The concept of truth is a tricky concept. Is the truth how we see ourselves when we look in the mirror? Or, rather, is the truth how our reflection comes glaring back at us when we see ourselves through someone else’s eyes? Many times, with regard to the latter, we realize that we don’t always like the version of the truth that is looking back at us. The question then becomes an issue of which truth do we accept, the one we manipulate ourselves into believing or, rather, the one that is reflected back to us from others, particularly from those who do not know us very intimately. No better place to see this is in the convoluted world of online dating where the lines between truth and otherwise become markedly blurred.
I am a newbie, or a dating novice, for all intents and purposes. And, on some days, a definite dating disaster. You see, up until recently, I was married. Sixteen and a half years of wedded bliss. Well, maybe that’s stretching the truth just a bit. But the institution of marriage is all that I knew. Three beautiful school-age children, a lovely home in an affluent suburb and a workaholic husband who focused night and day in the name of love to provide his family with the finest material offerings he could conjure. Although I, like my husband, graduated from law school, I was bestowed the luxury of staying home to raise my children, a gift that I never (okay, almost never) took for granted. And I ran with it. My position as wife, and later, mother, and all around domestic engineer/goddess, consumed me. It was my identity and calling card. When I said, “I do” at age 22 to my high school sweetheart whom I met at the impressionable age of 15, I slowly but surely relinquished bits and pieces of an identity I had merely begun to develop by the time I had reached my early twenties.
My decision to activate an online dating profile came just one day after I resigned myself to the painful realization that my marriage was dead, and would almost certainly never be resurrected from the grave again. Just less than three months prior, I had been eagerly packing for a long weekend away with my husband in London. We would meet there, sans the kids, he arriving from Hong Kong where he had been relocated two years prior by his U.S. law firm, and me from our home in New Jersey where I perceived myself to be holding down the fort until he would miraculously be transferred back to the New York office. A difficult recipe for maintaining marital accord for certain, let alone for nourishing and sustaining an enduring romance, but I had rationalized that we had been through difficult times before, and had survived more than our share of long distance travails throughout our almost 25 year relationship. However, this last two years of living apart, seeing each other for one jetlagged week out of every seven or eight, countless nights of loneliness on both sides, and resentment for feeling that sting of isolation, this time proved too much for the fractures that were already present in our faltering marriage, and one of us finally broke.
I received the call after my bags were already packed, after the bed linens were changed in preparation for my mother and stepfather’s upcoming stay at our New Jersey home during which time they would care for the children in my stead, and after my excitement had grown to almost uncontrollable bounds. The kids were finally at an age where I didn’t feel as guilty leaving them for a few days. Carpooling schedules and the oversight of homework assignments were now tasks I deemed capable of being temporarily managed by someone else beside myself, and I was confident that most crises could be averted even in my brief absence. This was to be our time. A time when my husband and I could get back to discovering what we actually liked about each other, rather than what little ticks got on the other’s nerves.
“Maybe you shouldn’t come to London,” my husband said to me on the phone, as I sat in the carpool line on a cold dreary afternoon waiting to pick up my then first grader. “I’m really jetlagged and I have a tight schedule of meetings here, and I’ll just see you in a few days when I’m back for the conference in the city.” My heart sunk. I was so disappointed but I didn’t let on. The wall of resentment that I had continually built up around me over the past few years became just a little more fortified, and I reluctantly conceded that the new plan would be acceptable. But, in reality, it wasn’t okay with me. To this day, a tiny part of me will always wonder if I had insisted on getting on that plane the next day whether or not my marital status would somehow be different now. That such an alternative outcome would have been a better one is, at the very least, doubtful.
Later that night, I angrily chastised my husband for telling me not to come to London, for disappointing me, and that’s when he said it. “I’m done with our marriage. I’ve moved on.” Stunned, the room spinning around me, I reeled from his icy words. “You’re just tired,” I rationalized. “We’ll talk about it when you come home.” But in just a few short days I was faced with the harsh reality that this time there would be no satisfying end to this conversation. Clandestinely purchased lingerie not intended for me packed in his suitcase and his eventual confession that he had indeed been involved with a local woman in Hong Kong 10 years my junior brought my new reality to the forefront.
For three months I mourned. Everywhere I looked I saw the life we had shared together. From the sound of the garage door opening to the abandoned toiletries in our master bathroom, I romanticized ever so fancifully the minute details of our marriage. I even offered to forgive my husband for his “transgression” if he would work with me on repairing and rebuilding our marriage, despite my quite vocal and repeated admonitions to him over the course of our 25 years together that should he ever be unfaithful, I would, without even the slightest hesitation, divorce him immediately. I, in turn, begged on my knees for forgiveness from him. I would be a “better” wife. I would swallow the resentments that plagued me, the very ones that had sculpted my own distant and resentful demeanor, and vowed to somehow miraculously become the woman he once knew, and a woman he could now yearn for. I know now that this would never have been possible. And it wasn’t too long before I realized that my husband was not very interested in reconciling, and that not even the most creative antics would change that.
The romanticizing soon turned to introspection and then quickly to self-loathing. I wasn’t happy in this relationship and hadn't been in years. How, then, could I have remained in a marriage in which I had grown so increasingly despondent? Why had I wasted so much time? Why didn’t I have the courage to walk away when things became unbearable? Why did I accept for myself certain realties that I would consider unacceptable for my own children in their future relationships? The answer to such questions I have discovered, through my foray into dating, lay in my previous inability to know myself.
The phrase “know thyself” is a powerful one. We have all heard it before, at least versions of it, in literature, philosophy and religious writings. But what does it mean to actually know oneself, to love not just another but the person we are, and to appreciate all that we have to offer those around us? Possessing such inner knowledge is a monumental undertaking for anyone to tackle and, for me, a daily struggle with the demons who grab a hold of every possible opportunity to whisper in my ear, to taunt me with my most sensitive vulnerabilities, shortcomings and failings.
Dating has indubitably provided me with a palpable forum in which I can gage those sensitivities. A paradox of sorts, dating has an absolute random quality to it while, at the same time, exhibiting a pendulum-like dependability. Even though I cannot predict the responses of the person I date no matter how hard I analyze and theorize (Will he call? Will he want to go out again? Does he like me?), the trials and tribulations of dating has often proved to be the catalyst for inducing drastic emotional mood swings that can cause me to vacillate anywhere from a state of depression to a state of elation, and be prompted by something as simple as the chime of an incoming text. Embarrassing, but true.
Dating has allowed me to reflect more deeply on the characteristics by which people define me. But, more importantly, dating has taught me to appreciate the qualities I possess as others slowly elucidate them for me. In return for such a gift, I make every effort to focus on the characteristics of the relative stranger that I am with, and to learn something from every person I meet. As I approach each new encounter with trepidation, I remind myself that everyone has value. Let’s face it, not all dates are good ones. In fact, many of them are not. But if I spend a mere hour or two speaking to someone over a glass of wine or dinner, surely I can garner some higher learning from that person. Everybody has something to offer, and it may very well fall somewhere in between a life lesson and a travel tip. But, regardless, my meeting with that person has somehow, however significantly or insignificantly, changed my life and, hopefully, vice versa. I believe all time can be considered time well spent, depending on the framework I use to interpret that time.
We see each other in the interactions we have with those around us. My first date in 25 years, with the third person I dated up until I was age 39, was filled with nervousness, anxiety, and awkwardness on my part. But through my date’s eyes, after having experienced the most painful rejection from the person I trusted most, I learned to feel beautiful and to feel desired once again. On that very first night out I started to see my reflection from someone else, and began to open my own eyes to the person I already was and to who I wanted to be. Doing so is no easy task. It means taking the good with the bad, as sometimes the reflection we can get from another can be uncomfortable, unpleasant and even surprising at times. Regardless, the new people we meet on our journey through the dating world want to learn as much about us as we agree to share. The more obvious lies people all too often tell on dating websites (age, height, weight, etc.) are the ones most easily uncovered. However, showing someone else our own truth, well, therein lies the challenge. I’ve since moved on from that first date to many other first dates. And with each encounter, I slowly but surely, learn some new truth about myself.