I’m a writer. I’ve spent more than a quarter of a century working on my craft. I have a master’s degree in English. I sit at my computer today with my vast linguistic palette and search for the precise combination of words to capture and convey both the experience and emotion of taking those tentative steps back into the world of dating:
It’s weird, yo.
I never did much dating when I was younger. My relationships tended to develop from friendships, or else through spending time with people in college or elsewhere. Then there’s the fact that I was married from 2003, and it’s been more than twenty years since I’ve tried to start a new romantic relationship.
Then there’s the grief of losing a spouse in 2019, and all the guilt and confusion and uncertainty to work through as a result.
Yet, as folks at ConFusion may have noticed, I seem to be dating again. It’s even progressed to a (gasp!) relationship!
There’s been a lot to think about and work through to reach this point. Starting with…
“You’re a horrible person who obviously never truly loved his wife and should feel nothing but guilt and shame and more guilt!”
Nobody has said this to me directly yet, I’m happy to say. But the unspoken message is out there. People talk about friends/family who lost a spouse and remarry. They also talk about people who lost a spouse and chose never to get married again. Those stories come with a strong current of romance and true love. They were so in love they could never replace their spouse, and they chose to wait until they were (depending on their beliefs) reunited with their one and only soulmate.
To be clear, I’m not judging either choice. Everyone has to figure out what works for them, and how they can best try to find some peace and happiness.
But I’ve felt pressured sometimes that if I really loved Amy, I’d pull a Princess Buttercup: “I will never love again.”
I don’t think Amy would have wanted me to be alone forever. Obviously, she didn’t want to get cancer, either. The goal was for both of us to live happily ever after. But since that’s no longer an option (fuck cancer!), I think she’d want me to eventually love again. Those who knew her best have said the same thing.
None of this magically makes the guilt completely disappear. But it’s not overwhelming, and it’s gone down to a point where it doesn’t seem to interfere with my new relationship. (Yay for therapy and support groups!)
That brings us to the next question.
How the frell do people date in 2021?
Having decided I was open to a new relationship, what next? We’re in the middle of a pandemic, and I’m working from home. But I’m told that the kids these days do a lot of their dating through the tubes of the internet. So I slowly set up a couple of profiles on different sites.
At first, I kept my own profile hidden. I was dipping the toes in the water, but I wasn’t ready to cannonball into this quite yet. I found a few people who looked interesting, a few that got instantly blocked, and a whole range in between. I learned a bit about what I wanted to include on my profile, what not to say, what kind of photos to use…
Eventually, I gritted my teeth and made my profile visible.
May the odds be ever in your favor.
Those dating sites have this stuff down to a science. All the different psychological tricks and temptations they use to get you to subscribe.
Well, they work. I ended up subscribing for a while so I could see who was interested and respond to some of them. I chatted with some people and eventually set up a first date with a woman in Ann Arbor.
Cue the panic. Where should we go? Do I drive to Ann Arbor, or should we meet in the middle somewhere? What do I wear? How do I introduce myself? Should I bring a gift? Flirting or no flirting? Do I even remember how to flirt? Does hugging happen at the end? What if there’s kissing? Am I ready for kissing?
One of the many things I liked about being married was not having to go on first dates!
Happily, it went very well. I did bring a gift — a little dog toy for her new dog that she’d talked about. We chatted for a few hours at a coffee shop. We hugged at the end, and talked about a second date. Go, me!
The second date was fun, but as we talked more, it didn’t really feel like there were sparks. At least for her. Me, I wasn’t even sure I remembered what new-relationship sparks felt like.
In search of sparks…
Over the next months, I dated three other people. The first one felt more like a crash and burn. The second was someone I really enjoyed talking with, but after two dates with her, I realized I was spark-free.
Then there was the third person. We went out to dinner and ended up talking until the restaurant closed. There were very nice hugs. And as I left that night, I realized this had been very different than those other dates. This felt like it had potential.
Building a new relationship. (Assembly required.)
She and I have been dating for about four months now, and it’s pretty darn great. She’s very different from Amy in a lot of ways, which means I haven’t felt like I was somehow trying to “replace” my wife. For one thing, she’s an extrovert, which has been interesting. She pushes me out of my comfort zone sometimes, but in a way that feels healthy as opposed to just uncomfortable.
One of the many things I appreciate is that she’s never been awkward or uncomfortable about Amy. We talked a little about my wife and what happened on the very first date, and we’ve continued to have those conversations. She knows I have some deep trauma there, but also trusts that I’ve been working to heal, and that I’m in a place where I’m able to and want to have a new relationship. She knows I’ll always love Amy, but doesn’t feel threatened by that. (At one point, I described it as a strange sort of polyamory, except one of the people in my triad has died.)
It’s not perfect. Nothing ever is. For one thing, she lives about 80 minutes away, so this has been mostly a weekend-based relationship. And we’re distracting each other from our productivity.
But so far, we seem to fit together really well.
Some interesting pitfalls
Grief and loss leaves a hole. I’ve tried to be very conscious about not trying to fit this new person into the space where Amy used to be. That would be unfair to her, unhealthy for me, and utterly ineffective. But after 15+ years of marriage, I have a lot of relationship habits, so I’ve had to pay attention and make sure I’m not doing things or acting out of those habits. Even little things like nicknames, what I say when we see each other or are getting ready to leave…
Then there was the realization that I was happy, and the fallout from that. This was relatively early on, and it came as a shock. Amy got sick in 2018, so it had been years since I’d felt this kind of happiness. Even if this new relationship doesn’t work out, I’m so grateful that it showed me there’s still the possibility for happiness. At the same time, it triggered another wave of guilt. My wife died. How is it okay for me to be happy? Even knowing it’s what she’d want for me. And it’s what I want for me, dammit.
And of course, there’s been the process of telling the kids and other friends and family that I’m dating now. That’s been awkward, but mostly positive. The response from Amy’s parents was so understanding and loving it almost made me cry. I think the kids find it weird, but they’re also happy for me. It’s a little harder for my younger daughter, since she’s still living at home, whereas her sister is away at college. I’ve tried to make it clear I’m not looking to replace mama, and whatever happens with me and this woman, she’s not going to be a new mother or anything like that. My youngest has met her a number of times, and seems to be getting a little more comfortable. (It’s still weird that her dad is dating, though!)
Any closing advice?
Maybe a little. Like I said, what’s right for one person might not be right for the next. This advice is as much a reminder to myself as it is for anyone else.
- Be patient and give yourself time.
- Know that the love for your former partner doesn’t end. (Talk about that with your new partner, too.)
- Know that guilt and confusion and sadness are all normal, and don’t necessarily mean you’re not ready.
- Therapy and/or support group: highly recommended. (As long as you’ve got a good therapist/group.)
- Let yourself be happy.
- Embrace the fear and excitement of the new and the different.
- Recognize that your ideal relationship now isn’t the same as the relationship you were wanting, say, fifteen years ago.
- Be gentle with yourself.