Up until recently, I was married. Sixteen-and-a-half years of wedded bliss. Well, maybe that’s stretching the truth a bit.
The concept of truth is tricky. Is truth how we see ourselves when we look in the mirror? Or, rather, is truth how our reflection glares 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 looking back at us. The question then becomes, which truth do we accept—the one we manipulate ourselves into believing or, rather, the one reflected back to us from others, particularly those who do not know us intimately? There is no better place to see this than in the convoluted world of online dating, where the lines between truth and fiction—or delusion—become markedly blurred.
For all intents and purposes, I am a newbie or a dating novice. And, on some days, an absolute dating disaster. The institution of marriage, for better or worse, was all 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 obtain. Although I, like my husband, graduated from law school, our marriage afforded me 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, just as my husband’s job consumed him. It was my identity and calling card. When I said, “I do” at 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 in my early twenties.
So here I was, just one day after I resigned myself to the painful realization that my marriage was dead, deciding to activate an online dating profile. Just three months prior, I had been eagerly packing for a long weekend away with my husband in London. We would meet there, sans 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, let alone for nourishing and sustaining a romance, I had nonetheless rationalized that we had been through challenging times before and had survived more than our share of long distance travails throughout our almost 25-year relationship. However, these last two years of living apart, seeing each other for one jet-lagged week out of every seven or eight, the countless nights of loneliness on both sides, and the resentment for feeling that sting of isolation, all this 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 packed, after the bed linens were changed in preparation for my mother and stepfather’s upcoming stay at our New Jersey home to care for the children in my stead, and after my excitement had grown almost uncontrollable. The kids were finally at an age where I didn’t feel so guilty leaving them for a few days. 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 tics got on each other’s nerves.
My phone rang as I sat in the carpool line on a cold, dreary afternoon waiting to pick up my then first grader. “Maybe you shouldn’t come to London,” my husband said. “I’m really jet-lagged, 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 devastated, but I didn’t let on. The wall of resentment I had carefully and continually built up over the past few years became a little more fortified, and I reluctantly conceded that the new plan would be acceptable. But, in reality, it wasn’t okay. To this day, a tiny part of me will always wonder if I had insisted on getting on that plane the next day whether I might still be married. That such an alternative outcome would have been a better one is, at the very least, doubtful.
Later that night, I called back and chastised my husband for telling me not to come, for disappointing me, and that’s when he dropped the bomb. “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 a few short days, I was faced with the harsh reality that there would be no reversal of his decision, 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 made it clear that my marriage was indeed over, that he—and we—were done.
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 relationship. I even offered to forgive my husband for his “transgression” if he would work with me on repairing and rebuilding our marriage, despite my vocal and repeated admonitions to him over the course of our 24 years together that should he ever be unfaithful, I would, without the slightest hesitation, divorce him immediately. Instead, I begged on my knees for forgiveness. 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 I vowed to somehow, miraculously, become the woman he once knew, and a woman for whom he could now yearn. I know now that this would never have been possible. And it wasn’t too long before I realized that my husband was not interested in reconciling and that not even the most creative efforts would change that.
My romanticizing soon turned to introspection and then quickly to self-loathing. The truth was, 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 realities that I would consider unacceptable for my children in their future relationships? I eventually discovered, through my foray into dating, that the answer to such questions 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 actually to 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 hold of every possible opportunity to whisper in my ear, to taunt me with my most sensitive vulnerabilities, shortcomings, and failings.
Dating has provided me with a palpable forum in which I can gauge those sensitivities. A paradox of sorts, dating has an absolute random quality to it while, at the same time, exhibiting a pendulum-like dependability. Despite knowing I cannot predict my date’s responses 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 have often proved to be the catalyst for inducing drastic mood swings in me. With something as simple as the chime of an incoming text, I can vacillate between depression and elation. Embarrassing, but true.
Dating has also 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 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 awful. 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. Everyone has something to offer, from a life lesson to a travel tip. Regardless, my meeting with each person has somehow 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.
My first date in 24 years, which was with the third person I ever dated despite being 39 years old, 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 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 both to the person I already was and the one I wanted to be. Doing so is no easy task. It means taking the good with the bad, as sometimes the reflection we get from another can be uncomfortable, unpleasant, and even surprising. Regardless, the new people we meet on our journey through the dating world are eager to learn as much about us as we agree to share. The obvious lies people tell on dating websites about their outward appearance (those concerning age, height, weight, etc.) are the ones most easily uncovered. However, showing someone else our inner 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 steadily learn some new truth about myself.