting to know someone does not guarantee a happy union, but it does lend more strength to the possibility of that outcome.

Conversely, online dating provides the space to prepare our best faces and responses in an ideal presentation framework. Compatibility decisions are usually made based on sexual attraction and romantic behavior. This is not a bad thing altogether, but it does make it harder to know what someone is going to be like in the long run. I could write much more about these differences, but the take-away is that we have a better chance to determine compatibility when we are around a person a lot, over time, in regular and romantic circumstances, without the high expectations of romantic dating. Most experts agree that at least a year is a good amount of time to get past the honeymoon stage and get a glimpse of who someone will be on a daily basis.

For gay men, this presents a unique challenge, since our regular work circumstances tend to be primarily populated by heterosexuals (and closeted homosexuals)--not the most fertile dating ground! However, gay men do not need to work around other gay men to experience the growth of feelings over time--any work situation can give one the opportunity to notice the effect that prolonged exposure has on the way we think about someone. But if a gay man is looking for romantic relationship, then somewhere, somehow, there must be another gay man involved in the process, and therein lies the challenge.

For me, it is difficult because I no longer use dating profiles to find dates. That is because I am done with being attracted to a profile more than the person behind it. I am done with presenting myself as a commodity to be approved or disapproved, based on a photo and a paragraph. I live in a city where most people know how to write good copy (including me), but know less about how to live it. So I see online profiles as an expendable middle man that gets in the way of the authentic experience of a person. I know they serve as introductions, but if that is misleading, and more effort is put into glossy introductions than a quality first act, then what is the point.

So I am not going to do that anymore. That is the cold, hard, stop. I will not date that way anymore, I am giving it up. What I will be doing instead is still up for discussion, but I do know that it involves real time, real life interactions and in-person chemistry. Maybe. I don't even know if it is that important to me anymore--to date someone or to be in a relationship. I am different now than I was when I was in my 20's; then, I thought that a relationship would give me what I needed. Now I think a relationship could give me what I prefer--but what is that? I described some of it above, but if I am going to date or consider a relationship in order to obtain these things, it is going to start in a completely different way than what has come before. I am giving up the cultural norm of dating. I am stopping that, forever. For me, it has never yielded a satisfactory emotional outcome, only the physical equivalent of farmer's market fruit: sweet and satisfying when consumed right away, but rotten a few days later.

In a gay men's group that I am currently in, one group member said that he was planning to stop working so hard at trying to get dates, and instead just "live his life". That sounds like a good plan. Funny things can happen on the way to the Forum, and that is just what I intend to explore. I am done with dating. Time to just live my life and pay attention to who I bump into in the process.