Valentine thoughts about the fish that go away

I have a semi-codependent relationship with Don Henley’s “Heart of the Matter.” After my divorce, I purposely played it to sing in ragged sobs the lines “But I think it’s about forgiveness – forgiveness – even if, even if you don't love me anymore.” Even when there wasn't any reason to be sad, I played it just to feel that deep pain it brings. I think it’s that phrase “even if you don't love me anymore” that most stabs me in the heart. Years have passed, yet I tear up at that line and how it asks me to accept someone’s failings after anticipating commitment to long-term promises.

That anticipation starts around the time of grade school Valentine’s Days. Like mini Magic Eight Balls, the candy hearts promise insight into a person’s feelings. Shyly gluing an “All Mine” onto the cheap boxed cartoon-themed Valentines for a secret crush sets up a hope that a “Hug Me” or, impossibly, “Love You” might be returned. Usually, though, it’s “Just Friends” or “No Way.”

Childhood valentines move on to school dances and early dating, with questions about what has to happen to secure someone’s love, and then to going steady with its promise of exclusivity. They're all practice runs, it feels, for the vow “'til death do us part.” When that vow derails – at any point along life's way – I'm expected to forgive the other’s rejection and not hold a grudge. But I find an “I'm Sorry” or “It’s Me, Not You” candy heart doesn't make it any easier. 

But now I think that the heart of the matter is forgiveness of myself, even if you or he or whomever doesn't love me anymore, and that switch changes the reason for the tears. I have to forgive that “me-I-was” and look for what I have become as the “me-I-am.” And I have to remember that those candy hearts’ potential really doesn't satisfy my need to love myself any better than they taste.

Contemplating each side of the fence while waiting for the fish to bite

Dating sex after a mid-life divorce can bring unexpected emotions. For me, after the divorce I was consumed by the unanticipated onslaught of a tyrannical sex drive. At times I felt like an annoying cat in heat, often miscalculating when to even mention the topic of sex.  When first divorced, it was easy to ignore warnings about beginning a relationship with sex. I mean: isn't it possible to have “just sex"? Don’t men supposedly do that all the time? Especially at my age, I should be able to negotiate the connection between sex and love with the skill of a lothario. And yet, while dating sex's newness can bring excitement and immediate gratification, it also has left me nostalgic for those sometimes awkward, often exhausted times in bed with my ex-husband.

Understand, I am not nostalgic for sex with my ex-husband. I am nostalgic for the way "just sex" changes into the "making love" of married sex. That distinction brings a certain level of acceptance with it. When the marriage isn't going well, the curiosity and want of "what might be" or "what is no longer" spawns daydreams of dating sex. When the marriage is going well, though, married sex is a forgiving and warm activity. 

At its best, married sex doesn't involve worrying anymore whether one’s breasts sag and have stretch marks, or whether the chin has begun to show signs of multiplying, or whether the lower abdomen has the tautness of a pair of old cotton granny panties’ sprung elastic.  With married sex, the familiar bulge of a husband’s softer belly often feels more satisfying than any imagined younger man’s board-hard six-pack abdomen.  Even the caresses, while maybe taking on a certain amount of sleepy fumbling, create a contented sensuous response. There isn’t the pressure to do it or lose it no matter how one feels because the opportunity will be there tomorrow, or the next day, or the next, and the routine feels comfortable. Watching sex scenes in movies and wondering if one could move like that – or even wonder how it is one does move like that – isn't anxiety-producing because “doing it like that” isn't important. 

It isn't that dating sex isn't fun; it definitely is, and often because one tries those moves and learns new language for them. Dating sex also has an important role in discovering what and who I want to be. One of the discoveries is that I can't be that lothario who can have sex that doesn't lead to love, but also that I want to keep in that love the fun of just enjoying sex. It's a both/and more than an either/or in terms of positive and negative qualities. Dating sex can't replace married sex, and vice versa, but it took my divorce to realize that.

Lessons learned while getting into the boat

Deciding whether mid-life dating and sex is more like rock candy or gummy worms can be difficult. One is hard but crystalline beautiful and sugar sweet, the other is kind of ugly and sticks in the teeth. Some might suppose dating is rock candy in its promise of possibility to be beautiful, and sex a gummy worm in its potential clumsy awkwardness. I have found it's both/and instead of either/or.

Many things have taken on new perspectives as I approached and then have become 50. The body and the mindset change. While the body is not what it was in my 20s, the mindset doesn't really care. There's a "to hell with it" declaration of self-confidence. Or the mindset doesn't care right up to the unexpected realization that a particular date could end in a coital connection. Then comes panic remembering I have on my old Playtex bra with underarm stains and my saggy white cotton panties. The rock candy opportunity quickly becomes a gummy worm.

The immediate response to the panic is to run to a bathroom and remove said embarrassing underwear, stuff it deeply into a pocket or a purse - or the trashcan - and pretend that going commando is my common state. That solution might turn the gummy worm back to rock candy. Then clothes come off to expose the no longer perky breasts and somewhat flaccid behind. At that point, "going commando" seems more like a lapse of memory to put on underwear instead of a calculated seduction decision.

There are those women and men who have stayed amazingly fit into their 50s. I, though, am not one of them. If the date is with a man of equal age and fitness and who I know well, this revelation of "softness" is less embarrassing. Then the body’s changes don't really interfere with the rock candy potential of that encounter and the "to hell with it" attitude returns.

But the libido can be romantically na├»ve and certain that dating someone 15 years younger can restore one's own youth. This rock candy illusion might even have merit, right up until crooning Marvin Gaye’s “Sexual Healing” – in particular the verse about getting up to make love – only evokes his bewilderment instead of excitement. Then keeping hold of the “confidence is sexy” perspective crumbles under gummy worm reality.

In these situations a good sense of humor is helpful. That or one's perfected the ability to dress quickly and make excuses to leave.

Dating myth-buster

I'd always imagined – when I was in high school reading Harlequin Romances in between Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet and Iris Murdoch’s Sacred and Profane Love Machine – that by the time I was in my late 20s – not to mention by the time I was 50 – I’d be a sophisticated lover.  I’d know how to glance with just the right amount of dark and sultry to seduce the man across the restaurant.  I’d wear glamorous one-strap dresses that would drape suggestively over my breasts and cause men to dream of what might happen if they would slowly slide that strap down my arm.  My hair would be gloriously thick and long and I'd know just the way to cross my legs so they'd slip ever so seductively through the slit in my skirt.  Within moments I’d coyly pull the red satin material across them while I looked directly at my suitor through a lock of hair that has fallen across my thickly lashed eyes.  Yep, I thought this would all be something I naturally conquered.

I was wrong.