Sometimes the most frustrating thing in the world is to feel absolutely powerless.
A couple of years ago, in the early days of the blog, I would do some personal coaching – mostly for friends, occasionally for the odd client or two. One of my clients, a good friend of mine, was an especially troubling case.
Karen1 was one of those incredibly frustrating cases. Karen was in her mid-30s, working for an IP firm in Manhattan. She was attractive, intelligent, outgoing… and single. In fact, she had been for several years – it seemed as though she had gone on first date after first date and nothing went right. Either the guy was intimidated by her, wasn’t interested in anything “serious,” or would string her along if he thought it would help him get into her pants… and while Karen wasn’t against banging out with a hot guy on occasion, she wasn’t looking for casual sex anymore. She wanted something more serious, more substantial. Something that had the potential to be long-term. She was, frankly, tired of long nights at home with only Netflix and the cat for company.
Nothing worked. Speed-dating was a bust. Online dating didn’t help – the only men interested in her were looking for fuckbuddies – and one more night in the bar-scene was going to drive her insane. After spending time with Karen – even going on a practice date – I was stuck for an answer. She was intelligent, charming, friendly, passionate, funny, cheerful and ambitious. She was, frankly, doing everything right… and still getting nowhere. I couldn’t find any reasonable answer for her problem that didn’t involve radically reducing her standards just to find someone to fill the void. The best I could tell her was simply to hold on… the dating scene sucked now, but it wasn’t going to suck forever.
This, obviously, was not the answer Karen was hoping to hear. After all, she was starting to stare down 40… maybe, she admitted to me, it was time to just admit defeat and embrace the fact that she was going to be Forever Alone.
Now, Karen wasn’t the only person ever to feel this way. In fact, many of my readers have expressed this feeling that they’re reaching the Point Of No Return, where they’re forced to resign themselves to a solitary, empty existence, despite their best efforts. They feel doomed to live loveless, sexless lives, each day a trudging step towards a lonely death.
But it doesn’t have to be that way.
You Can’t Hurry Love
One of the first things that you have to realize is that there isn’t an expiration date on romance – some nebulous point in time that, if crossed, renders you unlovable and condemns you to die alone, unmourned and unloved. The constant feeling that time is running out is cultural; we put an inordinate value on “youth”. Every day, pop culture bombards us with stories of “young love”, beautiful people finding their One True Love in high-school or their early 20s. One of the most beloved love stories in the Western canon is about a pair of 13 year olds, for fuck’s sake.
The very few love stories that focus on older couples2 are almost inevitably about finding love after tragedy – the death of a spouse, a bitter divorce – rather than the standard “boy meets girl” narrative.
The cold hard truth is: sometimes it takes a while to find your emotional feet, as it were. Some people are socially gifted; they have a natural grasp on social dynamics and are able to charm others or find a relationship as easily as ordering a sandwich at Subway. Others have a harder time. They may be socially inexperienced and need time to absorb the lessons that others might have learned earlier. Some may have issues in their past that have limited their ability to relate to others. Still others may simply take longer to come into their own.
All of us change and grow over time; we aren’t the same person at 40 that we were at 30 or 20, and the things that we thought and assumed about our futures are often laughably wrong. If you had told my 20-year old self what my life would be like or how many women I’ve dated or slept with in my 30s, he would have laughed in your face. As far I was concerned back then, that I would get by on whatever dregs of a relationship I could scrape together and just learn to live with it. I didn’t start to get the confidence, experience or skill that lead to where I am today until I was in my late 20s and early 30s. Some people don’t reach that level of confidence or maturity until their 40s or even 50s.
Furthermore, age ultimately has no bearing on the validity of one’s relationship, nor does it indicate some fundamental flaw for having waited for so long . Finding love for the first time in your 50s or 60s isn’t any more or less valid than in your teens or 20s; in fact, it can be all the sweeter for finding it after having looked for so long. Many of our early relationships fail because, frankly, we don’t have the maturity or life experience necessary for a long-term commitment; starting a relationship later in life can actually put you in a better position to make it work.
Consider The Demographics
Sometimes it’s less about you and more about the numbers. Where you live can stack the odds in your favor or against you.
One frequent issue that comes up with people having a hard time finding love – even over years or decades – is that they are often looking in the wrong places… literally. The demographics of where you live, work and spend the majority of your time can directly impact your love life. The vagaries of population size and regional culture can make it much harder to find a relationship; not every “type” is going to be evenly distributed and certain areas are going to be more likely to attract certain personalities. Larger cities tend to attract a more cosmopolitan population… but those people also tend to be less likely to be interested in settling down. Smaller towns tend to attract people who are more interested in raising a family.
Even in larger population centers, not all cities are the same. Different regions have entirely different dating “markets”, for lack of a better term. Dallas, for example, was shaped by the mid-century oil boom and has a radically different culture and dominant personality type than the keep-it-weird folks who drift to Austin where the major industries are music, film production and computer technology. Savannah – with SCAD influencing its local culture – attracts an entirely different crowd than Athens and Macon. Do your hobbies and interests fall out of what people consider the cultural mainstream? Then you may need to consider a change of scenery. While exceptions obviously exist, if you’re looking for a fellow anime geek (for example), you’re much more likely to find them in a college town than Dog’s Ass, Nebraska.
Even the demographics within major population centers can vary drastically, which can affect your dating life. In New York City, women famously outnumber the men, 52.5% to 47.5%; small wonder women feel as though they have a hard time finding a date. Los Angeles, on the other hand has the opposite problem: there are 90,000 more single men than women. Gay men and women are more likely to find partners in San Francisco, Seattle or Boston – where the LGBT population makes up to 15% of the total – than they are in Little Rock or Amarillo. You’re going to find more single people in San Antonio than you are in Provo, Utah.
Yes, moving to a new city as a way of improving your odds of finding love can feel a little extreme. It’s a daunting and potentially expensive prospect and if you don’t have a job or social circle waiting for you when you arrive, it can be incredibly intimidating.
You have to ask yourself whether it’s worth the risk to reap the rewards.
Examine Your Standards
Sometimes it’s possible to ask for too much. One reason many people have a hard time finding a relationship is that, frankly, they’re too picky.
Don’t get me wrong: having standards is inherently a good thing. However, you can also have standards that are too high and too exacting. The more specific and stringent your standards are, the harder it will be to find someone who meets all of them. In fact, it’s entirely possible to price yourself right out of the dating market, metaphorically speaking. It’s good to want someone who’s, say, cultured, intelligent, ambitious and geeky.But if the only person that you’re willing to accept is a PhD candidate in political science who also sings bel canto opera and speaks fluent Elvish… well, they might be out there but you’re going to be looking for a needle in a haystack made of other needles.
The more exacting your standards, the smaller the dating pool you are limiting yourself to… possibly even to the point of impossibility. If you’re not willing to be flexible… well, you’re going to be spending a lot more time looking than you are finding. Put bluntly: the longer a list of “must haves” and deal breakers, the longer the list of reasons why you’re still single. One of the cold hard truths about relationships (if I may steal a line from my celebrity Patronus Dan Savage) is that settling down means settling for; nobody gets everything they want in a relationship. You get 70% or 80% and round it up; yeah, there will be things that it would be nice to have, but you have to admit that the what you do have still makes you damned happy.
The other problem with exacting standards is that sometimes what you want isn’t going to want you back. This is an issue that comes up over and over again. Whenever I ask people about their standards, I aways ask: why would this person like you? Don’t get me wrong: I don’t believe in “leagues” per se, but if you’re going to insist on only wanting to date models or socialites, you’re going to have to be able to bring a lot to the table. Yes, Princess and Pauper romances do happen… but it’s not likely to happen to you if the majority of your free time is spent on Hardcore Domination matches in Black Ops 2 and fine dining is a trip to Ruby Tuesday.
One example of this dichotomy that stands out are guys who are looking for women to make up for a perceived lack in their lives. I’ve heard from staid, buttoned up men who want a woman who can shake up their lives and break them out of their shells. I’ve heard from men who want to make up for lost time, from men who want women to shake them out of their staid and dull routines and convince them to throw caution to the wind and seek adventure.
In short: they want the manic pixie dream girl. They may not recognize it consciously but the list of “Must-Haves” describes a young (and she’s always young) woman who’s insanely attractive, adventurous, free-spirited, quirky without actually being neurotic, energetic, with plenty of free time and low levels of commitment at work or to her social life in order to devote as much time as humanly possible to making his life better.
Even assuming that such a person exists and isn’t legitimately manic-depressive… you have to ask yourself: why would this person, realistically, want to be with you? If you take away the movie logic, why would someone who lives a life blissfully ignoring the more inconvenient social mores and living for the moment want to take up with a repressed, methodical homebody who doesn’t like to deviate from a fixed schedule? And for that matter: why would you want to date her? You may imagine a life of being shocked out of your shell (followed by sex marathons on every flat surface in your apartment and nearby parks) but in real life, she would drive you bugfuck crazy. There’s a reason why Katherine Hepburn is quirkily charming in Bringing Up Baby: she’s fictional. Five minutes with her (and dealing with the consequences of her actions) in the real world would have men fleeing for the nearest exit, leaving human-shaped smoke clouds behind.
Get A Second (or Third) Opinion
If you’re consistently having problems meeting someone it’s often a sign that you’re missing something – after all, in all of your dating adventures, the most common denominator is, well, you.
Sometimes it’s hard to have the level of self-awareness to identify issues that may be tripping you up; not everybody is going to be able to look at themselves coldly and dispassionately and being able to accurately measure their good points and bad points without artificially inflating one side or the other. Other times, it’s entirely possible to focus on the wrong area entirely; I’ve lost track of how many people thought that the key issue they needed to master was nailing cold approaches rather than dealing with their overweening sense of entitlement or a crippling lack of self-confidence that manifested as neediness.
In times like these, it’s worth getting a second opinion. The problem comes, of course, in knowing who to go to. It doesn’t do you any good if you consult with friends or peers who only provide ass-pats and ego boosts. In fact, looking in the wrong places can give the wrong advice entirely; the Internet is full of echo-chambers3 of aggrieved men who insist that the problem is that women are status-seeking hypergamous bitches or that women have an obligation to consider men they don’t like.
Ideally you want someone who will be as objective as possible and helpful. Sometimes it’s a friend that you can trust to be honest, even if that honesty isn’t what you want to hear. Sometimes it’s an online community. Sometimes it’s a third-party who’s willing to help.
To bring it back to a personal example. Karen reached out to me because we were casual friends and she liked my advice4. She knew me well enough to feel comfortable but also distanced enough that she felt I could be unbiased and willing to give her the ugly truth if necessary, rather than just blowing smoke up her ass. And, critically, she was willing to listen. It doesn’t do any good to seek out an outsider’s opinion if you’re going to disregard what they have to say… whether it’s negative or positive.
Find Your Satisfaction
Sometimes it’s possible that there just isn’t anything wrong; there’s no web of issues to untangle, no silver bullet to blow away the one lingering problem that’s coming between you and your future happiness. It’s entirely possible to do everything right and still not get anywhere. Sometimes it’s just random chance and bad luck. Life isn’t a fairy tale; the virtuous don’t always get rewarded and the bad don’t always face justice. It’s not fair, but it’s life, and life isn’t fair. Anyone who says otherwise is selling something.
In cases like these, it’s hard to hear “just hang in there,” because you want answers damn it. You want love… and it’s totally reasonable to want it and to get frustrated when you feel like it’s denied to you, whether by chance or some elusive problem you believe exists. But – and this is the hard part – you have to be willing to take the long view and not let that frustration sour you and ultimately make things even harder. Wallowing in anger and jealousy will only make it harder in the long run… and ultimately you have to take the long view, because frankly, you don’t know what the future is going to bring.
In the end, the key to avoiding growing the callous on your soul that comes from bitterness and resentment is to find your satisfaction. Relationships are wonderful when they’re with the right person… but they can’t be your only source of validation or self-worth. They aren’t going to magically make your life better or transform you into someone you’re not. If you’re dissatisfied with your life, a relationship isn’t going to make it better. You don’t want a relationship to fix your life, you want one that’s going to compliment it, enhance it.
The best thing you can do is make a conscious decision to live a life that’s full and complete, one that brings you – if not joy, then satisfaction. You want a life with friends who fulfill you and a community you’re proud to be part of. It doesn’t have to be perfect – you may not love your job, for example – but it needs to be one that makes you feel whole… even if you are single for the rest of your life.
This is ultimately what Karen chose… and it was the right choice for her. She ultimately decided to give up on dating for the foreseeable future and focus on other aspects of her life. She had a tight-knit group of friends, both in Manhattan proper and around the world via a geeky webforum. Her career was starting to take off and offering her exciting opportunities… in fact, a position opened in a London branch of her firm and she took it, pulling up stakes and moving out of the country.
Now I know that you’re expecting me to tell you that Karen met the man of her dreams in London and is living happily ever after. And as much as I would like to give this story a fairy-tale ending… well, that’s not really how life works, is it? The dating scene in London was different than in New York City but at this point Karen had more or less decided to take dating off the table and just take life as it came.
And quite honestly: this was the right decision for her.
The Truth About Being Forever Alone
I’ve mentioned this before but the cold hard truth of being “forever alone” is that some people do die without ever having found love… but you never know if you’re one of them until you die. None of us know which moment is going to be our last. You might be diagnosed with cancer, given six weeks to live and slip and fall in your bathroom the next morning. You might live until you’re 70, 80, 90 or even longer. You have no way of knowing what life is going to bring you. That’s part of the beauty and miracle of life: there is always hope.
I know how frustrating it can be. I’ve been there and I’ve seen friends go through it as well. It can seem absolutely maddening but the best thing, the hardest thing you can do is to keep living as bright and full a life as you can, no matter what and not letting the weight of all that discontent and disappointment eat away at you and leave you bitter and resentful… and as a result, chase away the opportunities that come to you in your life.
Oh, and one more thing.
A few years after I consulted with her on her dating issues, Karen came out to visit me in Austin. Afterwards, on a whim, she flew out to Arizona to meet with some friends from that web forum I mentioned. That’s where she met Jeremy in person for the first time. They’d been virtual friends for a while but they’d never met in the flesh. It was fun, flirty even but come on… she lived in London, he lived in Scottsdale. Just another case of things not working out for her.
That was two years ago.
Next week, I’m performing Karen’s wedding.