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Dating Without A Mask

Dating in our teens and 20s was challenging. Dating in our middle adult years, with significant ex’s, children, pets, mortgages, careers, and a boatload of emotional, physical and perhaps even financial baggage may seem impossible. I’ve single parented my son since he was very young, and didn’t have much time to date amidst parenting, working, continuing my education, doing dishes, mowing the lawn, and attending a sundry of various kid-related activities. So when my son left for college, I decided that there was no better time to start dating again.

But as what often happens when we poke our heads into an activity after a few decades-long hiatus, I realized that everything had changed – and I mean e-v-e-r-y-t-h-i-n-g. Rather than meeting someone at a dance, a bar, or if we go back far enough, a frat party, I soon learned that the majority of dating was occurring online. And rather than having to worry about my first impression when meeting someone, I had to worry about my first online impression. We now have to worry about leading not with ourselves, but with an image of ourselves. We have to contend with parallel dating, encouraged by the online dating algorithms that push multiple potential partners at us at one time. We have to worry about competition that always seems to be younger, thinner, wealthier and happier. Most of us are battle-weary, still struggling with past hurts and anger, and scared to get hurt again, and now we find ourselves in completely unchartered territory, with very few ‘rules of the road’ to guide us.

These realizations got me thinking about the masks we wear in life, and why we wear them, and what purpose they serve. We all wear masks – some more than others, and some to more of an extent than others. We learned the importance of wearing masks as children when our parents taught us how to have good manners, and to apologize when we didn’t really feel like it. We wear a mask when we interview for that job we desperately want, when we go to church, when we meet the parents of our friends. Basically we wear a mask when we’re trying to impress others, even ourselves. But we also wear masks when we’re trying to hide from things that may hurt us.

Deep inside all of us is a universal desire to be seen, heard, accepted and loved, by someone who remains steadfastly and passionately loyal to us, despite our flaws, and even our worst mistakes. And this desire sits right alongside a fear of being seen and heard, and then summarily rejected. If we get hurt a few times along the way, particularly by those who made a commitment to love us and stand by our side no matter what, it is often very difficult to put ourselves out there again, particularly in such a vulnerable way. So we wear masks.

I had this in mind when I completed my own online dating profile, after my son left for college, and I decided that I wanted to give love another try. When I looked at all of the self-descriptive prompts on the online profile, as well as others’ profiles, I realized how easy it is to wear masks with online dating, where people are too often assessed based on superficial criteria, and then easily cast aside.

We live in a culture that worships youthfulness, optimism, extroversion, “athletic and toned” body types, and a non-stop array of outdoor activities. Now, there’s nothing wrong with any of these traits, but let’s face it – none of us are really glass-half-full-hiking-biking-bikini-clad-kayaking-social-butterflies around the clock. And yet a review of many online profiles of presumably full-time employed middle-aged adults with children would have us believing so. In fact, many of us treat dating like a job interview where we post our best photos, wear our most flattering clothes, and put our best collective feet out there. We do this for many reasons, but one biggie is that we don’t want to be rejected (again). But the problem with treating dating like a job interview is that if we’re lucky we might actually get the “job,” but it may not be the one we really want, or the one that’s right for us.

Wearing a mask (or masks) may seem like the best method for preventing re-injury, but the problem is that when we wear masks to protect our hearts, we are hiding our authentic selves, which makes it very difficult to find someone who is truly compatible with us. Not wearing a mask requires a willingness to be vulnerable. Unresolved hurt is often a barrier to vulnerability, and often manifests in anger as we imagine all of the ways that we might be hurt again. And anger in a new relationship that is rooted in the past often manifests as accusations, and while sometimes we may be right – someone may have the intention of hurting us, often times we’re wrong. In fact most often, what may seem like someone on the verge of hurting us, is really them wearing a mask to protect their own heart. Letting others see our vulnerable sides (when the time is right) draws people to us, while anger and defensiveness pushes them away.

So how do we achieve this difficult feat – letting go of past hurt and anger so that we can become vulnerable, and ultimately find love again? Letting go of anger requires forgiving, which is very difficult since, often, forgiving feels a little too much like condoning the bad behavior that broke our hearts. But if we want to find love again, we need to take a risk, become vulnerable and face our demons.

The first steps toward letting go of anger is to admit that we have it, owning our feelings, and finding their true home, often in the past. The next step involves telling ourselves every day that we are enough, brokenness and all. We can own our pasts, take responsibility for our pain (and those holes in our hearts), and make a commitment to wake up every morning making a choice to be honest with ourselves – even if our emotions are shameful, scary, pessimistic, and even at times make us feel undesirable. Ultimately though it is self-honesty that will allow us to stop playing a relentless game of tug-o-war with our emotions, and finally let go of the rope, freeing us to love again, with our whole hearts.

Michelle Martin

Dr. Michelle Martin is on the faculty at a university on the west coast, where she teaches in a Master of Social Work (MSW) program. She has worked in the social work field for over three decades in a range of practice settings, primarily with women in various life transitions. Dr. Martin has an MSW and a PhD in peace studies. She is the author of three books, and other publications focusing on social work, social policy, wellbeing, middle age, international human rights, and peace. When Dr. Martin hit middle age, she found herself both overwhelmed and fascinated with the aging process. Her interest in how women traverse middle age and empty nesting, particularly when single, is a very personal one. Dr. Martin is currently writing a book entitled Aging Naked™ about the struggles many women face when they hit 50, and the importance of aging honestly, with transparency and authentically (no masks allowed!). Her upcoming book is based on her personal blog, Aging Naked where she writes about her own challenges with middle age and empty nesting, and the insights she's gained along the way. Dr. Martin is the single mom of one fabulous son who is away at college.

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