Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Having Fun on First Dates---Are You Serious?

"Dating shouldn't be work---it should be fun!"
(Advertisement for

I know nothing about the new matchmaking service,, but I do like the tagline they use in their print advertising. Yes, dating should be fun.

However, if you talk to as many mid-life singles as I do, you know that, for many of them, dating is anything but fun. I regularly hear stories about first-dates-from-hell: men who haven't bathed in a week; women who go into excruciating detail about each of their eight past lives; people who get up to use the restroom and never return (sometimes sticking the other person with the check); people who are ten years older and sixty pounds heavier than in the pictures posted on the dating site.

And let's not forget the mental-checklist people: the ones who have to know within the first ten minutes everything about your marital, sexual, and employment histories, your drinking habits, your political inclinations, and, of course, your assets, prospects, and disposable income.

I don't doubt the truth of such stories and I know that they're not uncommon. In fact, with so many people meeting for the first time after a couple of brief e-mail exchanges, the opportunities for mismatches are endless. But, no matter how obnoxious, inquisitive, or just plain crazy the other person turns out to be, you can still actually have fun---or at the very least an interesting experience---if you have the right attitudes.

Perhaps the most basic attitude is that you're there to enjoy yourself and, perhaps, learn something. You're not there (necessarily) to meet the love of your life. You're not there to conduct a job interview or a legal deposition. You're not there to ferret out every possible weakness or failing in the person sitting across the table from you. You're there simply to spend some time with another human being.

Not all human beings, of course, are people you'd want to see again. But even someone who's an extreme mismatch in a romantic sense may have qualities that you might find interesting, so long as you don't think of him or her solely as a potential lover. Years ago, when I was using newspaper personal ads to meet women, I met some who were clearly "wrong" for me, but whose conversation or personality I still enjoyed. In some of those cases we continued the relationship on a purely platonic level. In other cases I never saw them again. But I don't recall ever regretting the time I spent with someone on a first date.

If you've got a positive attitude, no experience, no interaction, is totally wasted. You'll learn something about yourself, about the other person, about the opposite sex, and maybe about life in general.

Of course, with some people a little bit goes a long way; you can learn all you need in thirty minutes or less. Fine. That's why first dates should always be low-key, low-cost get-togethers at coffee shops or other informal places, places that are easy to extricate yourself from if need be (or to linger at if things are going well).

Another good attitude is that there's nothing wrong with letting things unfold naturally. Except in cases where there is either no attraction whatsoever or an instant, head-over-heels chemistry, people shouldn't try to decide on the spot whether they might have a future together. I think it's that need to nail things down that leads to the "checklist" mentality I mentioned. People like that somehow feel that, by the time the date is over, the other person has to be either a Yes or a No. Well, people are complex creatures who don't always reveal themselves to full advantage in thirty to sixty minutes. And people definitely aren't at their best when the other person is peppering them with nosy, or even hostile, questions. There's nothing wrong with labeling someone a Maybe, and holding off on any decisions about future meetings until you've had time to reflect on the initial experience.

And, if all else fails, your attitude should be that bad dates produce good stories. When you do eventually meet the person who rocks your world, the two of you will get a lot of laughs recounting the absurdities and the sheer horrors of those dates-from-hell. And you will have developed some attitudes and practices that will serve your relationship well in the years ahead.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Hell Hath No Fury.....

"You never really know a woman until you've faced her in court".
(Norman Mailer)

The late novelist, Norman Mailer, certainly knew a thing or two about facing women in court. He was divorced five times, and most of those divorces were acrimonious---hardly surprising, given his propensity for affairs and his not-infrequent drunken rages (he stabbed wife number two in one such episode). But, perhaps fortunately for him, Mailer's final divorce occurred long before the advent of YouTube.

Even if you haven't seen the video clip, you've probably read something about the notorious Philip Smith/Tricia Walsh-Smith divorce case that was finalized just this week in New York, following several months of worldwide publicity over Ms. Walsh-Smith's self-serving, self-indulgent, and just-plain-nasty YouTube video.

Ms. Walsh-Smith, a sometime actress and playwright, had married Mr. Smith, 30 years her senior and the president of the famous Shubert Theater organization, back in 1999. They had a pre-nuptial agreement that said that if Mr. Smith were to file for divorce, he would have the right to sole possession of his Park Avenue apartment (which he had acquired long before the marriage), and would have to pay his wife $750,000. Apparently, things were rocky from the start, and by early this year Mr. Smith had decided that enough was enough, and filed for divorce on the grounds of mental cruelty (New York is the only state without a no-fault divorce statute). He then exercised his right under the pre-nup to have his wife evicted from the apartment.

At that point, Ms. Walsh-Smith brought in a video crew and proceeded to give a rambling, angry monologue about how she had been wronged, including references to her husband's sexual inadequacies, and to his "evil" adult daughter. The video immediately got the attention of media types in New York, and within a couple of months had been viewed over three million times and was the subject of numerous TV debates on privacy, slander, free speech, and other legal and moral issues.

As far as the divorce case was concerned, Ms. Walsh-Smith's strategy was a failure. The divorce court judge, in his written ruling, blasted her YouTube production, calling it a "melodrama", a "calculated and callous campaign to embarrass and humiliate her husband", and a "not-too-subtle attempt to pressure him into settling the case on more favorable terms." The judge ruled that the pre-nup was 100% valid, and refused to award Ms. Walsh-Smith additional compensation beyond the $750,000.

So, the case is now closed and, legally, both parties got what they has agreed to nine years ago. But in the all-important court of public opinion, nobody wound up getting anything good. The husband is now more widely known for his sex life, or lack of it, than for his long and distinguished career. The wife will be forever known as a vindictive, psychologically shaky woman---someone to stay as far away from as possible. Even the husband's adult daughter will never escape the consequences of being thrust into the limelight: "Hey, isn't she that evil stepdaughter from the YouTube clip?"

Divorces have always engendered nastiness, but in the old days---meaning just a few years ago---rants like that of Ms. Walsh-Smith's were pretty much confined to one-on-one sessions with close friends and confidants. Now, your unhappy spouse can rip you apart in front of her three million newest best friends. It's a scary and depressing situation, and there's probably nothing that can be done about it, other than individual judges imposing heavy sanctions on people who act maliciously. But by then the damage has been done; sanctions can never repair a damaged reputation.

If there is a lesson in all this---other than to avoid marrying someone unstable in the first place---it's probably that, if divorce is inevitable, we should avoid adding fuel to the fire. Divorce doesn't have to be ugly. It's possible to break up with dignity and mutual respect, and even for the couple to remain friends. I don't know exactly what Mr. Smith said or did to his wife, and I'm certainly not making excuses for her, but he might have handled the separation poorly. He might have blindsided her with the divorce and/or the eviction papers. He might have misjudged her potential reaction, might have considered it strictly a "legal matter" that would be processed in a cut-and-dried manner by the lawyers and the judge. Divorce, as well as marriage, requires a sensitivity to the dignity, the emotions, and the psychological makeup of the other person. Failing to anticipate trouble virtually guarantees that it will happen. And in this day and age, trouble is no longer a private matter between two people.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

What's in a Name? Plenty!

"With online dating such a huge phenomenon at the moment, users could benefit from understanding how something as simple as a well-chosen screen name could significantly increase their chance of finding a partner."
(Monica Whitty, Ph.D., quoted in TimesOnline)

Monica Whitty, a lecturer in cyber-psychology at Nottingham Trent University, has written extensively on issues related to online dating and is a consultant to e-harmony. She recently presented a paper at the annual conference of the British Psychological Society on a subject that deserves greater attention than it usually gets: the "screen names" people use to accompany their online profiles.

For privacy purposes, virtually every online dating site requires members to choose a screen name, i.e., a name that does not explicitly identify the member. Normally, the sites allow members to use just about any screen name they want, as long as it is unique, non-identifiable, and not obscene (although it's amazing what sometimes gets by the censors). For a lot of people, the screeen name is nothing more than an afterthought, which is why there are so many that sound alike (if you see susan5043, it probably means that susan1 through susan5042 have already been taken).

Dr. Whitty's research suggests that online daters, both male and female, should give more careful attention to choosing the right screen name. She found that many people won't bother reading a profile if the screen name is boring, weird, or offensive. What's boring? Well, anything of the susan5043 variety is boring, as is justme, citygirl, and goodguy4u. What's weird? I suppose the answer is anything the writer thinks is clever but which causes the typical reader to say, "Huh?". Some examples might be silly nicknames or "in" jokes (bubbleanniekins, willibilli, cerealgirl); references to obscure or off-putting interests (dungiedraggieguy, hulahoopgal); or names that are nonsensical (superbamcamman, zzyzlehead).

What's offensive? Surprisingly, according to Dr. Whitty, references to wealth were considered far more offensive than references to sex. Luvmyporsche, bimmerboy, wealthynwise, bigbuxbob, and the like were almost universally ridiculed by people in the study, including women who had admitted they're often attracted to affluent men. According to Dr. Whitty, "...showing off about one's wealth from the outset might reflect a superficial personality, egotism, embellishment, or out-and-out deceit".

I would add a few other no-no categories: names that say you're sad and lonely (aloneagain, rulonely2?); names that bring up failed relationships (stillhurtin, divorceddad); and, for women, names that imply that you define yourself solely as a mother (samsmom, soccermominohio).

What kinds of names did the study participants actually like? The favorites, for both men and women, were names that were playful or flirtacious but not raunchy. Fun2bewith, luv2bekissed, sweetmaggiemae, happyhank, built4comfort, and breakfastinbed4u were examples of screen names that made people want to read the profile.

Of course, a poorly-written profile can negate the positive impression of a good screen name, as can a profile that does nothing to reinforce the promise implied in the name. So if you're fun2bewith, your profile should say what makes you a fun person, or what the fun things are that you like to do. You should also look hard at the picture you post of yourself, to be sure that it doesn't send a contradictory message.

And messages are what online dating profiles are all about. You want your message to be consistent and positive, and to express the qualities that will draw the right kinds of people to you. It all starts with the name, but, unfortunately, it can end there, too.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Creating Your Own Luck

"Over the long term, you both change. You discover the things you don't like about each other and, if you're unlucky, you forget the things you did like. How do you possibly get through all that?"
(Author Salman Rushdie, interviewed in British Elle about his four marriages and four divorces)

Salman Rushdie is one of the world's great writers; I expect he'll win the Nobel Prize in Literature someday. But when it comes to marriage, he's apparently as clueless as the average Joe.

What struck me about the above quote was the word "unlucky". By definition, luck, or the absence of it, is something that's out of our control. Luck is finding a twenty dollar bill on the sidewalk, or getting upgraded to first class for no apparent reason. Bad luck is being laid off from your job, or having a tree crash down on your car in a windstorm. There's no question that both good luck and bad luck can affect our health, wealth, and happiness in any number of ways. But when a marriage fails, it's usually not due to something as random or unforeseeable as luck. It's due to attitudes that were formed, decisions that were made, and behaviors that were deliberately engaged in.

Rushdie is certainly correct that people do change over the course of time and people do find out that the other person isn't perfect. But I think he's wrong to conclude that there's nothing we can do about it, other than to accept the inevitability of divorce. We can't stop our spouse from evolving as a human being---and we shouldn't want to---but we can make a conscious effort to understand and appreciate the changes that are taking place in him (and we can try to recognize that we've changed, too, and not always for the better).

We can't pretend that we weren't disappointed when our illusions were shattered, but we can recognize that we created those illusions by seeing only what we wanted to see. And while in times of stress it's easy to forget why we were attracted to someone in the first place, we still have the power to remember the good qualities and the good times.

Readers of my book know that I don't believe every marriage can or should be saved. I don't know how people tolerate physical or emotional abuse for ten minutes, much less twenty or thirty years. But I do believe that there are far too many unnecessary divorces: divorces that were caused not by wrongdoing or genuine incompatibility but by lack of effort.

In marriage, we can't just drift along and wait for our luck to change. We have to create our own luck. We can do it by training ourselves to see the other person through fresh eyes and with a sympathetic heart. We can also do it by anticipating changes and dealing with them in a positive way: accepting the ones that are inevitable, celebrating the ones that are good, and recognizing that every change is an opportunity for insight and discovery.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Cruise Ship Romance as a Self-Fulfilling Prophecy

"Of the survey respondents, 49% insisted that it is totally possible to find romance at sea (and many of them have), but the other 51% said it never happens".
( survey)

I love cruising. My wife and I have been on four cruises, and we just put down a deposit on a fifth one. On every cruise we've been on, we've seen plenty of unattached people of all ages meeting and mingling at the cocktail lounges, dance spots, pools, restaurants, coffee bars, and everywhere else that passengers---married or single---tend to gravitate to if they're in a socializing mood.

Knowing what I know about cruise ships---but also knowing what I know about human nature---I'm not surprised that the survey of single cruisers I quoted from produced such radically different results. My guess is that the people who said it's easy to meet people onboard, would be the kind of people who say that it's easy to meet people at ball games or at church events or at Starbucks or at work. And, conversely, the people who said that it's impossible to meet anyone on a cruise, probably also say that it's impossible to meet people anywhere.

When people in the latter group are on a cruise ship, they may as well be carrying signs that say, "Do Not Disturb". They're either in a corner of the library all day with their nose in a book, or they're ordering room service if they haven't made a dinner date in advance, or they're doing endless laps on the jogging track but never making eye contact with anyone. And if they do go out to the bars or restaurants, they unfailingly wind up at familiar same-sex domains: either tables of ten or twelve women (in which case the sign now reads, "No Men Allowed"), or the sports bar/cigar lounge.

The people who say that romance is possible to find, or even easy to find, aren't waiting for lightning to strike. They smile at people, they start up conversations in the gym, they aren't afraid to sit up at the bar by themselves. They project an air of confidence and approachability. They never seem embarrassed to be single. But at the same time, they don't seem desperate to meet someone, and, indeed, they're not desperate. They're there to have a great time, and that's precisely what they're doing.

There are times, of course, when even the most outgoing, optimistic cruiser is not going to meet anyone. If you don't do your homework on cruise line demographics, you may find yourself thirty years older or thirty years younger than the rest of the passengers. And a ship that's too small may not have a critical mass of singles, regardless of the demographics. But, in general, people usually find what they expect to find. Self-fulfilling prophecies are common in all areas of life, not just in dating. But because dating, particularly mid-life dating, brings up so many emotions, so many hopes and fears, it's crucial that the prophecies be positive ones.