Feast or famine

I've decided I'm ready to date. Can I just announce it to the world?

By Cary Tennis
Published February 26, 2002 8:33PM (EST)

Dear Cary,

I'm a 27-year-old female, fairly attractive, with a B.A., a job, a witty sense of humor and an active social life. Even with all these things going for me I am single. I went on a dating hiatus that started in January of last year, but I've decided that I'm now ready to date. Unfortunately, there's no one interested in dating me. My question is, how do I go about letting people know that I'm ready to start dating again without seeming sad and desperate (which I'm not, by the way). My friend has this saying, "It's either feast or famine," and she's right, but now it's famine. When I didn't want to date it was feast. How do I turn the tables?

Starving in New Jersey

Dear Starving,

Letting people know you're ready to start dating again is a simple proposition that can be accomplished in as subtle or brazen a manner as you choose. Anything from a slightly bolder shade of lipstick to a billboard on 42nd Street will do the trick, communications-wise. And me, I always favor the straightforward declarative sentence, delivered within earshot of anyone you think ought to hear it: "I'm ready to start dating again."

The hard part comes in that sentence of yours that ends "without seeming sad and desperate." A lifetime could be spent enumerating the ways in which this tragic and yet ordinary wish stands in the way of happiness: The man who starves to death because he won't admit hes hungry is not far, in principle, from the woman who never dates because she won't admit she doesn't already have a date.

There is something liberating about standing up proudly and declaring your wants: I want a sandwich, dammit! Feed me! Why is it so liberating? Because it defines the problem. By defining the problem, you separate yourself from it: You are not a pathetic and worthless person absorbed and controlled by this one problem; instead, you are a practical adult woman, possessed of all the attributes enumerated above, who is simply setting about to acquire something the absence of which is felt acutely in your life. Besides, stating the problem is the crucial but oft overlooked first step without which there can be no problem solving. It also invokes the power of utterance, of breaking silence. By declaring it openly you vaporize the shame. It just feels good to stand up and say, "I dont care what you say, I want a date!"

You must also understand that in some fundamental and radical sense you have no power over what people think. If they are going to consider you a sad and desperate wastrel, there's not much you can do about it. It is true that by the way you dress and talk you provide evidence of your status, your background and your abilities with which others make their judgments about you. But after you take the practical and concrete steps to present yourself as realistically as possible, you must then utterly empty yourself of care about what they think. Take as long as you need to get dressed, but then get on with your day. Declare your desires in whatever manner you choose, from personal ads to stiletto heels to gazes that linger a millisecond too long, and when a man asks you out on a date, say yes. Then go out on some dates.

Dear Cary,

Tell me this, what does a 46-year-old woman, still attractive, professional -- earning a six-figure salary -- do to ward off marital ennui? We have no children, we seem to have lost our way, we can't agree on life's priorities -- he is content to stay at home; I would like to travel more. We never had much sex and I'm tired out and humiliated by always having to ask for it.

P.S. I have never as much as kissed another man since agreeing to be my husband's "girl" 10-plus years ago. But I'm thinking about it ...


Dear B.,

Let's first touch on the obvious. Right off the bat, there's sex. The 40-ish girls in the office tell me that there is no hornier age for women, so you are perhaps in the grip of a hormonal itch that can drive a good woman wild. To compound things, there is the husband problem, the man who isn't there, the lug who does not perform as advertised.

But while there may be quick solutions to these problems in the courtrooms and the personal ads, there is the larger question of purpose and of eros, of feeling alive and making a difference, of having a reason to get up in the morning because life is good and something is waiting for you on the other side of the sunrise. And I think you know what I am talking about because we are of the same generation. If you grew up in the 1960s in America you could not have missed the rhetoric of extravagant promise that enlarged our vision of the possible. And, like some of us now, you may be quietly dismayed at how the empire of the achievable has contracted. Not to mention the sobering thought that in fewer than 20 years you will be 60, and whatever you have not done by then may not be any longer doable in quite the same style as you had imagined.

My guess is that there is plenty of room for what you need in your life as it is. There is room for a weekly massage, for a weekend at a spa, for opera and extravagant dinners, for a trip to wherever it is you always wanted to go. There is room for eros in its many forms, and out of that, if you lead the way, may very well come the eros in your marriage that is missing.

So travel! Don't wait for your husband. Go somewhere. Go somewhere and be desired. What about you is desirable? Do you know, or has it been so long since a man lost all reason in your presence?

Expand the boundaries of what is possible within your marriage, and your marriage itself may expand.

There is also room for a frank talk with your husband. You could ask him point blank if he wants to stay married. Perhaps it's already over. If so, the sooner you know the better. You don't have to stay married, but emotionally, socially and economically divorce is an expensive and dangerous proposition, not to be undertaken just because your marriage isn't always a thrill a minute.

Shut your eyes and recall the eros and excitement of your youth. What was it that made life seem so filled with possibility? You and I owned the world when we were young, as few generations before us did. What were your dreams then? What made you feel alive? What are your passions? Is your career the one you dreamed of? If not, what is? What are your dreams?

Like you, I am in my mid- to late 40s, married without children. And while I do not especially want to have children, I do sometimes feel I'm missing something. But I think what I'm missing is not so much the duties of child rearing and the love of children, but the sense of being important to someone, of contributing something uniquely my own, of my wisdom and experience, of making a difference.

So I think if you pursue the big things, the life purpose, the reasons for living, the will to contribute, the pursuit of eros and pleasure, some of the other questions will answer themselves.

Dear Cary,

I believe that my best friend is in love with my wife. He always demands to sit next to her when we eat together, he buys her presents, he compliments her nonstop, he touches her constantly and when he and I are alone together he frequently talks about how wonderful she is.

I don't think that my friend will ever make a pass at her, because he's an honorable guy. Since I'm not worried about him making a pass at her, I feel silly for bringing it up, but his behavior is bothersome to me and my wife, and our other friends are starting to comment on it too. How should I handle this situation?


Dear Concerned,

If your friend is an honorable guy, he will understand that honor consists as much in appearance as in deed. If he is so affectionate toward your wife that people begin to wonder and take notice, then it's not just his honor at stake but hers and yours. If I were you I would take a long walk with him on a high cliff. Let's take your picture. Back just a little more. Whoops.

Seriously, I would spend some time alone with him and ask him directly if he's in love with your wife. Tell him why you're asking. It's certainly possible that he is in love with her, and it's nothing for him to be ashamed of. Such things are beyond the powers of mortals to prevent. He may not even know himself. He may not tell you the truth. But if he is, your asking will probably have a pronounced deflationary effect on whatever large fantasies he may have been entertaining. Hopefully, you and he can have a frank talk and you can all remain friends.

P.S. Does your wife have a sister?

Dear Cary,

I'm a 21-year-old African-American female freelance writer (also working on a novel) from a large city. I'm very attractive, intelligent and artistic with sort of a funky bohemian style. I'm pretty fond of myself, actually, and I enjoy my own company. My problem is that I am extremely antisocial.

I have never met my father. I was raised by my beloved single mother and my overprotective grandparents (I am now living back at home with them). My mother hasn't had any friends or romantic interests for more than a decade, so I think maybe her social skills rubbed off on me. From what I understand, she met my scumbag father through a personal ad.

I have had difficulty making friends for as long as I can remember. Most of the time, I've had one or two good friends. I've always been the one to end the friendships. However, I am now completely and utterly friendless. I hung out with a female acquaintance from high school recently, but she told me that she had a "crush" on me. Things rapidly became awkward. I am straight, I wasn't interested, we didn't have much in common and I found her quirks really annoying. I gave her the brushoff.

I have only dated three guys my entire life. They were all amazing, but things just didn't work out for various reasons. Relationship with guy No. 1 (we were both 15) lasted about six months. I wasn't allowed to date, and it became a strain to keep hiding. Relationship with guy No. 2 (I was 18, he was 23) lasted about four months. I fell in love with him, but he never felt the same way. Relationship with guy No. 3 (I was 19, he was 20) lasted about nine months (technically) or four months (realistically).

I moved out of state and when we tried to do the long-distance thing, everything went to hell. That was a year ago, and I haven't been on a date since. The only patterns I notice are that we met through shared friends, the breakups were mutual and we all broke up right before Valentine's Day.

I am friendless and dateless and antisocial. I don't know why, and I have no idea how to make friends or get a date. Am I a lost cause? Please say I'm not!

Ms. Table for One

Dear Table for One,

Of course you're not a lost cause. Nobody who's 21 is a lost cause. One of the hardest things to do when you're 21 is to realize what a long drive you've got ahead of you. I remember thinking at the age of 19 that if I hadn't published a novel by the time I was 21 I'd be washed up. I had no idea how long the drive was. I'm still driving. So settle in, put some tunes in, be careful of hitchhikers and just drive.

Isolation is a particular peril for writers, since it is such a solitary pursuit. So if you are literally friendless you need to take steps to battle your isolation, for it is not only uncomfortable but unhealthy and unsafe to be completely without friends. Since you say you have no idea how to make friends I suggest you contact the people who have been your friends in the past. This girl, for instance, from high school: Is it really all that creepy that she had a crush on you? Wasn't there anything else, another reason you were hanging out together? Friends don't have to be perfect; it's enough, sometimes, that they will walk you around the park or eat a sandwich with you. What about the "shared friends" through which you met your boyfriends? Are they all beyond redemption? And finally, although this might have the ring of desperation, there is nothing like hanging around with another writer to remind you that you are not so antisocial after all.

As you get older is that the number of friends you have becomes less important. You may be the kind of person who doesn't need a lot of friends, but it sounds like you feel anxious about it. Perhaps your mother's life makes you sad. If you're sad for your mother, that's compassion. It doesn't mean you'll turn out the same way.

You're going to be fine. This is just life. You just keep going. Things get clearer. You recognize dead ends and boring scenery more quickly, and you avoid them more deftly, and the high, distant peaks begin to look more alluring, and even though they take longer to get to, you begin to plan for them.

When you've just broken up with your 50th boyfriend, and nothing has worked out, you can start worrying.

Dear Cary,

After 9/11, I sent a spontaneous e-mail to my high school crush. Years ago, I madly, desperately wanted this guy. I never got him, in any sense of the word.

Now, high school was a long time ago. Since then, I've gone to college, worked several jobs, lived in multiple states, gone back to school and married a man I love with all my heart. I've changed a lot from the angst-filled teen I once was. But my crush had gotten deep in my head, and I realized after I wrote him that I still had odd feelings for him that I couldn't fully define. I have to admit that my initial thoughts about my crush were not entirely pure, but after a short while, all of my fantasies involving him dissipated abruptly. Now I'm just concerned for him.

Our e-mails back and forth began on a good note -- a bit terse, but he seemed genuinely happy to hear from me, and glad to share. Then we started chatting via the Internet, and all hell broke loose. He was very quick to volunteer some things. He's not a happy person these days, has major issues with drinking and depression, moved back home and is struggling financially. He's also not evidently in therapy, and not seeking help for his drinking. Early on, I told him I would rather not chat with him when he had been drinking. He got mad, and has refused to respect my request. Each time we communicate when he is drunk, it gets nasty, he sulks and I swear I never want to hear from him ever again. But when he's sober, he's a blast, and it's like old times. He's just rarely sober.

So I'm torn. He can be manipulative, but he can also be a great, sweet guy. Should I wait for the nice guy to surface, or for him to completely sink to the bottom? Or do I run really, really fast in the opposite direction?

Don't Call Me Miss Nightingale

Dear Not Miss Nightingale,

What you can do is quite clear. Don't interact with him when he's drunk. Don't just tell him you'd rather not. Don't do it. If you think he has a problem with alcohol, you can tell him when he's sober, if you want to. It probably won't make much difference, but there's no harm in saying it. What matters is that you not be drawn into his drama, that you be very clear and direct with him.

You have to be the rock. You have to call upon whatever resources you have to be firm, cool, dispassionate, direct and caring. You don't have to explain yourself to him; in fact, trying to explain yourself will just expose you to manipulation.

Oh, by the way, you should make it clear that you're not going to sleep with him. He probably figures he's got a chance.

Dear Cary,

I am desperate to meet a good woman. My work life is going well, I have friends and I'm otherwise quite happy. It pains me to be so clichéd, but I just want someone to share it all with.

My problem, as I see it, is that I'm too timid and reserved for my own good. I'm attractive, successful, usually confident, in my late 20s. I've been approached by attractive young women in bars, twice even at my gym. I think women have made eyes at me many times. I don't know what it is. I have no problem making friends but when an attractive women shows interest in me I get tongue-tied and blow it. Many times I don't even recognize the display of interest until it's too late.

I have no problem starting something with women I get to know but I don't know any suitable women. My friends are all paired off and none of them seems to have any available female friends. I work long hours as a professional and don't really meet women through work. (Besides, I wouldn't be comfortable pursuing a women I met through work.)

I've thought about online dating services. I browsed a few and was interested in what I saw. It's not that I'm afraid of how my looks would be perceived, but, as I've said, I'm a reserved and private guy, and the thought of my picture being on the Internet for all to see doesn't sit well with me.

I guess I have two questions. First, what's wrong with me? Why don't I recognize/act on signals when I see them? Maybe I just need a good kick in the ass to get me to overcome my timidity with women. Second, given these limitations, what else can I do? Can you recommend any non-online dating services in the San Francisco area? Any other ideas for meeting and hopefully establishing a relationship with a good woman?

The Timid Tiger

Dear Tiger,

Two things:

1) Don't berate yourself. There's nothing wrong with you. You're a reserved and private guy. There's nothing wrong with that. The erotic marketplace we've established in this country along the lines of the New York Stock Exchange is simply the sad evidence of cultural decline, and not something you should feel bad about finding a little distasteful. Furthermore, if your personality type tends toward the introverted end of the spectrum, so much the better. You're better off in the long run, though you're probably experiencing the distinctly American prejudice against introspection and reserve. This will lessen as you age: Young people are socially voracious, gluttons of acquaintanceship, cruelly contemptuous of dignified solitude.

2) A few simple, practical actions. You don't have to be too glib or sharp with women. Just have a pen and some paper, or a business card. Just say a few simple words the purpose of which is to facilitate a later meeting. No good woman is going to ridicule you for being a little nervous. If anything, a little nervousness is a compliment to her beauty; and God save us from smooth men.

What else? Patience. Determination. Make sure you have a good life. And don't spend all your time chasing after women. It's undignified and it makes them nervous.

Dear Cary,

So I just got out of a three-year relationship and am going a bit crazy with the ladies. Who knew I was so popular? Anyway, part of me is having a great time, but part of me feels like I am supposed to settle down. I am 27, hope to have a family someday and am very used to having a relationship. I realize I have to figure all of this out on my own, but I want some advice as to what kind of disclosure is appropriate to the women involved. If they ask about other women, I would tell them, but if they don't, do I have to bring it up? In a related question, does all of this playing sabotage any potential for something more serious if it comes along or will my future wife be able to wow me as a single and as a mate?

Hoping to Have My cake and Eat It Too

Dear Hoping,

Sometime when the lawn is mowed and the dishes are done I'd like to take up some of the larger questions implied by your letter, but for now let's address the practical and ethical matters. The ethics of dating have to do with not intentionally misleading someone in a way that could harm her physically or emotionally. So if each of five women thinks you're her exclusive boyfriend, you've got five problems. And you have an ethical responsibility to prevent the spread of disease. You're a big boy, so work that out.

The guidelines are really common-sensical and old as the hills: Be a good guy. Don't mislead someone just to get her to sleep with you. Tell the truth.

The question of what a potential long-term mate will think of your previous playing around is interesting. Some women might make the kind of calculation that employers make: Past behavior is the best indicator of future performance. So indeed some women might figure a guy having as much fun as you are is a bad bet for settling down. On the other hand, a woman might think she's got what it takes to tame you. The crucial thing is that you don't kid yourself. If you're ready to settle down, say so. If you're not, say so. The next move is hers.

Cary Tennis

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