Welcome to the latest installment of Ms. Opinionated, in which readers have questions about the pesky day-to-day choices we all face, and I give advice about how to make ones that (hopefully) best reflect our shared commitment to feminist values—as well as advice on what to do when they don't.
Dear Ms. Opinionated,
The kind of break-up described in your last column is thankfully in my rearview mirror, but now I face a whole other problem: everyone keeps telling me to "get back out there" but I'm not sure I even remember, let alone ever knew, how! My ex and I were together practically since college, he asked me out and things just went from there. But now it's like... I'm not 22 anymore, I'm almost 30, I'm not as cute as I used to be and I feel like any guy I would want to go out with could totally do better. (And, before you say it: yes, maybe I'm not over my ex. I'm working on that in therapy.) I don't want to go sit in stank bars and make out with gross guys or just take random people home, and all I ever hear anyone say about Internet dating is totally negative, so no way. Where do I even start? Should I just get resigned to being alone?
There is no time more suited to dating clichés than the post-break-up "you've been in mourning long enough" conversation with friends. (Full disclosure: My recent semi-serious addition to the genre was, and I'm quoting, "Separate him from the pack like an injured gazelle. You're a lioness! Take the meat you want for your own." I also made a lion hand motion. She laughed, which was mostly the point.) So I'll try to avoid that.
What you don't say is whether you are ready to "get back out there." The only time to start dating/making out/sleeping with people again is when you are ready for it, not when it seems like the thing to do or like you ought to. Your internal clock, your sense of self, your desire to engage with others on a romantic or sexual level is the only barometer you need to focus on, I promise.
You do have to pay attention to the signs a bit, though. They could include (in no particular order): having sexual fantasies about realistic partners, possibly for the first time in a while; actual physical attraction to someone; stomach butterflies; severe horniness; and/or major crushes. They could include none of them! Your signs could be totally different. But you should be having some sign other than that you are -- HORRORS! -- not in a relationship before you declare yourself ready. And, having been in a long-term relationship, it may be hard to listen to yourself on that level anymore, particularly if, to you, being a relationship often means cutting yourself off from experiencing any attraction to others.
Also, I have often heard from friends of all kinds that it can be very difficult to switch from boyfriend/girlfriend/partner mode to just-dating mode, especially when b/g/p mode has been your dominant relationship paradigm for so long. (I'd say the early-b/g/p moding might also be called "being on the rebound," though it's only one methodology of assuaging the potential weirdness of new singledom encapsulated by "being on the rebound.") So if and when you do decide to engage with others on a romantic or sexual level, you have to be careful of not only the boundaries that other people set for you or seem to expect from you, but really make sure you understand your own emotional boundaries and ask other people to respect them. If you don't want a make-out buddy, don't go there with someone you want to date-date. If you want to date someone, make sure you are engaging with that person and that specific relationship, as opposed to just falling into old habits of your past relationship. (These, obviously, are just some common examples of ways in which people fail to recognize their own emotions or emotional boundaries. Yours might be different.)
In terms of accepting "being alone" (which lends itself to the "you have to learn to love yourself first" cliché, which, gag), when my last really long-term relationship ended, it actually helped me to make peace with the idea that, yes, I might be alone. It helped me to learn to set boundaries for what I wanted in general from romantic and sexual attachments and from people in particular, how to ask for it, how to say no when it wasn't what I wanted. It helped to let go of the social expectation that we will all have lifetime partners and the idea of "The One" and accept that not only might I be alone, but that alone might be a better way for me to be rather than to be in a flawed and even damaging relationship. It also made me realize that "being alone" is not the same as "being without a partner," and that I could focus on the other meaningful relationships in my life -- my friends and my family, both biological and chosen -- and build (and in some cases rebuild) relationships that I had not tended to not just because I was in a relationship, but because I was in a dysfunctional relationship.
It's great that you're working on your esteem issues in therapy (in reference to,"I'm not as cute as I used to be and I feel like any guy I would want to go out with could totally do better"), but I would also encourage you to look at dating not just in terms of who might "pick" you, but who you might yourself pick (i.e., with an eye to your own agency in the process). You mention that your long-term relationship began with him asking you out and you acquiescing, but not whether there was a mutual attraction, and you frame future dating around your own perceived value on a market you seemingly feel revolves around your physical attractiveness to others. In other words, you view yourself, at least in part, as someone with less agency in dating than the men who might pick you, and you view those decisions as based around your physical attributes.
So first off, grab your agency with both hands. View dating as your choice, your prospects as your choices, your decisions as yours. Yes, I acknowledge, looks play a role in dating, and men (in your case) are certainly socialized as much as women to view women's looks as a significant factor in their attractiveness. But all men aren't (I swear!) ultimately deciding on who to date based on cuteness alone. Many men are ultimately complex people as well, and lots of factors often go into their decisions about who to date or make out with, including perceived availability, emotional and intellectual compatibility and physical attraction that might or not be based in what the eyes can see or the nose can smell or the hands can feel. Grant anyone else's decision about who to date the same complexity you would say your own has and, if you end up disappointed in a potential person here or there, that's their loss and not yours.
There is no one right way to date (or date again). Making out in bars is good, if you want to make out in bars. Online dating clearly works for a lot of people -- else why would so many people do it -- so the horror stories shouldn't be the only reason to give it a pass, but give it a pass if you want to give it a pass. At its core, the cliché of "getting out there" means putting yourself in situations that you might've given a pass to while in a (potentially monogamous) relationship -- situations where flirtation is appropriate, inhibitions can be lowered at your own discretion, where there are people you might not know yet but could find attractive, or where you create space in existing situations that something more than friend- or acquaintanceship might develop. Which circumstances feel comfortable to you is your call -- but if you keep thinking of reasons that none of those circumstances are right, then the simple fact of the matter is that you probably aren't ready yet. So if that's the case, give yourself time and space to heal, breathe, and want again. Then figure out how.
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Photo credit: Kate Black, kateblack.com