Help! I’m getting older!

Write for Advice

I’m not ready for cats and pottery class, but I don’t know how to deal with the fear.

Cary’s classic column from TUESDAY, FEB 7, 2006

Dear Cary,

I find myself pondering the notion of dating again after the demise of a long-term relationship. I’m female and in my late 30s, and I find myself increasingly self-conscious about being “an older woman” on the dating scene. While I’ve always been aware of the power of female youthfulness, the volume of that cry for the young ones seems ever-increasing, and sometimes it gets downright mean, as if women who age do so out of spite. In this big bad Northwest city, it seems cruelly competitive, and even scrolling through the letters section of Salon, I come across nasty references to women’s “expiration dates.” I can’t say I blame men for wanting to date younger women, and I’m not looking for an explanation or justification for this state of affairs. I know men face ageism in dating, too, but it’s far less common on the other side of the gender fence. The whole thing scares me and I don’t know how to deal with that fear.

I do have a few things going for me in the midst of this onslaught of matron-itis: I keep myself in great shape, I delight in all the feminine trappings — from fishnets to backrubs after a guy’s had a hard day to debating politics because it’s sexy, plus I’m blessed with excellent health. While I don’t lie about my age, I could shave off some years and successfully pass (but it’s not about that for me). While I’d like to have a serious relationship (marriage, most likely) with kids in our shared life someplace, I’m not at the mercy of my biological clock. I wouldn’t mind adoption, stepkids, foster kids, or even just being the crazy aunt ‘n’ uncle to the kids down the street. So I’m not racing against time in that regard, which relieves some pressure. Plus, I am pretty flexible about age myself. If some beguiling 58-year-old presented himself as a potential suitor and we were compatible, I wouldn’t think twice about hopping into his sidecar and blasting down the road with him.

I’m not the type to adopt a fire-sale mentality when it comes to dating — hardly desperate, hardly dependent upon a man to define my value. But I still find myself psyched out by the fact that I’m not as young as I used to be, and that that may count against me in more cases than not. I don’t need to hear that I should date in massive volume to better my odds or that my own self-worth is more important than the worth anyone else might ascribe to me. I simply would like you to tell me, friend, how exactly to run between the raindrops of this age thing? I’m not quite ready for cats and pottery class.

Scared of Math in Seattle

Dear Scared of Math,

There are people who can give you advice on dating and so forth, but I don’t think I’m that person and I don’t think that’s what you’re asking for. You’ve made it clear that you don’t want to hear certain predictable pieces of advice or platitudes. Plus you’ve written to me, as opposed to maybe some other person who might be able to offer more in the area of practical advice. That in itself says something.

So after reading your letter, which was very enjoyable — I like the way you have thought this through, and I like the way you express yourself, especially when you note that some people seem to think women age purely out of spite (that was good!) — I went over it again looking for actual questions or problems that I could address. And I found this: “The whole thing scares me and I don’t know how to deal with that fear.”

Now that I can relate to. The prospect of aging scares you and you don’t know how to deal with the fear. That’s a very honest statement. I think it’s a great place to start. It’s a great place to stop, too, if you get what I mean. It’s not really about age, it’s about fear.

You’re dealing with aging very well already. You’re taking care of yourself. You’re thinking through the options it presents and what it requires of you and so forth. But you didn’t say you don’t know how to deal with aging. You said you don’t know how to deal with the fear.

The fear, the fear, the fear. How does one deal with fear? How I deal with fear is mainly I try to identify and make concrete what it is I’m actually afraid of.

Have you ever noticed that a person who is not afraid to state the facts as they are can seem fearless? A person who is not afraid to say I am a socialist or I am a Republican or I am 65 years old and who dares you to do something about it — that that person can seem fearless? What is it about saying the obvious? Well, it makes the obvious obviously less important.

Watch me: My name is Cary Tennis and I am a 52-year-old recovered alcoholic.That’s the truth. You want a piece of me? I had a friend who was a writer who lied about his age in order to seem more interesting. We’re not really friends anymore. I wonder why. I am attracted to people who can tell the truth. It’s a good quality in writing as well — the ability to tell the truth. So I suggest you tell people exactly how old you are and let them deal with it. I mean, do you really want to have a serious relationship with a man who can’t handle the truth?

Another thing I suggest you do about your fear is to make a list of the things that you actually do fear that are related to aging. Make them concrete. Say them out loud: What if a man should reject you when you tell him your age? What would happen then? Would you have to go to the hospital? Would you be unable to speak for a month?

Let me play too: I fear being thought of as an old person. That is too vague. We want to zoom in even closer. And let’s make it you instead of me. I’m not playing anymore. So who exactly would think of you as an old person and how would that affect you? Well, say a man you like were to think of you as too old to date. Say he were to lie to you and tell you he didn’t want to go out with you because he was too raw from a recent breakup, and then you find out later that was a lie and really it was because you were too old for him. What would be the consequences of that? Would that make you lose your job or walk with a limp? Or say that you have a relationship and then the man decides you are too old and breaks up with you and tells you that’s why he’s breaking up with you. What would the consequences of that be? You would probably be angry and upset; you might be more upset than you expected to be. The real fear there, it seems to me, is the fear of emotional pain. It’s normal to fear emotional pain — to fear pain of all kinds. Would it be worse emotional pain if he broke up with you because you were older? How? Because age is something you cannot control?

Possibly.

You are a smart person. You can see where this is going.
What happens when we examine our fears in detail is a couple of things. Either they seem to melt away as trivial, or they lead to more existential things that genuinely do frighten us but which are big universal conditions that we share with all people. It is understandable to fear things we cannot control. That is the human condition.

I could do this all night. The issue is fear.

It also may be helpful to know that you do not have to get rid of your fear. It is OK to feel fear and continue to do what you are doing. There is a book out called “Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway” by Susan Jeffers. I haven’t read it … but it’s a great title, don’t you think? It’s almost all you need to know right there.

The real problem is the fear … itself. Oh, boy, I’m not going to have to quote FDR, am I? Actually, it’s sort of bracing to listen to that famous speech. Maybe before you go out on your next date, just listen to that old guy FDR hammering out his lines. It’s actually, as I said, rather bracing.