Time Bombs for Fifty-Something Lovebirds
by John Fite Rebrovick
The old saying, which I first heard from my favorite teacher in high school, goes like this: Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach. If that’s the truth then I should have a Ph.D. in aftermarket relationships. In my thirty-five-plus years as a legal adult, I have been married and divorced twice and I’ve had several serious relationships. All of which, I am sorry to say, have been terminal cases.
It’s not that I don’t know how to pick ‘em. I’m no Julio Iglesias, but I have been blessed from the get-go with a succession of beautiful, unique women whom I did my best to love and who did their best, too. I cherish each of them still in their own place in my heart. Each attempt was a glorious time at bat in the greatest game of all. And you know, even though Mighty Casey struck out, he was still the Mighty Casey, worthy of poetry.
I’ve joked at times that I am unfit for human cohabitation or that I am the Scud Missile of Love, but truly I don’t think it’s a peculiar defect in me that has left me single late in life. I know myself pretty well and I can tell you, though I am a decent human being, I am not easy. I am exacting and alert. As my favorite divorce lawyer told me one time, I am a bottom line kind of guy.
Sometimes I have thought it is better to go about in a fog. Actually, I guess some might say I have done just that, believing that someone could love me more than I love myself, believing that I’m all that good looking or charming or sexy or brilliant as my partners have seemed to think. For a while at least. But even at that, I know I have a lot to give and a generous heart, and it’s always been a headscratcher to me how time after time my best efforts have fallen short.
I’m not laying the blame on anybody else. I take at least 50% responsibility for each and every failure in my love life. At different times and in various ways I have committed sins of omission and commission and general malfunction junction. I think I’ve gotten a little better as I’ve gone along, but that’s kind of like saying a football team has improved because it loses by smaller and smaller margins each game.
There are seven billion people in this world today and I have no doubt that there is someone out there, maybe more than one, who is just perfect for me if I could just find her. It may have even been one or more of the women whom I have already had a shot at. But I blew it or they blew it or we both blew it. Spilt milk.
So we move on. And on. And on. Although I am 54 and single, I am certainly not alone. It seems like there are an awful lot of us fifty-somethings who keep getting in and out of relationships. We’re giving our young adult kids all kinds of advice but can’t get the job done ourselves. And after a while, if we’re not going around in that fog all the time either from blows to the head or drinking too much, we might just start to feel a wee bit foolish. Isn’t it a bit ridiculous to be calling two different people “sweetheart” months apart? To think that God or an angel or something supernatural has sent the love of our life more than once? What are they doing? Having us run a gauntlet? Recently I found myself almost repeating this mistake again, and I said: Self! Self! Stop the madness!
After each crash and burn, given a few weeks to get over the angst or anger or mourning or all of the above, I can usually see what went wrong and manage to regain my equilibrium. It’s never any one thing, and it’s never everything. Eventually if I thought I was wronged, I have done my best to forgive. If I thought I was all wrong, I have done my best to apologize. And I have always tried to rebuild the burned bridges. Life is too short, or too long as the song jokes, to hold grudges or beat oneself up over mistakes forever.
Lately, after the failure of what I was just sure was the one, final, enduring love of my life, I’ve put a lot of thought to this and talked it over with several other folks in the same boat. It’s been enlightening. I’ve identified several time bombs, one or more of which seem to get activated at the beginning of our relationships that, if ignored in the euphoria of finding someone with a mutual attraction, are almost sure to doom us.
Why start with the easiest one?
Everything about this subject for any healthy man or woman, especially someone who has been around the block a time or two or has been reading Fifty Shades of Something, says Yes-Yes. But guess what: the answer is No-No.
Well, let me be more specific. The answer is No-No to actual sexual intercourse. If we’ve decided we have found someone to whom we want to commit in an exclusive intimate relationship, I am not going to define what all snuggling encompasses, but snuggling is fine. Sexual intercourse is not. Outside of marriage.
I think the sound between that last sentence and this one was the sound of people clicking the document shut. Or the sound of several people laughing at me like hyenas. But I am serious, and if you are, too, you should read on and take what I have to say to heart.
Mind you, I am not coming from some religious perspective. Frankly from my sporadic and rather pathetic reading of the Bible, I cannot recall much real discussion about this topic. But it is clear to me that whether from God or nature, sexual intercourse was designed to produce one thing and one thing only: children. And everything that makes sex so tempting was just designed to get man and woman to that point: children. Most of us older folk have been there, done that. Much as we love our children, from the gray hairs they’ve given us, shouldn’t we have learned that sexual intercourse is not to be taken lightly?
Now we may have gotten the clip-clip if we’re male, or if female, we may be on the pill or past the point of conceiving, or for whatever reason either one of us may not be able to reproduce. But that does not negate the purpose, only the result. And we should only have children if we are going to produce for them a legitimate family, and thus we should be married.
Otherwise jumping into bed with someone before marriage, especially early in a relationship, is simply putting the cart before the horse. The horse might push that cart for a while, but not for very long or far. And do you know what the horse would say to that? “Nay!”
That’s the basic reason.
There are other practical reasons, too, beyond the point about child-creation. Sexual intercourse is the consummation of love, not the beginning of it. Although men have a long time learning this, and women have been dissuaded from it in every possible way in the last fifty years, the simple fact is that it is the absolute highest and most personal form of intimacy between two individuals, and we just should not go there unless we are certain that we will never look back. The term broken-hearted did not come from sex, it came from losing love.
On top of that, sexual intercourse is just too darn easy. Any two dumb animals of the same species can and will do it. Courtship is what distinguishes us from the apes. And once we’ve started sexual intercourse, all the other important things that go into making a relationship get really dicey.
Not to mention there are diseases.
And passion by its very nature comes and goes, but love should not. Love not only doesn’t mean not having to say you’re sorry, it also doesn’t mean “this feels good right now.” Build true, strong, committed, tested love first, then let the passion have its day. We tell our kids to conduct themselves this way; how about we try practicing what we preach?
So bottom line, until we marry, snuggling is fine. Sexual intercourse is not. Otherwise we’ve set the fuse on the most potent charge of all to explode a budding relationship.
There are only two reasons to be jealous: good reason, or no reason. If we find ourselves jealous with our intended partner, we either need to get over it or get out, whether with good reason or no reason. It is either our fault or theirs, and either way, it makes a relationship unsustainable.
MARS VS. VENUS
I’m talking heterosexual, not gender-confused relationships here. Traditional relationships are hard enough to pull off without all that other stuff going on. And traditional relationships offer enough diversity for any healthy human being, more than many of us can always handle well, obviously, or we wouldn’t be talking about all this now, would we?
The differences are worth celebrating, and studying intently. I defer to Dr. John Gray on this one. He’s a genius at it and I can hardly add to his monumental book Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus or his web site marsvenus.com. Except to say that if we don’t educate ourselves in his teachings, that’s a time bomb in itself.
THE ONE YEAR RULE
My late mother-in-law, who took with good humor my notion that I should have married her instead of her daughter, shared with me one time that henceforth she was applying the one year rule to her life: that is, that one should not act on any major life decision without stewing on it for a year. I think that a truer thought was never thunk, especially as relates to getting on with a new long term relationship after the end of an aborted one, or just pacing yourself through a relationship that you hope will last.
I call neglecting the one year rule “hopping”. Hopping like a frog out of one pond and into another. Presto bango, fill the void, instant relationship. Can we all spell R-E-B-O-U-N-D? We have probably all been guilty of it at one time or another. It is totally understandable.
When we lose love with someone, the absolute worst thing about it is the silence. In this world where there are so many ways to connect, the phone doesn’t ring, the incoming email doesn’t chime, the text messages no longer beep in throughout the day. Even if other people step up as friends, there’s no one there who really knows our troubles like a soul mate and is glad to hear the latest. There is no one who needs just to hear our voice like a soul mate does, either. So it seems we are the loneliest person in the world, and where we might have treasured a night alone to do our own thing before, suddenly every night becomes like living in a morgue.
We must beware the temptation to jump out of that vacuum and right into something new. If we act too soon we are not judging the new person as a good partner, but as someone, anyone, to fill in the blank spaces. Then we have to question: Do I love this person for who they are, or because they give me attention?
And then there’s the infatuation factor. It’s human nature to put one’s best foot forward when making first impressions, but the fact is, everyone has gas from time to time. We’ve got to give it time to come out.
A lot can happen in a year. Kids come home from college or move home after a breakup, or someone loses a job, or has an IRS audit, or has a health scare, or has relatives visit unexpectedly, or whatever. Then there are the holidays like Thanksgiving and Christmas that involve a lot of emotions and family jockeying. Not everything that’s ever going to happen happens in a year, but usually enough does that we and our partner can get to know each other much better through the ups and downs of it.
So we should use that one year rule, hard as it may be. Sure, it’s ok to date, flirt, maybe snuggle a little here and there if we are not using each other emotionally, but first and foremost we’ve got to find our way back to being perfectly happy with the great Me, Myself, and I, even though we know life can always be better with a partner. Only when we’ve reached that point, and lived there a while handling some of our own ups and downs, can we make objective decisions about a new person in our life. Otherwise, unless we just get dumb lucky, we are simply settling. And that’s no way to achieve the love of one’s life, but is nearly a sure-fire way to set it up for destruction.
Here are some good rules of thumb NOT to do in the first year of courting:
- Saying “I love you.” Like sexual intercourse, the omission of saying it or doing it during arguments too easily becomes a weapon, and the necessity of saying it or doing it in daily life too often becomes pro forma.
- Talking about marriage. It really shouldn’t be talked about unless somebody is ready to pop the question. It renders every argument or hard turn make-or-break, creating unnecessary and unhelpful pressure.
- Buying something together. Or going on a honeymoon sort of trip, which is sort of the same thing. Save that for a real honeymoon, or don’t do it at all.
- Mixing family and friends. Only as necessary. Shake well first.
DRINKING AND DOPING
Intoxicants are called that for a reason. They are toxic substances introduced into the body that have the power to change the mind. And psychotropic drugs are the same thing, just medically administered. They are all inert, neither good nor bad, until they hit your brain.
I am no teetotaler. Alcohol has been with mankind longer than the faithful dog, I think, and with good reason. I love a good beer. A nice wine can make a good dinner party delightful. Amoretto on the cake can make it exquisite. Sipping Early Times is a great way to enjoy a starlit evening on the front porch.
In fact, I think when we are getting to know a potential mate in a long term relationship, it is not just ok, but advisable to tie one on with them from time to time – as long as both can be trusted just to snuggle when that happens! Some people get mean when they drink, or sloppy drunk, or indiscriminately flirtatious, or just plain stupid. Better to know that on the front end than later.
And some people – a lot of people, actually – just cannot go an evening without getting a buzz on. That’s important to know for someone who is actually just a social drinker. Maybe two people who are regular heavy drinkers can get along just fine, I don’t know, but I can say from my experience as someone who can take it or leave it, that it is hard to relate to someone who just has to have it. For a sober person, there is little more unattractive than a person who is slurring their words. And there is nothing less attractive than an old fart drunk. Except maybe an old broad drunk. I don’t know. Maybe that’s a tie.
Now, about dope. I apologize in advance to the twenty-million-plus Americans who have been dooped into regularly taking the dope called anti-depressants. I am no doctor. I am no psychiatrist. But I have seen enough that I have drawn some conclusions, and they will come across as harsh to those who think they can’t live without the drugs, but I mean only to call it exactly as I see it.
As far as I can tell, anti-depressants have only two possible good uses: one, as short-term relief from anxiety for a person dealing with a tragedy or mental illness; and two, for lining the pockets of pharmaceutical companies. Unfortunately the latter use seems to rule now, a relatively recent phenomenon we could do without from the same cesspool of technological ingenuity as social networking and text messaging. The misuse of antidepressants for long term treatment is one of the biggest societal ills of our day.
We need to know if someone we are getting involved with has a chronic reliance on anti-depressants. In normal daily life that person may be fine. But because of exactly what the drugs are designed to do, he or she is not truly in touch with their real feelings and emotions and moods – the drug comes between them. Simply put, users lose the power of self-control because the drug usurps it. They are genuine persons with very real feelings, yes. But they are not in direct touch with those feelings and so everything becomes distorted.
Then, when there’s trouble – and even in the best of lives there are always troubles that come up – they are prone to have absolutely no tools for conflict resolution. Their entire self-worth is liable to be masked by the drug. If we come to know this best about them and then call them out on it, they will turn on us. Especially if they drink, too. That’s just feeding the anti-depressant fire with a depressant. They will go up and down like a roller coaster. The interactions make everything come out haywire. The enablers in their life will cheer them on in this, and we will be accused of being controlling. Paradoxically, my experience has been that those lacking in self-control are the first to accuse others of being controlling.
I’ve seen it more than once. And like jealousy, it makes for an unsustainable relationship, because every relationship will have conflict from time to time. That’s just the way life is. If we discover substance issues about the person we love, we must confront them. Sooner, not later. If they will not face it and deal with it, we must cut our losses and move on. This cannot be changed unless they want to do it themselves. And the power of the substances is such that the user will likely shoot the messenger before they’ll give up the intoxicants. Enough said.
MONEY AND GIFTS
Despite popular opinion, we should never seek a mate for money. Nor ever lend money to a love interest. If cash is to be passed at all, it should be given and forgotten. And no one should ever try to impose their values or tastes on another through gifts, or give expecting anything in return. Such attempts will only backfire. And besides, that’s a very passive aggressive way to go about things. If the clothes they wear or the car they drive or the house they keep is not to our liking, that’s our problem, not theirs.
Bottom line, we should give only from our heart, not our catalog or spreadsheet. Otherwise we’re just lighting the fuse of resentment.
Nobody likes to think of themselves as a liar, but we all lie. That is not to say that we are all cheats and thieves. Though white lies run rampant in this life, they are lies nevertheless. White lies may help grease the wheels of the world at large, but they have no place in a relationship. And here’s the interesting thing. They are not always the fault of the one telling the white lie.
Let’s take the classic example of the woman trying on some pants and asking her partner, “Do these make me look fat?” Let me tell you something, Woman. If you’ve got to ask that question, the answer is YES and it’s because you ARE fat. So don’t put your partner in that position. Especially since by this age we all deserve to carry at least a little extra padding in unfortunate places.
The moral of the story here is communication and honesty, not just with our mate but with ourselves. If we don’t practice that principle – unrelentlessly – from day one, in things great and small, skinny and fat, then the underlying dishonesty is one more time bomb waiting to go off.
FAMILY AND FRIENDS
Boy, this is a tricky one, the one that is hardest to navigate with a lifetime behind us of raising children and cultivating friendships. There’s no readily apparent prescription for blending our relationships with adult kids and old friends successfully into our new (and probably not for the first time) status as part of a couple. And more specifically, for most of us, the trickiest parts are spoiled adult children and single or unhappy friends for whom we or our partners are their safe harbor. And then when the kids come home, or the friends want our attention at an awkward hour, there’s an elephant in the room in the form of our new partner.
It’s hard on the kids. They’ve likely had a monopoly on us all their lives and don’t want a third party in their home nest, even when they’ve established their own homes and lives. And it is hard on the parent, who suddenly is caught in the middle between kids who think they should be able to walk around in their parent’s home in their underwear and the new partner, who thinks they should be able to walk around in that home in their underwear, and may in fact have done so!
Which is yet one more reason to hold off on too much intimacy. It’s hard to step back and not feel slighted if we are the odd partner out. It is best if we can act the same no matter who is around. Kids, even adult kids, will and should always have a special relationship with their parent. As parents we certainly should be able to have our privacy, but nothing and no one should ever come between us and our children.
That “Do I look fat?” example can be used here, too. We shouldn’t put our partners in situations where they can feel or be felt as a third wheel. It takes some conscious effort.
As for the friends, that’s a different story. And it leads to the next time bomb, so I will jump on into that one.
CLINGING VS. CLEAVING
“Therefore,” it says in Genesis 2, “shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife: and they shall be one flesh.”
I’ve already admitted I’m not a great Bible reader, but for goodness’ sake, People, it’s right there in Chapter 2! And whether we believe the Bible is the word of God or not, we are most certainly in serious denial or living in ignorance (i.e., reading even less of it than I have) if we do not recognize that the Bible is the greatest self-help book and crash course in humanity ever written.
So being right up front like that, this concept of cleaving, which can be defined as clinging tightly to one another (as if “one flesh”) is the most important thing of all. And guess what, despite that impactful word “flesh,” cleaving is not sexual intercourse! Remember, that is what makes children. What cleaving is, is love.
And what that means is not clinging in the sense of being an overly needy person, desperate, suffocating, suicidal if we don’t have our love object. Instead it means looking out at the world at large and confronting it together with our partner as one. Not putting the other person as number one, but being one with them. This is our ultimate goal in love, or we are going nowhere. If we keep secrets, or tell white lies to or about them, or talk about our partner with friends behind their back, or act differently when we are with them than when not, then we set our relationship up for eventual disaster.
This is where needy friends can be a real nuisance, even more so actually than selfish children. They will be jealous. They will feed seeds of discontent when they detect a problem. They will encourage bad habits. They are all about clinging rather than cleaving.
And some such influences don’t even have to be around physically. If we let that happen, it is really our own fault as much as our partner’s. For example, we should not be, or tolerate, that person who is still haunted by exes. A woman friend I talked to about this put it this way: Her “match” couldn’t make a decision about anything without worrying about what his ex-wife might think. It was as if she were sitting there like a third person in the room with them all the time.
Thus many folks are haunted by their past, by both imaginary and real ghosts. We may think we are dealing with our “mate” when in fact we may be having a relationship with a whole host of folks from friends to family to exes, all of whose influences are actually keeping us from getting straight answers, and keeping us from having a whole, real person to love. We can’t achieve good one on one communication with another person by committee, nor by doing a kabuki dance with them trying to get to the truth.
Here’s an easy rule of thumb, but easier said than done: If we don’t check with our partner before making any and every social, family, or life plan, and expect the same in return, then we should not be surprised that we are not clicking with our partner at all before long, much less cleaving.
So we must draw the line with meddling friends from the get-go. And that starts with us. We can share our joy at finding a potential mate with them, but we should never discuss anything private with them, especially, let’s see… Sex. And money. And arguments or insecurities. Or… practically anything that goes to the heart of our relationship as discussed above. That is what our partner is for!!! We should just stick to the girl talk or the sports talk with our buddies. And we should cleave to our partner, or our relationship will, sooner or later, blow apart.
If we agree about these time bombs, then the minute we find mutual attraction with a potential mate, we need to talk about these subjects with them and make sure they are of like mind. We shouldn’t be afraid. We shouldn’t be insecure. If it scares the other person off, we just saved them and ourselves several months, maybe years of wasted time, with a heartache-bomb at the end.
Love is part luck, part Providence, and part quarks or something like that I totally don’t understand. Maybe that quarks thing is why I always end up in a black hole somewhere. But then again maybe it’s quarks that make it happen. I don’t know. I’m no Einstein. But I do know that the truth is, even if we are both watching for the time bombs, sometimes no matter how much we love one another, we are going to hit a wall we cannot get over. Yes, it is devastating. It hurts. And it’s a dadgum shame.
But when that happens, here’s the most important thing: We should take the high road. We should not persecute. We should not condemn. We should not, ever, talk to the one we’re losing late at night. We should turn off the phone, stop the emails, and especially we should not text. We have to give up on the idea of “fixing” them. We are just hollering down a well. Every attempt to fix anything at all will just rub salt in the wound.
So to paraphrase T.S. – Taylor, not Eliot – we should never, ever break up unless we mean it to be permanent. And then we can’t wait around fantasizing that our ex is suddenly going to see the light. In my experience, it has never happened. I suppose my exes would say the same! If we happen to have a weak moment and we try to reconcile, it is not likely to last long. Although I am not against second chances. But at best maybe you can start from square one, back up there where I was talking about no sexual intercourse, and get a firm commitment on the time bombs. Good luck with that. It’s likely to start all the arguing all over again!
Once it’s good and over, then I think we should wait a few months, and unless we’ve found that person to be a cheater, or hater, or just generally toxic, we should extend an olive branch. We probably loved them to begin with because they are a good person. Most people are, and they mean no harm, they just get crossways with each other trying to work through the complexities of a relationship. And there’s no gain in losing a good person in life when we all need as many of those as we can get.
Now that I’ve ciphered all this out and written it down, I feel better. It’s given me clarity. I feel optimistic. And I’ll have to live by these lessons myself. But I’m still a romantic at heart and I believe in love. So I, the Mighty Casey, have no problem getting up to bat again, and no one else breathing should take themselves out of the game, either. Let’s just wear our protective gear. Some of those pitches are knuckleballs and no telling where they’ll land. And the only explosives we want to hear going off should be the fireworks at the end of the game, not the time bomb we carelessly set ourselves under home plate.
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