I recently asked two male friends for an honest opinion.
“Am I going to scare men–do I scare men away–because I am a strong woman? Am I really that different from the other women you know?”
I asked from the heart. I truly wanted to know. Not that I feel I can greatly alter who I am, in my late forties—or even that I might want to—but if you read my blog you know my life is not an unexamined one. I needed to see if there was a blind spot. Ever since my divorce, I keep hearing how “strong” I am and to be honest, I was beginning to wonder if it was too much of a good thing. A recent breakup had made me again question how many men out there are as modern as they say they are.
The first answer was a bit disappointing. “You are probably more like a man in some ways because of all you’ve been through over the past few years.” I think he meant the emotional caution that comes after a divorce and the financial strength necessary to support my family. “It’s understandable, though,” he said, as if to reassure me.
It did not (reassure me, that is). In my foray into online dating after my divorce, I met many men who are probably a product of their era. Most men look for someone at least 10 years younger, in my experience, so many of the guys I met were in their fifties to my forty-something. I’m not sure strong is what they were looking for; oh hell, I’m sure it’s not what they were looking for. One was upset that my hair was an inch shorter than the photo he had seen online and told me immediately that I had looked “softer” in my pic. Another seemed to be falling head over heels but became angry when I had to cancel a date a few days in advance because my editor had upped a deadline. He sent me a text that told me “Best of luck with your SUCCESSFUL life.” Did I mention he was being downsized? Yet a third wanted to lecture for hours on the business world and all he knew about it. I sat, biting my tongue, realizing that I had worked with more CEOs (just a handful) than he actually knew the names of—and I rightly anticipated this fact was not worth sharing. We met only the one time.
The second friend’s answer gave me much more to chew on. A former CEO, he can be brusque, but at his core he is a wise softie. Truly much wiser about relationships and the softer side of life than one would ever guess.
“Will I scare away men because I’m a strong woman?” I asked again.
“Yes, you will,” he said, without hesitation. “But put all these men in a bar, and how many would you want to spend a life with?”
“Probably none,” I replied.
“You will scare away those that should be scared away because they’re not your equal,” he said. “And yes, you’re looking for a needle in a haystack. But do you want that needle or do you want to settle? I know you. You want that needle. He is out there.”
Before I go on, let’s not think stereotypes here, people. I am not harsh, militant, mannish. I do not hate men, wear combat boots for kicks or look to dominate every relationship. I am a strong woman. Period. Meaning I know who I am. I know being able to support myself and my kids is just good sense because it gives me a freedom many women don’t have (usually the ones who stay in a relationship because they are financially dependent). And while I have a soft, very feminine quality, I do not feel the need to bring that quality to work, to the grocery line, when negotiating. Soft and feminine is for my relationships but I reserve it for men who can also respect my inner strength.
It is just within the past year, really, that I have been able to admit to myself that while I can do “it” alone—life, children, work—I am not sure I want to do it alone. When my marriage fell apart, I thought it too painful to ever delve into another long-term relationship. But, after several years of alone time and healing, I realize I really do want a life partner if the fit is right. Believe it or not, it took strength to admit that to myself. It is far easier to pretend doing it on my own is what I want because it does not require me to be vulnerable. I can hear Brené Brown vigorously nodding her head.
I told my second friend that I heard him. That I respected his answer. “But I’m afraid I’ll be cold and alone in bed with my principles for the next several decades. And that I’ll start to collect cats, which I’m not that fond of, really.” I was joking but there is a kernel of truth there.
Laugh if you will (I do), but many women who are alone at my age fear this scenario. The difference between us, I suspect, is that many of them will settle. Not compromise, but settle. I can do the former. The latter kills you slowly, over time. It is half a life. Settling means you decide being with someone is of such importance that you are willing to sacrifice true happiness for perceived security. I have a friend like that. She often states, “I jumped in the back of my husband’s car years ago and he has been driving ever since. I was just so damn tired of having to be a career woman, of making it on my own.” She has a rock star jewelry chest and a bevy of Chanel bags but not much in the way of independence anymore. My choice for independence may make me espresso to her chamomile tea but I cannot help that.
I also cannot help that my mother raised a strong woman. I thank her for it, many times. At others, I realize that in giving me the keys to my own kingdom, she was also shutting other doors. Doors to men who want to keep me in a very small fishbowl while they swim in the ocean. Doors to a life in which I never have to worry about how to keep a roof over our heads and food on the table.
Some days, I pray to be rescued. I pray that I don’t have to figure it all out. Being strong doesn’t mean you don’t want the knight on the white horse some days. But it does mean that you realize there is no white knight who can save you. That putting your fate in the hands of another, becoming completely dependent on that person, is not actually safety. It’s a precarious position.
As someone who was married to a man who seemed steady as a summer rain—but then suddenly wasn’t—I can attest to the fact that trusting that much is tough for me. Mom didn’t raise me to distrust but she did raise me to use my head. I have always kept one oar in the water, so to speak. Kept myself in the corporate game enough that I knew I could jump back in if necessary. Doing so precluded long, relaxing absences and the ability to forego multitasking. I freely admit my envy, every once in a great while, of women who put their trust in a man who made it all happen. I realize they may not have my sense of accomplishment but they generally also lack the wear and tear I am sure I show.
I have been rescued, on occasion. It is rare that it provides me with the same solid feeling that rescuing myself does. It’s a wonderful feeling while it lasts but for me, the better feeling is knowing I can rescue myself. Repeated rescues by others breed passivity and a lack of confidence.
So yes–I pray that my needle catapults himself out of the haystack and to my front door—pronto. Not to save me. But to be a true partner. Someone who is strong, as I am. But also someone who can spell me, and I him, when the times call for it.
Tears filled my eyes as my friend said, “You have carried the weight of the world, financial and otherwise, on your tiny shoulders for too long. And you have accomplished what probably should have been an impossibility. Yes, you’re tired. Yes, you want love. You deserve rest, love and life taking another turn on a dime for the better.”
And after those sweet words of wisdom, I believe he told me that the end of this recent relationship was not so terrible. He followed with instructions to get the hell out of bed, out of my bathrobe and to stop ninnying it up.
After all, he knows he is talking to a strong woman.
Would you like sweetener with that espresso?